It was the last Wests Tigers game for Benji Marshall, and the last game ever for Chris Lawrence, when these two club veterans ran out against the Eels at Bankwest on Saturday night. The Tiges couldn’t make the finals at this stage so they were playing for pride, and hoping for an upset win to complement Penrith’s spectacular field goal victory over the Roosters a couple of minutes before.
Both teams rolled up and down the park for the first couple of sets, playing fairly relaxed footy, before Adam Doueihi got out of a Junior Paulo tackle, nearly broke through the line, and got his men the first restart of the night, only for Harry Grant to shoot out a forward pass two plays later.
The Eels accelerated immediately, as Mitch Moses caught a superb Paulo offload at speed before offloading himself to Nathan Brown – foreshadowing a terrific night of second phase play for the blue and gold – who would have scored if not for a Lawrence trysaver. Clint Gutherson’s grubber went from a dropout to restart when Tommy Talau was called offside, before Gutho made a split-second catch-and-pass for Blake Ferguson to dance over a Grant ankle tap to score the first try out on the wing.
Moses sailed the Steeden in front of the posts, keeping it to four, but this was still a pretty assured start from the Eels, who were unlucky not to get a restart midway through the restart. A second Paulo offload opened up space for Gutho to grubber to the left edge (this time from long-range) where Maika Sivo scooped up the footy in his left hand and danced along the sideline, tempting Doueihi into a shoulder charge to stop him in his tracks.
The Tigers wasted their Captain’s Challenge appealing the charge, and Doueihi was put on report even though had put a foot on the sideline by the time he made contact. This should have been consolidation time for Parra, and they did make a good short-range effort – Kane Evans right on the line – and a good long-range effort – Brad Takairangi chasing down a slightly overlong kick from Moses – but neither came to fruition.
Instead, the hosts were the next to score, channeling the frustration of Doueihi’s report into two linebreaks – the first from Luke Garner, who bumped off three defenders before coming to ground on the penultimate play; the second from Talau, who scored off a sublime wide ball from Benji that sailed over three players to set up David Nofoaluma to dodge a couple of metres back in field for the assist.
It was also a great putdown from Talau, who used Paulo’s tackle to cantilever his arm out and get the footy to ground just before being bundled into touch, although the score remained four all when Doueihi also missed the sideline conversion. Paulo followed with a forward pass next time the visitors had ball in hand, but the possession went Parra’s way when Luciano Leilua was served an offside penalty.
Despite a strong tackle from Talau on Will Smith, this initially looked like the costliest penalty of the game so far, as Andrew Davey ended the set by slicing through a low tackle from Benji, bumping off Doueihi and Grant right on the line, and burrowing down through Nofoaluma for what would have been a terrific first NRL try if Brad Takairangi hadn’t been pinged for a fairly marginal obstruction of Nofa (if anything, Grant had been more impeded slightly earlier in the play).
This was pretty soft defence from the Tigers so it wasn’t as much of a momentum-builder as it might have been. Still, Benji tried to build on it with another wide ball on the next set, this time to Asu Kepaoa, but Gutho regathered with his best take of the night under Luke Brooks’ next bomb, reaching up to collect a ball that seemed destined for Doueihi. That said, Kepaoa responded well at the end of Moses’ next kick, calmly reaching a boot over the sideline to piggy-back his men halfway up the park.
They got a restart a play later, and Talau followed with a daring run up the middle, shifting the Steeden across to Nofoaluma, who sent it out to Brooks on the left. The Tiges had good rhythm, especially with Doueihi dancing back across the face of the ruck, but the Eels cleaned up the last couple of plays. Worse, Benji was taken off the park, and replaced with Michael Chee Kam, after copping a high hit from Smith that saw him crumple back beneath Davey.
Smith was put on report for the tackle but it was small consolation for the Tigers potentially losing Benji for his last ever game, so it was no surprise that they deflated over the next few minutes, especially as Zane Musgrove stuffed up the play-the-ball when play finally resumed, leaving space for Parra to put down their second try. As the Eels packed the scrum, Doueihi was in the halves, Nofoaluma had shifted to fullback, Talau was on the right wing, and Chee Kam was keen to work hard in the centres.
