ROUND 12: Wests Tigers v. New Zealand Warriors (Sydney Cricket Ground, 31/7/20)

The Tigers had won five of their last six games against the Warriors when they met at the SCG on Friday night – and needed to win this one to start building momentum towards finals football. Meanwhile, New Zealand hadn’t beaten the Tigers in Australia since 2013, and had George Jennings, Daniel Alvaro and Jack Hetherington as imports to replace their players who had headed back to Auckland during the week. Harry Grant got the game rolling with a great kick on the fourth tackle from within his own forty, chasing it down to force an error at the other end of the field from Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who made a mistake in the play-the-ball after only just recovering the football. The Tigers scored almost immediately, thanks to a rapid left sweep that ended with Luciano Leilua barging into Blake Green, cradling the ball in his right hand, and then shifting it to his left to offload right on the ground for Moses Mbye, who caught it on the chest to curve around behind the posts. Josh Aloiai made a barnstorming run on the kick return, and Grant was restless for a linebreak on the third tackle, but this time RTS brought Benji’s kick fifteen metres back, and the Warriors built some good speed on their left edge, only for Jennings to flick the footy back inside to Benji after being dragged into touch.

The Tigers got the first restart a tackle later, although the Warriors had some brief closure when Billy Walters offloaded to Hetherington, marking the first unfinished Wests set. Blake Green was pinged for a crusher tackle a moment later, and the Tigers responded with a pair of great runs – Benji sending Doueihi twenty-five metres and almost through the line, and Luke Garner almost reaching the line, with Peta Hiku and Tohu Harris contributing the trysaving tackles respectively. The Tiges got even more field position when Green conceded a second consecutive penalty – offside – and then put four more on the board when Doueihi soared the Steeden out to David Nofoaluma, who caught the ball with two hands over his head whole somehow maintaining his balance enough to remain just in the field of play, before accelerating down the sideline to score, and even managing to curve around for a slightly easier conversion position. This time, Doueihi took the kicking duties, but shanked the footy away to the left of the posts, while the Tigers nearly got their next try in the most spectacular and unusual manner. The play started with a bold move from Patrick Herbert, who shot a wide ball out to RTS at the ten metre line on play one – and from RTS in turn, who tried to offload to George Jenning rather than taking the tackle then and there.

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Instead of Jennings, Luke Garner came up with it, but knocked on in the process, although this was still a worrying sequence for the Warriors, whose first really flamboyant passage of play had nearly gone dangerously astray. Still, they got their first penalty on the next tackle for crowding from Luciano Leilua, and then a set restart, finally turning the rhythm around completely when Karl Lawton scooped up the footy out of dummy half and simply sped away from Alex Twal, crashing through a last-ditch effort from Grant and Doueihi right on the line to slam down the first New Zealand try. Despite spending most of the game so far in their own half, the Warriors were only two points behind when Kodi Nikorima booted through the first conversion, and both teams now went set-for-set as the visitors started to even out the possession tally, getting their next burst of field position when Benji was pinged for a strip on Hiku. Given the Tigers’ record of close losses in 2020, it made sense that Nikorima kicked for goal to level the score – a stark reminder that Mbye and Doueihi are only booting it through at 67% and 64% respectively this season.

New Zealand got a restart on the restart, and accelerated through a pair of superb offloads, and then a sublime linebreak on the fourth from Hetherington, who bounced off a couple of defenders to arrive ten metres out from the line. The footy passed through every Warrior before Hiku lost it on the left edge, but not without an offside penalty from Benji, marking the biggest accumulation of field position for either team so far. No surprise, then, that the Warriors chose to tap and go, as RTS channeled Doueihi with a soaring pass to Herbert out on the right wing. It took a full pack of Tigers defenders to hold him up – the same pack, more or less, who held up Hetherington in the same spot a play later, before Nikorima opted for a harbour bridge ball to Jennings on the other side of the park that was similarly contained. Finally, Nikorima kicked towards the posts, where Doueihi saved the day with the best take under the high ball all night, as the Tigers got out of their own end as quickly as possible, desperate to put this plosive period of attack behind them. Accordingly, Walters ended with an enormous kick, but Jennings responded with some deft footwork to almost get around Garner, although the Tigers managed to quash some of New Zealand’s momentum up the middle, preventing a second linebreak from Hetherington on the fourth.

