ROUND 5: Wests Tigers v. Canberra Raiders (Campbelltown Stadium, 14/6/20)

Michael Maguire made the controversial gesture to bench Benji Marshall and replace him with Josh Reynolds after last week’s disastrous late loss to the Titans, but the Tigers were still unable to finish strong here, despite scoring the first try and shutting out Canberra for the opening stanza. Luke Brooks made the first bomb of the night, and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was safe beneath it, before recovering the footy for a second time when Harry Grant charged down Jack Wighton’s opening kick. Nevertheless, the Raiders were flustered by this abrupt end to their first set, and Curtis Scott mucked up his ball control while trying to milk for a penalty two tackles into the Tigers’ next touch of the ball. Brooks almost sent Luciano Leilua through the line on the fourth play on the left edge, and the Tigers headed right on the last, where Brooksy’s final grubber was played at by the Raiders, cementing this early surge of field position.

Reynolds made his first big run three tackles later, Alex Twal almost crashed over off a short pass from Grant, and Adam Douehi drew in a pack of Raiders to hold him up, as Canberra used this early sequence to put the defensive trauma of last week’s game against the Storm behind them. Josh Papalii now made a barnstorming run for his first carry of the night, Joseph Tapine followed in his footsteps up the middle of the field, and the Raiders finally got to their first decent last tackle option, six minutes in – a bomb from George Williams to Doueihi in the right corner. Still, the Tigers didn’t show any signs of slowing down, getting their first restart on on the first tackle of the next set, which they concluded with a deft grubber from Grant that trapped Rapana in the right corner. Wighton followed Williams with a soaring bomb down the middle of the park, caught again by Douiehi, as the game started to settle back into a more regular rhythm. Like Rapana, Nick Cotric was trapped in his corner under the next bomb, then David Nofoaluma cleaned up a bomb, before Reynolds stepped into the spotlight.

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This was a Belmore-like effort from Josh, who grubbered to the right corner, led the kick chase, and forced an error from CNK, getting the Tigers the first scrum feed. It came to nothing when Grant shot a forward pass out to Twal on the second tackle, but this was a promising start from Reynolds, who took the next kick as well, although this time Rapana was waiting to clean it up. For a few minutes, the game settled back into a set-for-set rhythm, as the Raiders got a boost with their first restart fifteen minutes in, but then conceded the first penalty next time Wests had ball in hand, due to an illegal strip from Elliott Whitehead on the back of a brilliant right side raid by Nofoaluma. This was a big disruptor after such a steadily paced period – and Reynolds capitalised on it, dummying and sending out a brilliant wide ball to Doueihi midway through the tackle count, before ending the set with a big bomb to the left edge, where Scott lost the footy, Brooks caught it on the full, and then muscled his way through Scott, who had curved back around in defence, to slam the Steeden to ground.

So far, so good, for the Reynolds experiment, since this was one of the most dynamic tries from the Tigers all year, even if Moses Mbye missed the conversion. Yet this would also be the last try they scored all night, as the absence of Benji’s playmaking and organisation started to make an impact, suggesting the solution may be a more fluid combination of Benji and Reynolds, rather than either in isolation. For a second, the Tigers looked good on the restart, since Tommy Talau started with a bone-rattling collision with Josh Hodgson and Joe Tapine, both of whom were left on the ground with a quick play-the-ball, only for Mbye to cough up a Brooks pass on the very next tackle, neutralizing the superb acceleration of Talau’s opening run. Frustrated, Reynolds now leaked the first Tigers penalty of the night, but the home team stepped up with two amazing defensive efforts that effectively recapitulated the energy of their try.

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The first was a heroic one-man effort from Grant, who wrapped himself around Wighton’s legs five metres out to prevent a certain try; the next was a sublime pack effort from Twal, Aloiai and Reynolds to hold up Hodgson right on the line. For the next ten minutes, the Tigers struggled to regain their attacking momentum, as Brooks booted through the first dropout, Nofoaluma followed Reynolds with a dangerous tackle, and Alex Seyfarth conceded more field position to the Raiders with a ball strip. Still, the Tigers recovered their mojo with another spectacular trysaving sequence – this time from Talau, who made a mammoth effort to hold up Cotric right on the line after he’d collected the ball clean in the air. This defensive gesture was enough to sustain the Tigers through another Canberra dropout, a second effort from Nofoaluma, and then an error from Nofoaluma in the final fifteen seconds. They headed into the sheds ahead, but only tentatively ahead.

