INDIGENOUS ALL-STARS v. MAORI KIWIS (Cbus Super Stadium, 22/2/20)

The Indigenous-Maori match was pretty exciting this year, featuring several key stretches when the two teams were neck and neck before the Kiwis came away with a staggering 30-16 win. Blake Ferguson made the first run, and then the first big defensive gesture, putting considerable pressure on Esan Marsters to force an premature pass up the left side of the field. Tyrone Roberts kicked on the last tackle of the same set, but the Steeden went too deep, and the Maori got a letoff – and then a boost, when Corey Harawira-Naera broke through three Indigenous players on the third play. From there, he offloaded to Jahrome Hughes, who jumped over a low tackle from Wade Graham to pop a superb try assist out to Dallin Watene Zeleznian on the right wing.

With Kalyn Ponga slotting through the sideline conversion, the Kiwis were six ahead with only five on the clock. This had been poor defence from the Indigenous players, especially after Fergo’s sterling pressure on Marsters, since Hughes actually had time to stop in the line, and look around, before sending the Steeden out to his no. 2. Hughes ended the next set with a towering bomb, and DWZ followed his try with one of the best kick chases of the entire game, skittling Josh Ado-Carr as he collected the footy, putting a big dent in this Indigenous set from the very outset. Even David Fitia was unable to make big metres on the penultimate tackle, while a deft vertical leap from Ponga neutralized a big bomb from Roberts on the next play.

Meanwhile, Harawira-Naera was restless for more points, poking his nose through the line on the next set, before shifting the Steeden across to Kenny Browwich, who sent it out to the wing in turn – and almost getting Fergo back for his play on Marsters, only for Ado-Carr to intercept the footy and help steady the ship for the Indigenous side. This gave the All Stars some real momentum for the first time in the match, as Chris Smith put in a searching run on the fourth tackle, dodging and weaving his way along the ruck, albeit not quite finding a place to break through the line. The game was escalating so quickly that the Maori side could easily have tapped into the Indigenous momentum, so it was a wise decision for Nathan Peats to now boot the ball into touch, giving his men a moment to catch their breath.

A few sets later, Alex Johnston caught a Hughes kick on the full, and almost found a gap in the line, before Latrell Mitchell took the footy on the second carry for his first big run at fullback. Jack Wighton kicked a good bomb on the last, but DWZ continued his brilliant defensive streak under the high ball, and the Maori got rolling again, thanks in part to a muscular run from Jesse Bromwich. Latrell got his first big chance to shine in the no. 1 jersey on kick reception a tackle later, shifting it over to Fergo on the following play before Tyrone Peachey was cleaned up on the third. This was the best momentum the All Stars had built all game, so it was frustrating for Ramien to leak a penalty for holding back after they lost the footy on the last tackle on the left edge of the park.

Still, they bounced back, as Roberts responded with the biggest hit of the night so far, on Kodi Nikorima, who lost the ball backwards, but without any Captains Challenge from the Maori players to call it out. This was just the display of strength needed by the Indigenous side, who consolidated further on the next play, when Ramien made up for his penalty with a monster run down the middle of the park, where he muscled his way through four or five defenders to make at least fifteen post-contact metres. Fergo now drew some defenders over to the right edge, where he somersaulted into the second tackle, before a short ball from Josh Kerr sent Josh Curran over right beside the posts to level the score, once Roberts added the extras from right in front.

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This was a neat end to the first quarter for the Indigenous side, especially for Roberts, who’d bookended the last play, and who came close to breaking through the line on the cusp of the break. The All Stars got a boon when they returned to the park, when a professional foul from Hughes saw the Maori reduced to a twelve man team. However, not only did New Zealand manage to keep the Indigenous players out, but they scored off a superb Dylan Walker kick, which ricocheted off Ponga at just the right angle for Nikorima to catch it on the full and slam over to score. For a moment, it looked like the Maori would score another rapid try when Brandon Smith sliced through the line in the middle of the park, flicked the footy across to Ponga, and then regathered it, in a classic two-man formation.

As it turned out, however, it might have been better for Ponga to risk the run himself, since Smith followed up with a harbor bridge pass that Bryson Goodwin coughed up on the left edge of the field. This was a big letoff for the Indigenous side, and felt like it might be a turning point in the game – especially if the All Stars were able to score on the next couple of sets. Instead, the Maori quickly regrouped, as a short ball from Nikorima sent Ponga through the line, giving him a chance to make good on his previous combination with Smith, only for history to repeat itself, as a rapid pass out to the left edge – this time to Kenny Bromwich – let the Indigenous players off with a knock-on. Several interchanges now followed, and Roberts broke through the line on the right edge, but to no avail.

Nevertheless, the Indigenous players had glimpsed a new adrenalin in these closing minutes, and got the image of consolidation they needed when Mitchell caught a torpedo bomb like he’d been wearing the fullback jersey for years. While Ado-Carr knocked on under the next Roberts bomb, Marsters lost the footy on the first carry, leaving it open for Fergo to storm in, scoop it up, tuck it under his arm, and head for the right corner, where he booted it over the try line and then chased it down before grounding it himself. This was Indigenous-Maori spectacle at its best, and the perfect way for Fergo to showcase the extra energy and passion that he always brings to these games, making up for Roberts’ missed conversion with a repeat of his trademark backwards somersault right on the stroke of half time.

The Maori side returned with a good set, featuring a hard run from Harawira-Naera on the third play that looked like a linebreak for a split second, setting the stage for a third quarter in which virtually every major playmaker seemed on the verge of busting through the defence. The Indigenous side charged down the final kick of the set, and Conor Watson collected it, but Goodwin effortlessly collected Roberts’ last kick on the full, ushering in a period when both team teams went set for set, until a brilliant play from Mitchell broke the deadlock – catching the footy, stepping into open space, and sending it softly off the inside of his boot to trap Ponga in goal. Yet a sloppy pass from Mitchell halfway through the dropout then cost the Indigenous side their momentum, part of a mixed night in the fullback jersey that highlighted some of the work he’ll need to do in his new tenure as South Sydney’s no. 1.

