Michael Maguire headed into the first game of Magic Round with one of the most questionable and provocative coaching decisions of the 2021 season – to remove Adam Doueihi, arguably the Tigers’ best player of the year, from the halves, relegate him to the centres, and replace him with Moses Mbye, arguably one of the Tigers’ poorest performers. Little could anyone have guessed that this would produce the Tigers’ third win, their second win over Newcastle, and their best game of the year.
Part of that vision came from the flexibility of Doueihi’s new role – the way he brought a five-eighth sensibility to the centres to effectively produce an augmented spine. Yet this willingness to trade in Doueihi for Mbye was also a tacit message to Luke Brooks, who has always formed a special hope for Tigers fans. As the years go by, the fantasy that he will live up to the stature of the other two members of the Big Three, now long gone to Parra and the Roosters, has started to wane or else feel more desperate.
Shifting Mbye to the halves was thus a challenge to Brooks – and he sure delivered, serving up his best running game of the year (over 175 metres) and drawing deep on the vision of his legendary debut to show just how much he can do in leadership when he’s genuinely galvanised. With Tommy Talau back after being suspended for his shoulder charge in Round 8, and Tex Hoy replacing Kalyn Ponga, the stage was set for a Tigers landslide in the first quarter, and a terrific night in defence for the next hour.
Alex Twal took the first hit-up as the smoke was clearing from the stadium, and James Tamou the second, momentarily making it seem like we were watching footy in pea-soup fog. Starford To’a collected Luke Brooks’ bomb for the first Newcastle run of the night, and nearly broke through the line then and there, but the Tigers survived the set, despite a brief bobble from Tommy Talau under their first high ball of the evening.
Hoy was safe for his first catch in the fullback jersey, and so was Daine Laurie, who came up with a heroic leap to take Kurt Mann’s first bomb in both hands. Mbye proved his mettle in the halves a moment later, setting up Brooks for his first try of the season by collecting a one-handed offload from David Nofoaluma and popping it across to Talau to burst up the middle of the park. As he reached the halfway line, Talau shifted it across to Brooks, who had miles of space to put it down directly behind the posts.
As a result, Doueihi easily added the conversion, and the Tigers were rolling with the first penalty of the game early in the restart, off a grapple from Lachlan Fitzgibbon. Twal laid the platform with some decent post-contact metres, and then took another carry on the third tackle, offloading for Tamou before Mbye chipped to the left on the last. Like Laurie, Joey Leilua got both hands to the ball in the air, but he was unable to quite reel it in, and so the Knights got possession again with only a six point deficit.
They got the first restart early in the set, but didn’t complete a single tackle after Mann dropped the footy cold on play one. The Tigers effectively had an augmented restart now, especially since they got their own call of six again on the first carry. Mbye was all over the play, and almost followed in Brooksy’s footsteps after collecting an offload from Leilua on the right side of the park, but it was Tamou who came away with the chocolates, thanks to a clutch Doueihi grubber from the right side of the park.
If Doueihi hadn’t been in the centres he wouldn’t have been in position to make this halfback-like play, which took the Newcastle defence entirely by surprise. Add to that the challenging bounce of the ball, and Hoy and Mann converged, collided and ricocheted away from it, leaving it open for Tamou to scoot in, pick it up, and place down one of the softest tries of his career. Once again, Doueihi lined up the tee in front, and once again he added the extras, putting the Tigers a point per minute.
Brooks kicked for field position, before the last, at the end of the restart, trapping the Knights in their own end, thanks in part to one of the best Wests Tigers chases so far. Brooks was also on fire for the next Tigers’ set, breaking up through the middle, and glimpsing another long-range try before the last line of Newcastle defence ran into him. Again, he delivered at the end of the set, with a beautiful chip to the right edge that Doueihi leaped up to tap back to Mbye, who in turn shot it straight out to Nofa.
The next sequence was classic Nofoaluma, as the cult winger got on the outside and scored a try so clutchy that even he was unsure of the putdown before it was ratified as a try both onfield and upstairs. In slow motion, you could see how dextrously Nofa had got the footy down with his left arm just before his right knee tumbled into touch. This was the first time that Doueihi hadn’t set it up from right in front, but he was just as good from the edge, booting out one of the straightest sideline kicks of his career.
