PRE-SEASON TRIAL: New Zealand Warriors v. Wests Tigers (Rotorua International Stadium, 1/3/20)

The Tigers and Warriors fielded first-grade teams when they met at Rotorua on Sunday afternoon for their last trial matches before the 2020 season begins. Fans were keen to see how Joey Leilua and Adam Doueihi would fare in Tigers colours in New Zealand, along with the prospects for the Warriors at their second home fixture of the year. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck made the first tackle, and Agnatius Paasi the first offload, before Corey Thompson cleaned up the first kick from Blake Green without too much trouble. Luke Brooks followed with a good effort off the boot that forced Patrick Herbert back towards the New Zealand line, but the Warriors got out of their own end pretty quickly with a penalty on the first tackle.

Tohu Harris now made a barnstorming run that required three Tigers defenders to hold him up, before Paasi created another burst of second-phase play that ended with six again for the home side. Another penalty from the Tigers followed, and New Zealand chose to tap and go, with Leeson Ah Mau making a strong opening run, and Green starting a left sweep that the visitors only just shut down on the edge of the field. The Warriors now went right, and then straightened, before a big hit from Joey Leilua on Green forced their first handling error of the game. A few minutes later, David Fusitua retrieved the ball off a Green kick, but Billy Walters recovered it in turn, galvanising the Tigers into a left edge run that ended with Robert Jennings losing the footy forward.

This was a big dent for the Tigers, given that New Zealand had been escalating since the opening minutes of the game – and continued to escalate when a crowding penalty from Alex Twal prevented Isaiah Papali’i being pinged for kicking the footy forward during the play-the-ball. This should have been consolidation time for the Warriors, but RTS didn’t quite manage his next pass, which Harris only just caught by the tips of his fingers, unsettling the Warriors as Papali’i was held up by a big pack effort to the left of the posts, and Herbert was then contained on the last by Twal, who got a bit of closure after conceding the extra field position to New Zealand in the first place. Yet despite this shift in the Tigers’ favour, the Warriors got a chance to breathe on the next set, when Mbye was downed after copping some friendly fire from Twal and Clark during a tackle on Herbert, and replaced by Chris Lawrence.

Paasi made terrific post-contact metres on the next set, but David Nofoaluma cleaned up the kick pretty easily, sending Benji Marshall a rapid play-the-ball whose speed was quickly quashed when Peta Hiku slammed Joey Leilua to ground a second later. Nevertheless, Thompson built on Benji’s speed to execute the first linebreak a second later, and Benji stepped up with some strong footwork, forcing the Warriors to clean up Twal on the last tackle, thanks in part to some poor communication towards the end of the set that prevented the Tigers capitalizing on their best chance of a try so far. Ken Maumalo now did some heavy lifting with ball in hand, and Green tried to replicate Thompson’s linebreak, but an overlong kick from Wayde Egan ended up gifting the Tigers seven tackles from the twenty.

They only got two, though, since Nofoaluma lost the footy almost immediately – such a dramatic shift in fortune that the Warriors had to score now or else concede the momentum back to the visitors. Thompson seemed aware of this too, reading Green’s kick perfectly as he scooped it up in goal and returned to the field of play, aided by a New Zealand side that seemed slightly taken aback by their halfback’s decision to put foot to boot on tackle two. However, another handling error soon gave the Warriors another shot at the line, and it all came together when a rapid sweep to the left edge ended with RTS popping a cut-out ball for Maumalo to slam over in the corner, bringing the Warriors to a six point lead once they’d added the extras.

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Meanwhile, Mbye had cleared his HIA, but also had a knee strain, meaning he wouldn’t be returning to the field for the rest of the game. Things weren’t necessarily getting better for the Warriors either, as a forward pass from Egan undercut a wide shift from Ah Mau on the restart, preventing them from accelerating then and there. Luke Brooks responded to this unexpected turn with a restless, searching run across the face of the ruck, and Zane Musgrove followed with a bullocking effort on the right edge, building field position for Brooks to reprise his run and almost send Michael Chee Kam through the line with a short ball fifteen metres out from the chalk. Once more, though, the Warriors got the footy back, although they were met with some staunch Tigers defence on the back of the last set, keeping them in their own half until late in the tackle count.