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Once again, Doueihi capped off the defence, sliding along the turf to clean up another kick from Green, although the Warriors amped up their defence proportionately, forcing Benji to kick from within his own forty. It felt like one team or another had to score off this sudden shift in pace, but with Tommy Talau collecting Green’s next kick, the game looked set to settle back into the same set-for-set rhythm that had preceded New Zealand’s second try. It was a real surprise, then, when a well-placed kick from Benji – remaining just within the field of play – ushered in a horror period for the Warriors, with Adam Blair conceding two consecutive penalties, and Green a third, allowing the Tigers to ramp up the field position until the Warriors were too exhausted to prevent Sam McIntyre scoring on the cusp of half time. Benji provided the try assist, shooting out a rapid pass to the left that McIntyre mirrored with a dummy to the wing, only to slam past Hetherington and break through Lachlan Burr to slam down the third Tigers try of the night. Third time was the charm as Benji took and scored the conversion, although the Warriors got a boon when Lawton was cleared to return to the park two seconds back from the break, following a head knock in the first half that had seen him leave the field shortly after his superb four-pointer.

The Warriors were unlucky not to score off a dropout after returning from the break, but they put down points immediately after, thanks to a Hiku pass that skimmed off the hand of Chris Lawrence, getting them the scrum feed ten metres out from the posts. In a nice bit of symmetry, this try was just as simple and direct as McIntyre’s effort, as Nikorima double pumped and sent the footy across to Eliesa Katoa for an offload out to Hiku, who dodged around two defenders and travelled twenty metres before slamming the Steeden down in the left wing. This ushered in the longest period without points, as both teams struggled to break the 14-14 deadlock, and the Warriors gradually accumulated their best field position since the first stanza, thanks to a pair of dropout and an escorts penalty from Mbye. For a moment, it looked like this period might end pretty uneventfully after a loose carry from Hetherington, but Nikorima steadied the ship with a double pump that set up Katoa to offload out to Hiku.

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From there, Hiku dodged around the defence to dash twenty metres to the left corner, where he slammed over for what was initially called no try, but sent upstairs to the Bunker to see whether he had got a foot to the sideline. In slow motion, you could see that Hiku’s boot had remained just shy of the chalk as his left leg crumpled under him, and remained there as Doueihi’s legs tumbled over him, getting the Warriors ahead for the first time all night as Nikorima put the Tigers’ kicking game to shame with a beautiful sideline conversion. Wests took another hit a minute later, when Green targeted Talau, who had been safe beneath the high ball all night, but knocked it back here to Pompey, who caught it on the full and shot it inside for Tohu Harris to score. Once again Nikorima added a brilliant conversion, before both teams burned their Captain’s Challenge – the Tigers to contest a Chris Lawrence strip, and the Warriors to contest a clumsy play-the-ball from Jazz Tevaga. For a moment, it looked like these two failed Challenges might level the game again, but the Warriors got the upper hand immediately when Brooks dropped the footy under moderate contact from Wayde Egan and Katoa, who got the next set rolling with a ballsy offload to Hiku, before Lawrence made the clutch play of the night to stay in field after almost fumbling a kick from Green.

Nevertheless, Talau got some closure at the back of a compressed left sweep – a pair of superb wide balls from Grant and Benji that got him on the outside of Herbert, where he slammed down his fifth try of 2020. Mbye made one of the best kicks of the season to make it a six point game with six on the clock, but the Warriors survived the final passage of play, getting their last chance when Lawrence collected a wide pass from Brooks, only to offload in front of Nofolauma and over the sideline, letting a dangerous tackle penalty from Hiku go wasted. In classic Tigers fashion, then, they started strong, and trickled away in the dying minutes of the game, allowing the Warriors to steal the competition points and put their bid for the finals in real jeopardy as they prepare to take on the Knights, Roosters and Panthers over the next month, along with the Bulldogs in two weeks time, all the while coping with the pain of going from a possible seventh on the ladder to an underwhelming tenth. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a truly rousing game for New Zealand, especially given the loss of some of their most cherished players over the last week, so they’ll be looking to build on this win to consolidate Hetherington, Jennings and Alvaro as interim Warriors before they take on the Sea Eagles for the same Friday night berth in Round 13.

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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