The Eels scored on this very next bout of possession, which started with a beautiful pair of offloads – on the ground from Matterson to Moses, and then a standing offload from Evans to Reed Mahoney. Smith ended with a chip at speed that Talau was forced to ground in goal with Sivo storming up behind him, and while Brooks went long with the dropout, it gave Nathan Brown space for an absolutely barnstorming run into the Wests Tigers defence.
Paulo dug deep into the line and offloaded on play two to Matterson, who came down just short of the chalk, but tired out the Tigers forwards enough for Moses to commence another rapid left sweep that ended with yet another superb offload – this time an assist from Davey, who lobbed it out for Sivo to cross over on the wing and cruise around behind the posts to guarantee Moses the first conversion of the night.
This had been a sublime period of second phase play for the Eels – and Evans got another one out to Mahoney on the restart, making it ten offloads in the first 33 minutes. For a moment it looked like Kepaoa was going to have to bring Mahoney’s next kick back from the corner, but he showed strong judgement and waited for it to bounce over the sideline, getting his men the seven tackles they needed for their next try.
Admittedly they didn’t score on this set, but they still accelerated pretty rapidly, from a hard run from Luciano Leilua, to some dazzling Nofoaluma footwork, to a pair of offloads that gave Parra a run for their money – first from Grant to Elijah Taylor, and then from Taylor to Brooks, who completed with his best low kick of the night, forcing Fergo to chase down Nofoaluma and pop the footy into touch to grant the Tigers their first dropout.
Parra held them up on the first four plays but Leilua made good on the last, drawing on the strength of his previous tackle to break through on the left wing. Burrowing his head into Moses, Fergo and Waqa Blake, he maintained possession with his right hand the whole time to ground the footy when the maelstrom of legs and torsos had subsided – and seemed as surprised as anyone else that he’d managed this superb second row play right where a winger should have scored.
Doueihi missed his second conversion, keeping it a two point game, and the Eels accelerated over the next ten minutes, thanks in part to a Kepaoa take that falconed off Luciano Leilua. They came close to scoring five minutes out, thanks to Moses’ best bomb – a soaring, floating ball that Kepaoa got to first, only for the footy to sail straight through his arms and into Waqa Blake’s grasp, but not without making contact with Kepaoa’s leg first.
Meanwhile, news came back from the sheds that Benji had passed his HIA but would remain off the field with an MCL – the worst possible news for Tigers fans, especially since Parra now condensed their first half playbook into a series of excellent moves that culminated with a try just before the break. It all came off a Gutherson kick that trapped Nofa in goal, and while Gutho was on the outside shoulder of Chee Kam, and could have found space for Sivo in the wing, he made up for it on the following set.
This was probably the best attacking sequence for the Eels, who got six again after a touch from Talau. Matterson dragged three defenders into the right wing off a short ball from Moses, and the halves shifted the play left, where Chee Kam held up Sivo. Matto offloaded a play later for Moses to shift direction again, before Gutho got the kick right – a short ball that Takairangi kneeled to collect in both hands, crossing over untouched at the last second after brushing past a trio of Tigers defenders.
The footage of Benji in the sheds was pretty heartbreaking but the Tigers gave him some pride when they returning from the break, building off a crowding penalty from Oregon Kaufusi, a Ferguson error and a Kaufusi ruck infringement to settle into their strongest sequence in weeks. Doueihi got them rolling with a wide ball out to Kepaoa, who just managed to stay in the field of play to get the fourth tackle underway.
When Brooks runs the ball, magic often follows, and he put in one of his toughest runs of the year a tackle later, taking his cues from Luciano Leilua on the left edge to drag three or four defenders into the left post. Grant shaped for another left sweep but sent it right at the last minute, where Doueihi mirrored his wide ball to Kepaoa with a cut-out pass to the right, opening up space for Talau to twist through Sivo, reach out his right hand, and slam down a double right in the corner.