The Tigers now had 11/11 completed sets, and the Knights had barely enjoyed any football, with no tackles in the opposition twenty over the first quarter. They needed a penalty for field position, and they got it a set later, when a run up the middle from Joe Ofahengaue was rudely ruptured by a Jacob Liddle obstruction. Even better, they scored on their very first foray into Wests Tigers territory, off the back of a superb left sweep that ended with a pair of terrific passes from Phoenix Crossland on the wing.
The second was the assist – a silky cut-out effort that opened up space for a one-handed Hymel Hunt putdown. Hoy’s conversion veered too far left from the moment it departed the tee, meaning the Tigers were still at 18-4, but this was a pretty worrying sequence for the visitors, who’d failed at their first bout of goal line defence. Tyson Frizell got his men rolling with a huge charge to commence the restart, but the Tigers dominated the ruck, forcing a knock-on to get their own back for the shock of the try.
They’d let the Knights through pretty quickly, but they recovered just as quickly here, bouncing back with a left sweep of their own, to nearly produce their first try on the left edge. Laurie had been safe under the high ball but hadn’t been much of a playmaker, so it was good to see him assist Joey Leilua with what was almost the toughest four-pointer of the night so far. Barging into To’a and Tuala, Joey tucked the footy under his right arm, but lost it out behind his elbow at the very last second.
This was a huge turnaround for the Knights, who’d not only dodged a try, but now had a twenty-metre restart after a knock-on in goal. Again, though, they didn’t get a chance to make good on this reversal, since Liddle stripped the Steeden on play one, the Tigers got a set restart a play later, off a ruck error from Jayden Brailey, and then another restart, off a ruck error from Hunt. Twal had a shot at his first try up the right edge, and while he didn’t get to the line, he tempted a professional foul and sin bin for Hoy.
The Knights were now without either their first or second choice fullbacks, while the Tigers had another fresh set on the Newcastle line. They only needed two tackles, though, to elasticise their previous right side raid into an even elegant tryscoring play. Brooks, Mbye and Laurie moved it to the wing, where Doueihi took it at the ten and simply burst past Hunt and Best, accelerating over the try line like the defence didn’t even exist, despite missing his first kick of the night to keep it a 22-4 advantage.
Watching this sequence was like witnessing Brooks, Moses and Doueihi himself insist that Doueihi could indeed thrives in the centres – or an augmented spine that consisted of fullback, halves and an additional half in the centres. To’a stopped a strong run from Leilua on the restart, but it turned into a penalty, while Starford was probably lucky not to be sent to the bin. Again, Brooks glimpsed open space, but the play came apart when Liddle ricocheted a high pass in goal just when the Knights seemed done.
The Knights needed to send it over the sideline and get some breathing-space, but instead Mann bombed it to the right corner. Yet this almost produced the freakiest try of the game when Talau caught it on the edge and shot out a gymnastic flick pass that would have been brilliant in just about any other context. If he’d got a foot to the sideline it would have cancelled everything that followed, but instead Laurie missed it, To’a charged it down, and initially seemed to have scored against the run of play.
Only late in the adjudication process, and after an on-field call of try, was the sequence set upstairs, where the Bunker showed To’a losing the footy around his body but possibly grounding it with his elbow and upper torso as he came to ground. For a moment it looked like this might be as marginal on the side of regaining possession as Leilua had been on the side of losing it, but the call came down of no try, and the Tigers got a chance to enjoy a let-off after this flashback to Billy Slater in the 2008 World Cup.
A set later, Mann broke into space, and glimpsed the same long-range vision as Brooks, but the play was called back due to a Fitzgibbon obstruction. The Tigers responded with a plosive sequence that nearly sent Thomas Mikaele over for his first NRL try – a tough run and offload from Alex Seyfarth, and then a near-assist from Liddle, who copped the slightest of high hits from Barnett to set up Doueihi for the first penalty kick. Still, this was good scrambling defence from Newcastle, spearheaded by Crossland.
