ROUND 1: Canberra Raiders v. Wests Tigers (GIO Stadium, 14/3/21, 30-12)

It was a decade since the Tigers played finals footy when they rocked up to front the Raiders at GIO on Sunday afternoon, although they were fielding several new players as part of the 2021 reshuffle – most notably James Tamou at captain, Dane Laurie at fullback, and Joe Ofahengaue in the forward pack. Both teams had shifted their halfbacks to kicking duties, and both teams were neck and neck until the second stanza, when the Raiders stormed ahead for a 30-12 win off some terrific set pieces.

Moses Mbye was at five-eighth, where he appeared to have completely overcome his hamstring issues, and Joey Leilua was paired with James Roberts in the centres, after missing the trial win over Manly with a minor foot issue. Asu Kepaoa was replacing Tommy Talau on the wing, and on the other side of the Steeden, the two Coreys were out after being suspended for drink driving, while Sebastian Kris had beaten Matthew Timoko to replaced Jarrod Croker, who was playing it safe after his shoulder injury.

James Tamou took the first carry, and Joe Ofahengaue the fourth, before Luke Brooks made his first bomb of the season, forcing Jordan Rapana to get right down on the ground to collect it within the Canberra ten. Jack Wighton kicked in the Raiders’ forty, and Daine Laurie collected it for his first run at fullback, clearing space for Joey Leilua to make the first post-contact metres, and then gain the first penalty of the match when Josh Hodgson was tempted into holding him down.

The Tigers now had the first field position, as Tamou took them inside the ten on the second carry, and Laurie shifted a cut-out pass to the left edge that had try assist written all over it, only for Kepaoa to fumble it right on the sideline. Dunamis Lui lost some headway with a loose pass that George Williams only just cleaned up before Brooks got there, and Laurie settled the Tigers with another strong kick reception. Joffa followed Joey with metres after contact, and the Leiluas stepped into the spotlight.

First, Luciano fended off Williams and popped it out to Joey, and then Joey offloaded back to him, as a sea of Raiders surged in to defend their line. Hudson Young was the last to arrive, swinging an arm into the face of Leilua, who played the fifth tackle with no penalty, before Brooks kicked straight into the arms of Lui. You couldn’t imagine a worse last-tackle option, or a more disappointing opening statement from Roberts, who lost the footy, after a promising run, a set later.

Still, the Tigers were holding their own here, sitting at about 62% of possession, meaning the Raiders had to come up with a consolidation set to really take advantage of their greater depth. Ironically, their first burst came off one of the least experienced players on the park, as Kris broke through the line twice – first midway up the field, and then right on the line, where he collected a late offload from Elliott Whitehead, who initially seemed to roll the footy away from Laurie at the very last minute.

Instead, the replay showed that Whitehead had lost the Steeden into Laurie, who notched up his first big defensive play at Wests Tigers fullback. That couldn’t take away from Kris’ first linebreak, though, which had split the difference between Tamou and Garner in a pretty worrying way – David against two Goliaths – meaning the visitors had to really match the Raiders’ energy if they were going to make the most of this letoff. Instead, Brooks came up with his second bad kick, booting it out on the full.

Brooks wasn’t even under that much pressure, raising big questions about his control from the halves, especially given the necessity for him to step up in leadership in this critical year for the club. Worse, the Raiders capitalised immediately, recapitulating Kris’ speed as Joseph Tapine burrowed into the defence, Wighton attempted a linebreak, Williams swerved around in front of the posts, Brooks conceded an offside penalty, and Joey Leilua made a ruck error for the first six again of the game.

Four Tigers had to surge in to hold up Lui over the line, and Williams floated a wide ball out to Simonsson, but the pack defence was strong here too. The first Canberra try felt imminent, and yet the Tigers stepped up in defence, from Luciano slamming in to hold up Hodgson on the right edge, to Roberts spearheading a massive effort to hold up Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad on the other side of the park when Wighton kicked on the second. Finally, amazingly, Lui simply lost the ball midway through the tackle count.

This was the first time when Canberra had really come apart, and Hodgson seemed flustered, making a dangerous tackle on Joffa a play later, before a second error from Kepaoa prevented the Tigers building too much on this shift in momentum. Mbye followed in his footsteps, and infringed the ruck, and the Raiders had another shot at close range. Ryan James came onto the park, Alex Twal was pinged for holding down right in front of the crossbar, and Canberra opted to take on the Tigers’ line.

As it turned out, this was the wrong decision, since Whitehead lost the footy immediately, although there was no question the Raiders had the upper hand here, since they’d managed to survive and thrive for a full two minutes with Simonsson on the sideline, instead of opting for an interchange, while the Tiges hadn’t made a good kick in a while. Mbye compensated at the end of the next set, culminating a hundred-metre progression with a deft grubber that Rapana was forced to clean up in goal.

Full credit to Roberts, too, for the moster tackle that prevented Jordan getting back over the sideline, and then again for a searching run up the right side on the third. Tamou continued his momentum, twisting and spinning through a couple of Tigers, before Mbye cancelled out his dropout with a mistimed harbour bridge ball that would have guaranteed David Nofoaluma a try if it had been angled right. Rapana also missed it, avoiding a knock-on, and getting some closure after conceding the dropout.

