ROUND 20: Wests Tigers v. North Queensland Cowboys (Leichhardt Oval, 2/8/19)

After three consecutive losses, and in the wake of Robbie Farah’s announcement of his 2020 retirement, the Tigers enjoyed one of their most galvanising wins of the season at Leichhardt Oval on Thursday night. As Farah and Benji linked up for their penultimate match at the Wests Tigers home ground, the black and gold came away with a stunning 28-4 over the Cowboys that saw them sneak back into seventh place on the ladder, keeping their hopes of finals footy alive for Robbie’s final season.

The game started with a bang, as Farah charged down Michael Morgan’s first kick, and looked set to gather it up and carry it all the way to the try line, only for Mango to catch up with him and tackle him once he recovered possession. An over long kick from Benji put a brief halt to this splendid opening display, and the Cowboys responded with three successive sets on the back of an offside penalty from Luke Brooks, followed by a penalty on Moses Mbye for crowding as Kyle Feldt started to build some pressure on North Queensland’s right edge.

The Cows then headed to the left after a big tackle from Mbye on Feldt forced them to give up some significant field position, but a clutch play from David Nofoaluma prevented the visitors scoring a try then and there, even if it got them the scrum feed and a third set of six in the process. Mbye continued his great defensive start with a huge hit on Tom Opacic on the fourth tackle, before a forward pass from Morgan meant that Shane Wright’s putdown was deemed not to be a try.

The Tiges didn’t do much with their next set, but Josh Aloiai followed Mbye with a big hit on Opacic as soon as the Cows got a hand on the football again. This set came to a fizzling end when Clifford kicked out on the full on the final tackle, setting the scene for a much more spectacular last tackle option from the Tigers – a crossfield kick from Brooks that Esan Marsters caught on the full, before twisting and spinning through Murray Taulagi and Scott Drinkwater to put down the first four points.

Mbye made it six a minute later, and the Tigers followed with a huge defensive surge that recalled the start of the Ivan Cleary era, epitomised by a pack effort in which Coen Hess was driven back about ten metres at the start of the tackle count. Jason Taumalolo compensated for the lost metres with a massive linebreak, run and offload to Morgan, but Opacic fumbled the football a moment later, putting the home team on the front foot once again, before Jake Granville got them a bit of additional field position before being called offside a couple of minutes later.

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The home crowd were now treated to some old-school magic, as Benji danced around on the right edge for a couple of seconds, before shifting the Steeden over to Ryan Matterson to take a hit-up right in front of the posts. From there, the Tigers swept left, where Farah gathered the football out of dummy half and made as if to send a cut-out pass out for the wing, only to burrow his way through the smallest of spaces between Morgan and Drinkwater to slam down the second try of the game.

Coming on the tail of Farah’s retirement announcement, this was one of the most iconic tries of the year for the Tigers, and fueled their opening energy into a full-blown barnstorming decimation of the North Queensland line. Moments later, Benji fed the footy to Brooks, who sent an enormous cut-out pass to Paul Momirovski on his left edge. Taking advantage of the dewy field, the ex-Rooster made one of the deftest decisions of the night, heading for the corner before abruptly pivoting back in field.

It was enough for both Morgan and Clifford to slip as they tried to chase Momirovski down, but Felt read the play well in advance, locking an arm around the big winger’s waist from about ten metres out. Nevertheless, Momirovski had built up enough momentum to somersault through both Feldt and Granville to get the footy down, moving fast enough to avoid a double movement despite the fact that his elbow had momentarily made contact with the grass. This time, Mbye added the extras, bringing the Tigers to a 16-0 lead as the Cows continued searching for an opening.

It had been a fast start, and it would be a fast finish, but another forty minutes of football would pass before the next try was scored. The Cowboys came close as the half time siren came near, with a right sweep putting Feldt over in the corner, only for a mild obstruction from Wright to turn what initially looked like a certain try for the visitors into a dropout for the Tigers.

