Sunday afternoon’s match at Campbelltown gave us the second of two scintillating teams by western underdogs, following on from Parramatta’s barnstorming victory over Canterbury-Bankstown earlier in the day. Like the Eels-Bulldogs game, this started slow, but resulted in a torrent of points in the second stanza, resulting in one of the best games for the Tigers in years and bringing them to the top of the ladder for the first time ever during the regular NRL season.
The scoreline of 34-6 was all the more impressive in that the Warriors had been the most dominant winning team of Round 1, clocking up more running metres and offloads than any others. That may be why the Tigers were unable to get their first points until the 29th minute, and their first try until the 35th minute. When they did, however, they never stopped, while the slow start made this avalanche of tryscoring opportunities even more dramatic by comparison.
One of the key ingredients was the return of Moses Mbye in the fullback jersey. Over the first part of the game, his kick returns played a major role in fueling the team’s momentum, whether it was a big fend on Peta Hiku at the eighth minute, or a good save when he waited for the ball to bounced into touch, but was still prepared when it careened unexpectedly back into the in goal area a few minutes earlier.
Thirteen minutes in, the Tigers gave some sign of what was to come, as Robbie Farah made three touches in one play, and Luke Brooks responded with a kinetic run along the face of defence, asking all kinds of questions of the Warriors in the middle of the field. The set might have ended with a forward pass from Brooks to Mahe Fonua after Mbye was unavailable on his inside, but it still demonstrated an attacking zeal that we weren’t seeing from the Tiges at this time last year.
That’s not to say that the Warriors weren’t exerting some significant pressure either. About twenty-two minutes in, they got their best chance so far, after Adam Keighran sent a long ball out to Ken Maumalo on the left edge of their attack. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this would have been a standard tryscoring formation for New Zealand, but this time Esan Marsters read the play perfectly, muscling Maumalo into touch before he could get the ball down.
A light rain now started to set in, and the humidity rose, leading to a couple of handling errors from both teams, and the period where the game hung most precariously in the balance. On the back of Maumalo’s error, the Tiges got a seven tackle set, followed by a penalty from Adam Blair for working on the ground. Four minutes later, however, Mbye fumbled the footy error in goal at the end of a Blake Green kick, while a handling error from Tohu Harris also testified to the slipperiness of the Steeden.
As with last week’s game against the Sea Eagles, Farah now stepped up, assisting two disarmingly simple and elegant tries that broke the game wide open for the Campbelltown army. Try number one came off two wide passes, the first of which came from Benji Marshall to Robert Jennings right on the line. The ex-Rabbitoh popped the ball backwards, where Green made a play at the football, leading to a call of six again. Now came the second pass, as Farah slyly sent the ball across the chests of two New Zealand players to find Corey Thompson waiting on the left wing.
Two minutes out from the end, Jazz Tevanga leaked a penalty for working Mahe Fonua on the ground on the first tackle. For the first few plays at the other end of the field, the Tigers seemed to be thinking field goal, only for Robbie to organise the team once again – this time with a grubber that passed through a maelstrom of Tigers and Warriors players before finding Mbye on the left corner.
Initially, it seemed as if Mbye would be the one to claim the try, if a try it was. However, the referees and then the bunker footage showed that the four points had been scored during the earlier maelstrom, where Jennings had managed to plant the footy down miliseconds before Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Solomone Kata had got a hand to it. This was a clutch try if ever there was one, and while Marsters might have missed the conversion the Tigers were still a converted try ahead, thanks to an earlier penalty kick on the back of two fairly unlucky calls for Adam Keighran.
The rain started to set in at the start of the second half, resulting in a handling error from Issac Luke in the first minute. For a moment, the Tigers seemed to have the upper hand, not only gaining a repeat set at the other end of the field, but exerting enough pressure for Leeson Ah Mau to risk a pass to RTS in goal. Four tackles later, Ryan Matterson made a huge run at the line, but Jazz Tevaga managed to turn him over just in time, while Solomone Kata did the impossible on the last, bringing the ball back into the field of play with four Tigers defenders on his back.
It was as if Kata had scored a try in reverse, making it feel like a foregone conclusion when the Warriors put down their first four points at the other end of the park. They probably couldn’t have withstood another set on their own line, so Kata’s effort seemed to give them a fresh wind, especially when Thomas Mikaele leaked an offside penalty on the first tackle. Moments later, Maumalo finally got his try, following a no-look pass from RTS to Hiku, ducking under Benji right on the line to score in the wing as dexterously as ever.
With Keighran following up with a brilliant sideline conversion, the Warriors finally seemed to be rolling, but they were unable to consolidate, as Hiku went from try assister to momentum-killer after fumbling an offload from Luke a couple of tackles into the restart. At the end of the next set, Mikaele got pinged for an error in the play-the-ball, but proved that it pays to contest a call, insisting that Blair deserved a penalty for crowding him, which turned out to be the opinion of the touch judge too.
Marsters now booted through another penalty kick, but this period of pointscoring wasn’t over for the Tigers, as Mikaele now got another penality, albeit at the expense of an HIA, following a crusher tackle that saw Sam Lisone put on report. With Ben Matulino trotting onto the field, the Tigers got a fresh injection of adrenalin, scoring at the end of the next set on the back of some brilliant strategy from Brooks and Robbie on their left edge.
The sequence started with Brooks, who put in his most restless sequence since his skittering run along the ruck in the opening minutes of the game, sending a flat ball across to Luke Garner before taking the tackle while trying to find space to offload out to the left. His field position was critical for the next play – a superb short ball from Farah to Thompson that condensed and refined the duo’s tryscoring formation earlier in the night, taking David Fusitua completely by surprise, and coming from such close range that all Thompson really had to do was fall directly on the Steeden.
Two aerial efforts from the Warriors now led the way to the next six points for the Tigers. The first came from Fusitua, who made the biggest leap of the night under the high ball – a full foot above Jennings, who was contesting him for it – but landed in an awkward position when he hit the turf. It was a pretty heroic effort, especially since Fusitua managed to retain control of the football, and remained on the park, but it gave the home team some breathing-space as they prepared for the next set, where Bunty Afoa was deemed to have lost the footy on the fourth tackle.
The Tigers now charged back down the field, with Benji taking over the reins as try assister, ending the set with a kick that initially seemed a bit short, but turned out to work perfectly for his team, sailing just low enough for Maumalo to mirror Fusitua by leaping up to try and contain it. Not only did Maumalo miss the ball, however, but he popped it directly into Fonua’s arms, as the bulky winger curved around to score without missing a beat, for the most improbable four points of the night so far.
Ten minutes out from the end, an error from Jazz Tevaga got the Tigers their next try. Three tackles into the subsequent set, Farah collected the ball out of dummy half right in front of the posts and didn’t even bother to show it before plunging through RTS and Tevega to score another four points. All of a sudden, Robbie was the second top tryscorer of the season so far – behind Corey Oates – and couldn’t have come up with a better way to consolidate his influence over the last two games.
An error from Michael Chee Kam put a slight dent in the momentum, but Chee Kam made up for it with the last try of the night, three points out from the end. Not only had the Tigers improved on their defence-oriented approach of last year, but their fast finish was the very opposite of the deceleration that has seemed to characterize so much of their gameplay over the last couple of years.
Even more momentously, the win brought the home team to the top of the NRL ladder for the first time since the amalgamation of their two feeder clubs – a great moment for Robbie and Benji to be able to share on the field. It’s paramount, then, they beat the Bulldogs next week to maintain their edge, while the Warriors will be keen to reprise their own opening performance against Canterbury-Bankstown when they take on the Titans at Mt. Smart Stadium.