ROUND 3: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Wests Tigers (Bankwest Stadium, 30/5/20)

Saturday’s night match at Bankwest started with a pair of solid sets from both sides, and then a pair of halfback errors – an overlong pass from Luke Brooks that forced a mistake from Thomas Mikaele, and then an even stranger ball from Shaun Johnson, who sent the footy out in front of his entire right edge. Brooks pounced at his next opportunity, collecting the footy from Harry Grant ten metres out, dummying to the left, and bringing in Briton Nikora for a low tackle, before offloading back to Grant for the first try of the night. Things accelerated even more from here, as Benji Marshall added the extras from right in front, made a successful Captain’s Challenge after Brooks’ next kick, and replayed the final kick himself, which defied both William Kennedy and Brooks, remaining open for Moses Mbye to scoop in and get his arm away from Ronaldo Mulitalo to shift it across to Robert Jennings for the Tigers’ next try.

Benji slotted the sideline conversion away to the left, keeping the Tigers at ten points, but this was still more than a point per minute. Not surprisingly, the Sharks put in a monstrous defensive effort on the next set, but Thomas Mikaele, Luciano Leilua and Josh Aloiai still made good metres, while David Nofoaluma stayed strong under some big pressure from Sione Katoa beneath the next Cronulla high ball. The Tigers then got the first penalty of the match when Aaron Woods skittled Benji a full second after he’d grubbered through the line on the last – an uncharacteristic kick for Benji, which was perhaps why Woodsy showed such a lapse in judgement. Benji’s boys seemed set to score after a call of six again, but Aloiai made an error in the play-the-ball after a big defensive effort from the home team on the left edge of the field, gifting Cronulla the biggest letoff in the game so far, and a much-needed change in rhythm for the home side.

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Sure enough, the Sharkies now enjoyed the best set of the night, as Chad Townsend booted the footy deep into their left corner, setting up a near-certain try for Katoa, only for Adam Doueihi to slide in and save the day by sending the Steeden into touch. Cronulla packed the scrum and enjoyed a pair of offside penalties from the Tigers, asking a couple of big questions up through the ruck before Luke Garner effected a one-on-one strip on Townsend, but not without knocking the footy on in the process. This was crunch time for Cronulla, who had to score now to capitalise on all this accumulated field position – and they delivered almost immediately, thanks to the first of two brilliant linkups between Wade Graham and Josh Dugan that would level the scoreline over the next five minutes, forcing the Tigers on the back foot as they decelerated into a sustained period of defence as the half hour mark approached.

This first combination between Graham and Dugan was exactly the elegant and simple linkup that changes momentum – a well-weighted kick from Graham, whose diverse skill set at second row just gets better and better, and then a superb kick chase from Dugan, who launched himself onto the football, and secured the grounding, before they both tumbled into touch. It was the spiritual sequel to Townsend and Katoa’s near linkup a few minutes before, and galvanised the Sharks accordingly, especially once Johnson’s sideline conversion bounced serendipitously off the right post and then careened back above the crossbar. Nevertheless, the Tigers got the ball back immediately, due to another error from Woodsy, who wasn’t helped any by Cronulla’s first and only Captain’s Challenge, which showed that Mbye’s knee had played a role in Woods losing the football, but wasn’t deemed to be intentional by the Bunker.

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The Tigers almost scored again on the next play, thanks to a cut-out pass from Brooks that saw Jennings bundled up in the left corner at the last minute, but this flashback to Jenko’s opening effort just seemed to motivate the Sharks into their most expansive piece of play yet – a sweeping movement from left to right, midway up the park, that ended with another incredible linkup between Graham and Dugan. Last time Graham’s kicking game was on display, and this time it was his hands, as he crafted a superb cut-out that gave Dugan the time and space he needed to take on three Tigers defenders, maintain control of the Steeden, and muscle an arm free to put down the hardest-won try so far. Johnson missed the conversion, but all the signs were good for the Sharks after this sudden shift in momentum, especially since Matt Moylan was now completing his warm-up routine on the sideline, and preparing himself for his first game of 2020 – and only his 12th game in the NRL since the end of 2018.

Cronulla had now scored almost as rapidly as Wests had in the opening minutes, and they ran with this energy, forcing the away team into a primarily defensive second quarter. Two successive dropouts shifted the field position back towards the Sharkies, who got two major letoffs during this sustained period of defence – a forward pass from Johnson to Mulitalo that precluded what would have been a certain try, and then a bizarre end to what initially seemed like the best attacking formation of the entire game for Cronulla. Once again, Graham was the key playmaker, kicking midway down the field, as the footy found Katoa, who picked it up on the left edge, stormed down the sideline, and then made a second kick back infield, where the bounce ricocheted perfectly for Kennedy to scoop it up, at a speed and angle that seemed to guarantee the four points. In the most surprising twist of the night, however, Garner was able to stop him in his tracks, wrapping himself around the Cronulla fullback to prevent the play.

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Still, this sequence was good enough to sustain the Sharks on the repeat set, so it felt right when Kennedy took advantage of the flailing Tigers defenders to run a hard line straight past Alex Seyfarth, scoring in virtually the same spot where he would have put the football down when Garner got to him. Both teams had scored two tries in quick succession, and then struggled to score again, so this third try for Cronulla felt like a game-changer, or an ice-breaker, bookending the first stanza with a pair of debut NRL tries for Grant and Kennedy. The second half started with another Captain’s Challenge from Benji, who asserted that a supposed knock-on from Mbye was in fact a one-on-one strip on Blayke Brailey, but the Bunker showed it was both – Mbye did steal the Steeden cleanly, but then lost it back just as quickly into the Cronulla hooker’s jersey.