Meanwhile, Tamou was down after a head clash in backplay at the worst possible time – as Curtis Scott busted past Brooks and kicked for himself down the right sideline. Once again, Laurie proved himself staunch in defence, cleaning up the play and forcing Scott into touch before he could do anything with the footy – and he needed to be, since Tamou now came from the field, putting even more pressure on the fullback jersey.

Tamou had copped Joey’s elbow in the head – and Joey was lucky he hadn’t clipped a Canberra player instead, since he probably would have been penalised if he had. Brooks came up with a decent chip at the end of the next set, and while Simonsson came up with the perfect catch, he botched the pass, giving the Tiges their first full set right on the Canberra sideline. They shifted right early, where Roberts tried in vain to get away from Wighton, and then headed back left, where Young conceded six again.

This was a rhythm-shifting set if the Tigers could capitalise – and they did, immediately, when their spine synced for the first time all afternoon. Brooks had his first great play of the year, receiving the footy from Jacob Liddle, and running it at short-range, offloading out of a Papalii tackle for his hooker to dance past a legs tackle from James and just avoid a double movement as he smashed over the line. Brooksy did just as well with his first NRL conversion, slotting through two to make it a six point lead.

Laurie had another terrific defensive moment at the end of the next Canberra set, when Nofoaluma leaped up to collect the high ball but instead ricocheted it back to Kris, who looked a chance on the left edge before Laurie slammed in to bump him over the sideline. Nofa was still pinged for the knock-on, though, as the Raiders got the first scrum feed from close range, and delivered a series of plosive plays, hovering around the posts before shifting left on the last, where Kris came up with a forward pass.

This was starting to feel like the Tigers of the early Cleary era – the Tigers who were able to win purely through defence, rarely putting down big win margins, but perfecting a certain kind of football attrition. Nofa got them rolling with ten post-contact metres to start the next set, and Kepaoa weathered the biggest shot so far from Sutton, but it all fizzled when Mbye attempted a 40/20, and instead sent the Steeden flush down the middle of field, giving the Raiders another bout of position.

Joey Leilua now had a poor patch, receiving a penalty for an early hit and then making a mistake a minute later, as the Raiders accelerated to their thirtieth tackle within the Tigers’ twenty without a point to show for all this position – until the very end of this set, when Williams’ kick ricocheted off Garner, who reached out a boot to stop it but instead sent it into the in goal area, where Whitehead, Nofoaluma and Kris all stayed back from the bounce, leaving it open for Rapana to scoot in and ground it for a try.

Finally, the Raiders had points on the board, levelling the scoreline when Williams sent a stunning fade through the posts. They didn’t do much with the restart, though, while the Tigers got Tamou back a minute before the break. Scott was raring to break through the line midway through the last Raiders set, and they were in good position for a two-point field goal, but neither kicker seemed to have it in mind, and the siren rang out as Nofaluma was running the footy into the defence on play three.

Sutton had a monster run to get the second stanza going, and Laurie was safe under Wighton’s first kick, so it was a pity that Garner pulled back Wighton on his way to join the chase. It was a brain fade from the big second-rower, and the Tigers paid the price immediately, as James received the footy from Williams at the ten and muscled his way through three defenders to get to ground, and make contact with the tip of the Steeden. Williams converted in front, and just like that the Raiders were six ahead.

This was a pretty emotional moment for James after a rough two years, and his sense of catharsis and ebullience seemed to galvanise the Raiders as well. Rapana got a foot on the sideline to collect the kickoff, and Canberra had an augmented restart, taking their first play at the Wests Tigers’ twenty, as Garner made up for his error with a huge driving tackle to prevent Hodgson crossing over on the left edge a moment later.

The Raiders now showcased their ability to plough hard and fast at the line, and Sutton came close to a try on the last, ricocheting off a pack effort beneath the posts, but unable to quite get the footy down, thanks to a last-ditch play from Thomas Mikaele. Yet the Tigers didn’t get much breathing-space here, since Roberts coughed up a tricky offload from Joey Leilua a tackle later. Wighton kicked on the third, and once again Laurie was in place, flicking it dead a miliesecond before Whitehead could put it down.

Still, the Raiders had more than reversed the field position disparity of the first part of the game, now taking their third successive set as the visiting forwards started to show signs of fatigue. The Tigers needed an error here, or a penalty against the run of play, but instead Laurie made his first mistake, racking the Steeden out of Wighton’s grasp just before it came loose naturally. You could question whether Laurie even played a part, since it looked like Wighton had knocked it out himself with his other hand.

Nevertheless, the Tigers refrained from a Captain’s Challenge, and Williams took the penalty kick from right in front, getting his men the first winning margin that was bigger than a converted try. Finally, after a turbulent ten minutes, the Tigers got their mistake, and some field position, off a loose carry from Hudson Young. They couldn’t make much headway through the ruck, though, especially once Roberts offloaedd on the ground to Williams, who burned seventy metres up the right edge to hit the chalk.