This set actually ended pretty well though, as Ado-Carr scooped up a Peachey kick and stormed over in the left corner, only for an offside penalty from Ramien to deny the All Stars the try. Brandon Smith got the footy back on the next set with a one-on-one strip, and the Maori side got an additional burst of field position when Ramien got his second successive penalty, this time for an escort. After almost ten minutes without points, and with only a two point lead, this was a critical juncture for the Maori, and Walker came close to bursting across on the second tackle off a short pass from Zane Tetevano, before Ponga commenced a left sweep on the fourth that initially looked quite promising. Nevertheless, some messy ball handling allowed the All Stars to get the Steeden back – and one of their biggest letoffs so far.

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For a moment, it looked like the Indigenous players would capitalise on this shift in possession immediately, as Roberts stormed up the right side and sent the footy out to Fergo, forcing the Maori to scramble to prevent a try on the wing then and there. As it turned out, the speed of this run was swallowed up by the end of the set, and the Indigenous players were much more contained next time they had the ball in hand, losing even more energy when a nasty tackle felled Chris Smith right on their line, giving the Maori time to regather their breath and prepare for the next few tackles as Jamayne Taunoa-Brown subbed onto the park. Wighton tried to send Latrell through the line on the next tackle, but once again the Maori sorted it out, as Ponga stayed cool under a tricky bounce off a Wade Graham kick.

Kodi Nikorima mirrored Wighton on the next set, almost finding open space for Kevin Proctor on the left edge, before Marsters broke out of a tackle, and headed for the chalk, but was forced to contend with Fergo as the last line of defence. Ferguson got the final say, but this was still the best Maori set for some time, and ended with Alex Johnston chasing down the kick to get it ground just before Hughes arrived behind him, saving a try but conceding a dropout. Mitchell was a bit wobbly off the kickoff, sending it awkwardly off the left boot, and allowing Ponga to start the set only thirty-five metres back from the try line. This was another potential turning-point for the Maori side, and they made more of it than their earlier opportunities, as Smith made a linebreak on the fourth, only to be halted by Latrell as abruptly as Marsters had been shut down by Fergo a minute before.

With so many wasted chances from both sides – especially for the Maori – it was starting to seem as if the next team to win would score the match, especially with only a goal between them. It felt epic, then, when Roberts outpaced Ponga on the very next play, collecting the footy from a David Fifita linebreak, and pivoting off the left boot to speed up the field as if he was going for a casual jog. Roberts, like Ferguson, has a unique energy in these fixtures, and had been raring for a big run all night, so this finally felt like the consolidation the Indigenous side had been yearning for, especially when Fergo sent the footy through the posts to bring them to a four point lead, recalling some of his most flamboyant moments during the Perth Nines.

Both Fifita and Roberts had combined speed and strength perfectly, making this a pretty major statement for the Indigenous side, but these would be the last points they scored, as the Maori now mounted a comeback that saw them sail from a four point deficit to a fourteen point win. Ponga started making up for letting Roberts get away at the end of the next Indigenous set, when he jumped spectacularly, above Ado-Carr, to collect a towering bomb. It was a pretty big contrast to Fergo’s next effort under the high ball, which he spilled backwards, conceding what would have been the next Maori try if Marsters hadn’t got a hand to it first, and knocked it forward into Fergo’s arm. With this try called back, the deadlock seemed to intensify over the next ten minutes, making it even more cathartic when the Maori scored three times in the last ten minutes.

This final stretch of football finally got the game into first gear – and Brandon Smith provided the palette cleanser at the seventieth minute, smashing over out of dummy half to put down the first points for the Maori side since the 26th minute of the match. The clarity and precision of this try – Smith simply ducked under Watson and shrugged off the last line of defence – seemed to wrap up the game, despite a couple of disappointing moments for the Maori players in its immediate aftermath; first, a brainsnap from Proctor, who stuck a boot over the sideline while collecting the restart, and then the most marginal of double movements from Smith, who crashed over beneath the posts, but was held to have briefly conceded the momentum of the footy before promoting it onto the grass.

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Once again, though, frustration made success even more cathartic, as Smith crashed over in the same spot a set later, sending the footy to Blair right on the line, and then curving around him to regather it, come to ground beneath the posts for another six points once Ponga through booted the extras. The passage of play from Smith’s first try, to his aborted try, to his second try, was a microcosm of the up-and-down rhythm of the game, so it would have felt like a neat enough ending if the Maori had remained eight points ahead. They had once more try up their sleeve, though, remarkable as it might have seemed at the seventy-seventh minute, when the Indigenous players got the scrum feed off a knock-on from Kevin Proctor, followed by a penalty after a scrum infringement from Corey Harawira-Naera.

There were only one hundred seconds left on the clock when the Maori got the ball back, but they made the most of it, putting in a couple of steady tackles, and concentrating mainly on slowing down the play, before Dylan Walker chased down the last kick to finish the game with a try under the posts, bringing his team to a fourteen point lead once Ponga added his last conversion. This shift from slow tackles to a fast run was an even better summary of the stop-start momentum of the game than Smith’s tryscoring sequence – a rousing end to the tournament, and testament to the power of the Maori side. Despite the scoreline, though, what made the match so great was every player’s pride in their jersey, and the unique energy that comes from that, making this a great start to eighty minute footy in 2020.

About Billy Stevenson (488 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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