The Tigers made a series of good advances over the next sets, starting with a deft defensive display from Jennings, who bundled Mulitalo into touch after he collected a last-tackle kick from Townsend on the full. Graham responded with a huge tackle on Seyfarth, before Benji booted through his biggest torpedo of the night, and Kennedy made the best take under the high ball all game. This was the best start to a set in some time for Cronulla, but it ended with one of their worst finishes, as Jesse Ramien tried and failed to get away an offload on the right edge of the park. Brooks now stepped into the spotlight, trapping Kennedy in goal for a dropout with a long, low kick, and then dummying and running twice on the third play of the restart. Everything came together when Doueihi found Jennings unmarked on the wing, but he didn’t quite time the pass properly, as a certain try for the Tigers – the perfect end to this brief surge – went begging.

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This early period of Tigers momentum officially came to an end when Nofoaluma failed to make a single metre during his run on the next set. Nofa wouldn’t have to wait long for catharsis, but for the moment Mulitalo put a huge hit on Brooks, and continued the contact after the Steeden was dislodged, causing a minor fracas as both teams got in each others’ faces for a bit of attitude in the middle of the park. Now the Sharks had a bit of a surge, as Luciano Leilua tried and failed to strip the footy from Scott Sorenson midway through the next set, and Johnson carried several big defenders to the line on the penultimate play, but like the Tigers before them they couldn’t quite capitalise here, since Brailey kicked too hard on the final tackle. Even then, the football almost sat up just before the try line, but in the end Doueihi was safe to let it tumble into touch, as the game seemed to restart once again, allowing the Tigers to regain some of the rhythm they’d accumulated during the opening minutes of both stanzas.

Nofoaluma now stepped into the spotlight, executing a sublime try assist, and then a sublime try, that more than compensated for his zero run metres a couple of sets before. On this set, he received the footy from Benji on the right edge, ducked out of a tackle from Katoa, fended off Toby Rudolf, and then made the harbor bridge pass of the night – a soaring, sublime effort that cleared five players before Garner leaped into the air to collect it, twisting and weaving his body through a combined tackle from Dugan and Townsend to put down the try that got Wests back in the picture. Watching Garner bust through Dugan, in particular, was like seeing him storm over Dugan’s first two tries – especially the second, the strongest of the night – although the Sharks still remained two ahead after Benji somehow missed the conversion from right in front.

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A pretty quick series of turnovers now ensued, as Mulitalo coughed up a Brooks bomb, then regathered the footy after being tackled in the air by Mbye, before Billy Magoulias lost possession halfway down the park. Yet the game was moving so quickly now that the Tigers could continue Nofoaluma and Garner’s splendid surge, and so they accelerated further on their next set, making rapid play-the-balls, big run metres and probing runs, until Billy Walters almost sent Benji through the line, and Kennedy was pinged for a strip after the tackle, setting up Benji to level the score with the first penalty kick of the match. Finally, the game was all locked up again – right as the final quarter arrived, with the clock hitting twenty mintues as Benji’s ball sailed between the uprights – and the Tigers responded with their best sequence of second-phase play this year, as offloads from Leilua and Aloa in the same set, and then another offload from Mikaele, got Doueihi the open space he needed to set up the next superb move.

Doueihi took on Graham first, and then fended off two defenders, finally shifting the footy to Benji, who kicked and tackled Katoa in goal to get his men a dropout. Everything clicked in the next ten seconds, as Nofoaluma went from sublime try assister to sublime tryscorer, collecting the dropout 25 metres out, and almost walking through the first line of defence – Townsend and Dugan – who clearly didn’t contend with him going all the way. Yet that’s just what he did, skidding to the right and getting the ball down, in a thoroughly embarrassing defensive display for the Sharks. Benji had more license to miss the goal this time around, since he was shooting from the sideline, but it was still a bit agonising for Tigers fans to think they could have enjoyed an eight point lead instead of a single try advantage at this critical late moment in the match.

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All they needed to cement their lead was another opening – and they got it when Mulitalo was pinged for a knock-on that could equally have been called a knock-back. Fresh on the park, Walters made an immediate impact, sending a short ball right on the line to Aloiai, who ducked under Kennedy, reached out his right hand, and concluded the tryscoring with a David-and-Goliath effort that put the Tigers ten points ahead when Mbye took over kicking duties from the sideline. Wests had now recapitulated the rhythm of their rapid pair of tries at the start of the match, and while they didn’t score another four-pointer, they never decelerated, despite a trio of errors in the immediate wake of Aloiai’s putdown. Despite this series of black and gold mistakes – including two from Nofa – it was the Sharkies who started to flag, allowing Moses to clock up another penalty kick following a strip from Brailey. It all ended with a disastrous play from Moylan, who passed the footy to Dugan’s right boot on the first tackle.

Brooks got a final dropout when he kicked the ball casually through the ruck with a minute on the clock, forcing Mulitalo to take it dead as the Tigers lined up to command the final set of the night. For a moment, it felt like Benji or Brooks would take a field goal – the perfect victory lap for such a dominant second stanza – but instead Jennings fumbled the pickup, and the final siren ran out as both teams were packing the middle of the park for a Cronulla scrum. Nevertheless, this was a resounding victory for the Tigers, who often glimpse this energy on the football field, but don’t always maintain it with the same depth and focus that they showcased tonight. They’ll be well placed, then, to take on the Titans at the end of Round 4, while the final moments of this match conclude a pretty dour week for Cronulla, who could have really used Bronson Xerri in the backline tonight, and will be looking to come back big when they take on the Cowboys in a week’s time.

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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