Laurie was ropeable in backplay, clamining Sutton had got a hand to him before he could clean up the footy, and Gerard Sutton sent it upstairs, where the footage clearly showed that the Canberra no. 15 had made enough contact for the Canberra try to turn into a Tigers penalty. This was the biggest shift in momentum all night – especially coming after the enormous amount of Canberra field position since the break – so the Tigers needed to do something special here to get themselves back in the game.

Laurie, Brooks and Joey Leilua were all contained on the left edge, but Joey and then Brooksy opened up the set with a daring pair of offloads – the first on the left, the second in front of the posts, right on the ground – before Mbye was cleaned up on the last. Canberra had survived, got a set restart a moment later, and then executed the simplest and most elegant try of the night – a Williams chip to the right corner that Simonsson caught on the full and flick offloaded on the ground for Young to score.

Williams made it four from four, and the Raiders rocketed ahead to a fourteen-point lead. Brooksy nearly kicked the next one dead, but Williams didn’t manage to take advantage of it. Still, the Raiders were really rolling now, despite a good collect from Laurie, bunching the Tigers in their own half, and forcing Brooks to make his next kick at the halfway line. By this point Iosia Soliola and Sutton had 101 run metres, CNK 91, Young 86, and Laurie 84, as James went to the bench after a great opening stint.

Brooks delivered his best bomb on the next set, and CNK lost it on the ground, forcing a knock-on from Rapana, and a fresh chance for the Tigers in the Raiders’ twenty as the final quarter of the match arrived. Yet Mbye faltered on the very first carry, and while Roberts tried to compensate with a strong run up the middle on the second, the set never quite got into first gear. Alex Twal and Joey Leilua just trod water on the left, so it was a bit of surprise when Rapana lost a Mbye grubber in goal on the last.

Wighton went long with the dropout, and Russell Packer made his first big statement on the first carry, only for Liddle to shoot a forward pass out to Brooks on tackle two. Brooksy recovered quickly, executing a one-on-one strip on Hodgson before his men got two successive restarts, off ruck errors from Hodgson and Tapine. Hodgson got his own back, though, with a big hit on his opposing hooker, who lost the ball clean in front of the posts, as Joey Leilua stormed in to demand a Captain’s Challenge.

It was a good call from Joey, since the replay showed that Hodgson had played the arm not the ball, and that the footy had gone backwards, where Liddle had cleaned it up. Laurie came up with a deft grubber on the left edge, and the Leilua brothers converged on CNK, who only got into position at the last minute to make this a dropout instead of a try. Talau nearly broke through a Wighton tackle on play two, and Joffa turned the defence inside out on the fifth, but Laurie was cleaned up pretty clinically on the last.

By this stage, all the Raiders needed to bring home the win was to keep defending their line. Conversely, with twelve minutes on the clock, the Tigers just had a shot at levelling the score, or even winning, if they could just breach the Canberra defence. For a moment, it looked like the Tigers had made a start, as they shaped into their best left play of the night – a series of passes from Brooks, Laurie and Joey Leilua that cleared up space for Kepaoa to make fifteen metres up the side, where he offloaded in field.

The footy fell at the feet of Joey Leilua, and despite three other Tigers being there in support, Scott somehow managed to scoop it up and shift it out to CNK, who effectively absorbed Kepaoa’s energy into an even more spectacular run along the same sideline. This was the toughest carry of the night – you could see the strain on Charnze’s face – as the Canberra fullback kept ahead of Twal until he was five out from the line, by which stage he had enough speed behind him to stay in touch as he leapt over to score.

This was also the most expansive and epic putdown of the night – appropriate for a clear match-winner – as CNK soared into open space, Steeden-first, like a superhero, to get the footy down. Yet the Tigers bounced back pretty quickly, thanks to a sublime flick offload from Roberts that put Nofoaluma into space on the right edge, where he crossed over untouched. Brooks teed up his first sideline conversion, and seemed to have shanked it left, until the footy faded back at the very last minute to make it six.

There were six minutes left on the clock, and the Tigers were two converted tries behind, so there was a small chance they could win here if they could consolidate immediately. Seeing CNK absorb Kepaoa’s run had been a big momentum-killer, so Roberts’ assist had been critical in getting them back in the game – as was the outcome of their second Captain’s Challenge, a moment later, which they sent upstairs to contest a supposed knock-on from Luciano Leilua, in desperate search of a strip.

With the on-field ruling ratified, the Raiders had it in the bag, finding a perfect fusion of speed and strength in their last and most spectacular try. It started with a barnstorming run from Tapine, who muscled his way to the left wing, bumping off Liddle, Garner, Liddle again, then Garner again, coming to ground but busting through the tackle before he found Rapana, who responded to this superhuman effort in just the right way – with a mad dash and clutch putdown right in the corner.  

The Raiders headed to the sheds 30-12 – a sterling if somewhat predictable result, despite their slow start, and a pretty disappointing finish for a Wests Tigers outfit that had their fair share of chances. Both teams have a full week before they play again next Sunday, although the Tigers have a considerably harder task on their hands, since they’re going to have to take on a Roosters outfit flushed with Teddy’s sublime stint against Manly on Saturday, back at the venue where he used to be fullback.

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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