This was a big comeback after the break, and yet for a moment it seemed like the Tigers might wilt on the restart, with Chee Kam searching and failing to find an offload, and Doueihi booting through a pretty wobbly kick on the last. Nevertheless, they resumed their field position immediately, thanks to a Matt Eisenhuth strip on Waqa Blake, and then six again on the second tackle off a Davey ruck error, getting them back in prime position to continue this burst of adrenalin.
Leilua took the same run on the left he’d made during the last tryscoring sequence, and Doueihi also looked set to repeat history with a wide ball out to the right wing. The pass was more than manageable, but Talau denied himself a hat trick by flipping the footy high in the air and over the line, in the biggest letoff for either team so far. To their credit, though, the Tigers prevented this being a turning-point for the Eels, digging deep to achieve an even greater synergy next time they had ball in hand.
Meanwhile, Smith got the Eels rolling on the next set with an offload out the back to Mahoney, and Moses slotted it over the sideline to give his men some breathing-space after spending ninety-percent of the second half in defence. It worked to prevent the Tigers from executing any short-range options, only to galvanise Doueihi into his best kick of the night – a damaging, spiralling torpedo that utterly defied Fergo, who reached out his hands and fell over the footy right on the Wests Tigers line.
This felt more like a wild pass than a kick, which made Kepaoa’s clinical response even more impressive – scooping it up, and dashing past Ferguson to plant down another four points. The scoreline remained level after Douiehi missed another conversion, despite spending some time trying to find the sweet spot from the sideline, making you wonder whether Lawrence might be a contender to kick his first goal in ten years in his last ever NRL game.
The Tiges didn’t have time to focus on Benji’s absence from kicking duties, though, since they used the restart to sync into the silkest and most sinuous passage of play all night – a no-look pass from Taylor to Brooks, an elastic ball from Brooks to Lawrence, and the icing on the cake from Rowdy, who drew in Ferguson and shot it out to Kepaoa at the last minute to set up the second part of this sublime tryscoring sequence.
Kepaoa swerved up the sideline for about ten metres and then headed back in field, drawing in Gutho just as Lawrence had drawn in Fergo, and then popping it across to Brooks, who seemed to channel his earlier run at the uprights to accelerate over the line here. Finally Doueihi got his conversion, bumping the Eels out of the top four, and giving Canberra fans a tantalizing glimpse of a week off during finals.
If the Tiges could score again here they might have wrestled control of the match – they’d certainly dominated restarts – so it was exhilarating when Kepaoa made another break up the left edge. This time, however, he was unable to link up with Nofloaluma, while Doueihi’s kick was a bit uninspired, even if it did get him two more points after undue pressure from Davey set up the first and only penalty goal.
Yet these would be the last points of the night for the Tigers, as Parra now mounted a last-quarter comeback that consisted of two great short-range tries in a second half when they’d initially struggled to get close to the chalk. The first came off a near-try, when Kepaoa fumbled a Moses bomb and Blake popped it across to Fergo only for Brooksy to come in with a gutsy low tackle to tap the Parramatta no. 5 over the sideline.
A try here would have been perfect revenge for Kepaoa’s four points off Fergo’s fumble twenty minutes before, but the Eels didn’t have to wait long for the chocolates, as Moses, Evans, Brown and Paulo tired out the Tigers forwards with a series of big runs at the line. Finally, Paulo took advantage of this fleeting short-range momentum with an offload out of two defenders that set up Mahoney to dive through three defenders and score beneath the crossbar.
Seven minutes later, Smith stepped up again for one of the most siginficiant tries in Parra’s season, despite only playing in his third game of the year. Receiving the Steeden from Mahoney, he twisted around Twal to get the ball down on the left, before Moses slotted through the conversion to make it a four point lead – and the first time in 112 years of Australian rugby league that a side has conceded 26 points or more for ten weeks straight.
The Tigers almost came back three minutes out from the end, when Brooks sent Garner through the line for a rapid acceleration that had all the marks of their tries after the break. Yet Gutho downed him with the best ankle tap of the night, and the Eels shot into third space after glimpsing fifth, meaning they’ll be pumped to take on the Storm for the first week of finals footy, while the Tigers will be looking to do some soul-searching when they prepare for a 2021 season without Benji or Rowdy.