A linebreak from Brooks in the first minute back suggested another torrent of Tigers points, but the Cows thwarted the next series of kicks from the home halfback, including a replica of his opening crossfield effort to Marsters. North Queensland got their next big chance when Thompson failed to keep the ball in play at the tail end of a Morgan kick, and once again Feldt came close to scoring on the right edge, only for Brooks ripped the footy right from his hand, in yet another of the defensive efforts that had distinguished the Tigers’ night.

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The Tiges now got the scrum feed, but an error from Michael Chee Kam was quickly followed by a trio of penalties – offsides from Benji and Chris Lawrence, then a dangerous tackle from Thompson – gifting the Cows another bout of sustained field position to rival their three successive sets in the opening ten minutes. Yet Drinkwater now followed Feldt by spilling the footy on the right edge of the Cowboys attack, thanks to some enormous pressure from Mbye, who surged in off his line just as the North Queensland fullback was getting set to pass to Feldt in turn.

The visitors were starting to get frustrated, and a dangerous tackle from Clifford on Nofoaluma allowed the Tigers to get the first points of the second stanza, and a converted try lead, as Mbye booted the ball through the posts. Nofoaluma responded with a massive run on the restart, almost breaking through the line on the first tackle. Matterson now stepped up, capping off sixty-one minutes of solid football with a huge hit on Opacic at the start of the next Cowboys set that brought back some of the rhythm of Mbye and Aloiai’s hit-ups during the first part of the game.

The Tigers would reprise more of that opening as the final siren drew near, but for the next passage of play it was the Cowboys’ turn to gather some momentum. After trying and failing to link up Drinkwater and Feldt on the right edge, they finally got their chance with about fifteen minutes left on the clock. Following a call of six again on the right side of the park, they headed left, where Clifford made a superb floating pass out to Tualangi, before shifting the footy back inside again for Jordan Maclean to straighten up the play in front of the posts.

North Queensland now executed the right sweep they’d been aiming for all evening, as the deftest and slightest of catch-and-passes from Drinkwater put Feldt across the in the corner. In slow motion, the football looked like it had simply passed through the North Queensland fullback, resulting in one of their silkiest tries of the year, albeit the only four points that they would score in this particular game, as Clifford faded the kick away in front of the uprights, keeping the score 18-4.

Wests now followed with a pair of tries that more than equaled their spectacular opening, commencing with a side-to-side effort that started with Farah in the left corner of their attack, and then saw the football move through Brooks and Eisenhuth before arriving at Benji. In a sublime fusion of footwork and timing, Benji straightened up just enough to draw in Clifford from his line, before accelerating and passing to allow Marsters to slip between the visiting halfback and Hess on his outside.

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With Marsters scoring again, the game seemed to have come full circle, allowing the Tiges to recover their momentum, especially once Momirovski booted through the extras. They got another flashback when the footy was tapped back on the restart, allowing Robbie to mirror his opening run by chasing it down for a second time. Farah also set up the final try, shifting the footy out to Brooks at just the right time for him to send it on to Lawrence in turn.

From there, Lawrence made the best one-on-one effort of the night, slamming into Drinkwater about seven metres out from the line, and running straight through him to get the Steeden to ground. Few NRL venues have the same mythological overtones as Leichhardt, but this was a spectacular game even by Leichhardt standards, and a joyous corrective to the melancholy spectacle of Robbie sitting on the scoreboard before he headed off for South Sydney.

It didn’t hurt, either, that one of the Tigers’ biggest cult heroes put down the try, or that it was Brooks who linked these two old-school heroes. With this kind of win behind them, the Tigers should have a pretty good chance of triumphing over the Bulldogs when they meet at ANZ next Saturday night. That said, they definitely had a home ground advantage here, as well as the impetus of Robbie’s retirement announcement, so North Queensland should have a – slightly – more level playing field when they host the Broncos in Townsville for the first game of Round 21.

About Billy Stevenson (732 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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