RTS now stepped up again, milking a slow peel from Walters to get his men back down the other end of the park, where Josh Curran and Lachie Burr put in hard runs to lay the platform for Kodi Nikorima to attempt a repeat of their previous tryscoring formation. The Tigers now stepped up in turn, forcing the Warriors across to the right, and then back in front of the posts, where Nofolauma caught a crossfield kick from Green on the full, but was precluded from running the length of the field by gathering the Steeden in goal. Still, this was a great burst for the Tigers, getting them halfway down the park by the second tackle, where a no-look pass from Brooks to Thompson, using Chee Kam as decoy, further disrupted the New Zealand line, making it all the more frustrating when Brooks made an overlong kick on the last.

Momentarily winning the battle of the halfbacks, Green followed with a deft combo with Burr, passing to his second-rower and then regathering the Steeden in second-phase play, allowing New Zealand to accrue some terrific speed on the left edge that tempted Joey Leilua into a high tackle on Curran. With so much field position behind them in the last few minutes, the Warriors seemed destined to score here, especially when a poor pass from Green was recovered by his team mates, and RTS pulled off a tough pass by lobbing the footy out to Herbert on the right edge while standing in the tackle. Green now came closer than anyone to scoring so far, running off the shoulder of Nikorima, and coming down a centimeter short of Benji and Luciano Leilua, before a final Tigers effort cleaned up this epic Warriors push on the last.

Musgrove forced a penalty a set later, and Josh Reynolds made a big run out of dummy half, collecting the footy again a tackle later and setting up Elijah Taylor to draw in a couple of defenders right in front of the posts. Reynolds’ run on the next carry was even more impressive, but Green cleaned up Brooks immediately after, before Luke Garner made a fairly underwhelming run, and Nikorima caught a Brooks grubber on the full, as the Tigers seemed to be exhausting their last-tackle options on the cusp of halftime. Green, however, showed no signs of slackening, kicking early off a good pass from Egan, and forcing the Tigers to start from deep within their own half, before the most sublime passage of second phase play gave the visitors a second wind, and testified both to the power of Joey Leilua on the right edge and the synergy between the two Leilua brothers on the football field.

The play started with Benji popping the footy across to Luciano, who copped a massive hit but still managed to send it back to Benji to catch-and-pass it over to Joey to break through the line. From there, Joey stormed up the left edge, lobbing the Steeden across to Thompson on his inside, before recovering it from him about twenty metres out from the chalk. If Joey had taken the tackle then and there, the Tigers could probably have maintained enough speed to have a good shot at scoring, but instead he opted for a no-look flick pass straight back to the New Zealand defence. Despite this momentary frustration, however, the energy of Joey’s run still hung over the Tigers, and a moment later Benji played the footy right on the line to Reynolds, who barged through four defenders and planted the ball down with his right hand on the stroke of half time.

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This was exactly the tough, burly effort the Tigers needed to recover their confidence after a challenging first stanza, and with Benji adding the extras, the game was all locked up as the players headed to the sheds. Benji came back just as strong, making a solid run at the end of the Tigers’ first set, and forcing a knock-on from Curran, before sending a beautiful ball out to Joey Leilua, who almost made it to the right corner, only for five Warriors to drag him over the sideline at the very last moment. New Zealand couldn’t make many metres on the next set, only getting to the forty on the penultimate tackle, where Green booted a low, skittering ball that Jennings gathered without too much trouble, setting up Adam Doueihi to shift it backwards, and then recollect it in second phase play, to give his men a bit more room to breathe.