Both sides enjoyed back-to-back sets for the first five minutes of the second half, until Emre Guler forced Nofoaluma to cough up the football. Ryan Sutton almost crashed over on the fourth play, but Wighton’s final effort sailed above Rapana’s head and over the sideline, as the Tigers completed another superb defensive sequence. Canberra had now made 26 tackles in the Tigers’ 20 with no points, but they built upon the momentum of their last set next time they got ball in hand, as CNK caught Reynolds’ kick on the full, and the backline started the heavy lifting, with Rapana and Scott taking the first two runs before Tapine made a strong carry up the middle of the park, getting away with a knock-on as he tried to play the ball, when the ref deemed it a crowding penalty for Thomas Mikaele. The Tigers reached their nadir soon after, when Reynolds caught a fist in the throat from Wighton, and Joey Leilua collected a second crowding penalty. Three tackles later, Wighton collected the footy at the ten, sped past Joey Leilua, dragged in mass of Tigers defenders, and barged through Seyfarth and Doueihi to hang, suspended, before reaching out to plant the football down.

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This was a heroic effort from Wighton, and the next five minutes were all Canberra, as the visitors continued to build their field position so consistently that they effectively scored the next try on the restart, since the Tigers barely got a hand to the football over the next five minutes. The green machine got a call of six again immediately, before Cotric batted the high ball back to Tapine, who twisted around, offloaded it to Scott on the right edge, and then recovered it from his no. 4, shifting it across for Hodgson only for the Tigers to showcase their best defence of the night to get the ball back and then receive a set restart. It was heartbreaking, then, when Brooks put down an unnecessary offload from Luciano Leilua a tackle later – the worst possible moment for an unforced error, as the Raiders now got a set restart and a pair of penalties to boot.

The first was a hand in the ruck from Twal, and the second a professional foul for Russell Packer, who was sent to the bin in his first match back in twelve months, forcing the Tiges into another Herculean defensive effort with only twelve men on the park. CNK made his best run of the game on the second play, stepping around Reynolds on the right edge, before the Raiders abruptly shifted left, where Williams sent an early kick to the corner, rocketing the footy off the right boot at speed, and timing the bounce to sit up perfectly for Nick Cotric. The chase was spectacular in slow motion, as Cotric converged on the Steeden’s trajectory at a ninety-degree angle, lunging into the leather at the very moment it soared towards the sideline, but without allowing the momentum to carry him over the edge either. Talau never had a chance of stopping him, and Croker added his second conversion, putting the Raiders eight points ahead. Yet Canberra wouldn’t score another try from here – and if anything, the game shifted back Wests’ way pretty quickly, as Papalii lost the footy early in the restart, and the hosts got their first period of attack in what felt like forever.

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They got a penalty after Sutton was pinged for a late hit on Reynolds, and opted to take the two, narrowing the lead to a converted try as the final quarter approached. While they were clearly trying to burn time with Packer in the bin, this probably wasn’t the right decision in retrospect, as four or six points here would have won them the game. In any case, the Raiders recovered their eight point lead with ten minutes on the clock, as a high shot from Packer on Tapine saw the big prop put on report, setting up Croker to boot their own penalty kick through the posts after the longest pause in the game. The Tigers got a final burst of field position in the last two minutes, following a string of Canberra errors, along with a successful Captain’s Challenge, but they could never make up the deficit, coming away with another frustrating loss that will hopefully steel them for a better game against the Cowboys next week. On the other side of the Steeden, this was an important surge of confidence for Canberra after their loss to the Storm, and they’ll be drawing on it when they take on the Sea Eagles in Round 6.

About Billy Stevenson (750 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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