In an uncharacteristic error, however, Chee Kam coughed up the footy on the left of the park after a deft trio of passes saw it move through Benji, Brooks and Doueihi, but the Tigers bounced back pretty quickly after one of the weakest plays from the Warriors all day. This was probably a key turning-point of the game, as Curran shaped to receive the ball from Chanel Harris-Tevita, but was momentarily distracted by Joey Leilua looming up in his face, losing the Steeden onto the ground, where Doueihi scooped it up and got it across to Nofoaluma, who transferred it to his right hand and sped away from Maumalo to ground it in the right corner of the park. The breeze got the best of Benji when it came to the kick, but the Warriors were clearly shocked by the speed of this last try – especially Herbert, who responded with one of the biggest hits so far on Reynolds midway through the next set.

Herbert was even more impressive under the high ball a set later, and the Warriors soon got a penalty, giving them a much-needed bout of field position, which Harris started with a tough run from the forty. Adam Blair was desperate to break through the line, or else milk a slow peel, on the next play, but it worked against him, as a combined effort from Twal, Taylor and Reynolds saw him cough up the footy while trying to play it – or at least that was the onfield call, since this would be a prime opportunity for a captain’s challenge in the regular footy season. The Tigers got a penalty a few tackles later – a big advantage at this particular moment, given how few had been awarded throughout the match – and headed left, where Doueihi’s harbor bridge pass to Jennings might have paid dividends if the Warriors hadn’t drifted over to pre-empt precisely this play.

Reynolds now got things rolling on the left edge, where Doueihi was held up before Taylor sent the footy back inside. Brooks made a deft grubber on the last tackle, but the Tigers didn’t get their first dropout after Green popped it into touch, since Garner was pinged for running into the back of the New Zealand no. 7. From defending a dropout to getting a penalty, the Warriors had now enjoyed one of the most dramatic about-turns of the match – and it got better when they followed the Tigers by getting back-to-back penalties a couple of tackles later, so it was paramount that they get another six points on the board with the momentum of this set behind them. Instead, Green was forced to pick up a poor pass on the ground, Harris-Tevita was held up by an epic trysaver to the left of the posts, and Ah Mau was contained by a superb pack defence on the final play.

Taylor looked exhausted as he fed the footy for the first tackle of the next Tigers set, and Jennings seemed just as tired when he was driven back three metres on the very first tackle, within the Tigers’ ten. Reynolds was the first player on this set who wasn’t driven back, he he was still prevented from going forward, as the Tigers had to bank on a seventy metre kick from Benji to get themselves a bit of breathing-space next time the Warriors had ball in hand. Harris-Tevita now kicked early, taking the Tigers by surprise, and forcing Doueihi to scramble to collect the footy in goal, setting up New Zealand for the first dropout of the night. Green started by poking his nose through the line, sending a short ball via Isaiah Papali’i to Karl Lawton, who almost broke through, only for Reynolds to make a terrific trysaver to hold him up.

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While the Warriors got another dropout almost immediately, they lost the footy just as quickly, and Brooks stepped up to show that he could easily rival Mitchell Moses’ superb chip-and-chase against the Panthers at Bega the day before. Chipping fifteen metres out from the line, Brooks chased down the footy, and gave it a second, and then a third go with the left boot, before catching it on the full to put down another four points. It had been that kind of game – long doldrums punctuated by individual brilliance – and with Doueihi slotting through the extras, the Tigers were ten ahead; a pretty big differential given the slow-scoring pace. Meanwhile, Paasi was off the park with an ankle strain, forcing the Warriors to dig deep for the last ten minutes.

Things got even harder for them when Joey Leilua broke through the line a second later, drawing in the defence before popping the footy across for Nofoaluma to put down a double, in a promising preview of the Tigers’ right edge over the next nine months. Full credit has to go to Reynolds, too, for a long searching run that set up the play in the first place – part of an impressive stint at hooker that makes him a viable competitor with Walters for the no. 9 jersey. Ten minutes from the end, Doueihi made a great take under the high ball and an equally strong offload, before Reynolds ended the set with a massive effort with the boot that forced Harris-Tevita to tumble to the ground to collect it. The strength and assurance of these opening and closing efforts were an apt summary of the Tigers’ skill in consolidating and shutting out a dominant opening team, and possibly a sign that they have finally developed the skills they need to keep their composure in the back forty minutes, in one of the more impressive wins from the pre-trials fixtures in 2020.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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