The Knights had managed to stem the flow of Tigers tries over the second quarter but they were still twenty ahead at 24-4 heading into the sheds. They had a brief mini-surge in the last two minutes, when Luciano Leilua was pinged for an offside error, and Barnett took the footy right up to the line, offloading to Conor Watson for what would have been a certain try if the Tigers hadn’t got their goal line defence in order. With an overlong kick on the last, though, the hosts retained their twenty point lead.
David Klemmer got the Knights underway with big post-contact metres on the first set back, and Crossland got the ball back at the end of it, before the Tigers’ defensive line totally fell apart ninety seconds in, when Brodie Jones put down the first try of the second stanza. Crossland provided the assist, shooting out a bullet ball on the left edge to send his seventeenth man across untouched. Hoy swerved it too far left again, but this was still a rallying-point for the Knights as word returned Hunt was off for the night.
This was a pretty worrying sign for the Tigers, who have a history of losing momentum when they go for long periods without scoring, especially since the Knights really seemed to be elasticising on the restart, culminating with a harbour bridge ball from Crossland out to the left edge – the most flamboyant pass from the young halfback so far. Yet Fitzgibbon was pinged for an obstruction on the very next play, giving the Tigers a much-needed let off, and their first touch of the footy during this second stanza.
They got back-to-back penalties when Watson took out his frustration with some working on the ground. Laurie danced around for ten seconds on the right side of the park, and Doueihi tried to cross over for a double in his wake, but the Tigers were forced to shift left for the last play, where Brooks came up with a deft grubber that To’a only just managed to clean up on the line. Errors on play one were becoming a trend for the Knights, as Watson now lost it to give the Tigers another short-range set.
They failed to make the most of an overlap on the right side, but it didn’t matter, since a Joey Leilua offload sent Talau over on the other wing a tackle later. This was redemption for Tommy after his flick pass at the end of the first half – a tightrope walk along the left sideline that saw him come within a millimetre of the chalk as he got the Steeden down. Full credit to Joey, too, who held up the play and withstood the low tackle just long enough to ensure that Talau got on the outside of To’a.
Doueihi showed Hoy how to boot it through from the sideline, sending it straight and true past the right post for the best single kick of the game. They had a great set after points, disciplined and focused, and then came up with their fastest and easiest try of the night, off the back of another great kick from Brooks. Hoy lost the high ball, Doueihi and Mbye crowded in on it, and Doueihi caught the ricochet a moment later, tucking it under his arm and cruising around behind the posts for his easiest conversion so far.
There was a brief question about whether Mbye had got a hand to it, but the replay showed that Mbye never made contact, leaving Doueihi to recover the ball without it making contact with any Newcastle players. It was a testament to Doueihi’s spontaneity and vision, which has ironically produced one of his best games this year despite being out of his regular position. Meanwhile, the Knights took another blow when Hoy was taken out to have his fingers strapped as his men got another penalty.
It came off another marginal high tackle, this time from Doueihi, but Brooks got his men rolling with another enormous push up the middle on the very next set, as Shawn Blore came on for his first stint of the season. Laurie almost sent Luke Garner across on play four, but Fitzgibbon contained Brooks’ grubber on the last tackle, despite a strong trajectory and a good chase from Blore. Laurie then let Mann’s next kick bounce, for the most precarious Tigers take of the night, and the Knights now had a mini-surge.
For almost the first time in the game, they capitalised off a Tigers error, from Leilua, to set up the first dropout of the night after Laurie was forced to clean up a Crossland grubber in goal. That early tackle choke was only delayed a set, however, when Seyfarth came in to rattle the footy loose from Mann at the start of the dropout. Brooks, who had already run 164 metres, came up with another good kick on the last, booting it deep into the left corner to restore the Tigers’ dominance in field position.
Mann responded with the wobbliest bomb of the night, prompting a Talau knock-on as Jock Madden got ready to make his NRL debut. The Knights got six again on their first carry, and then a one-man advantage when Joffa was sent to the bin on play two. Thirty seconds later Brailey plunged over from dummy half, cruising between Laurie and Tamou to get down virtually untouched as Laurie set his sights on Fitzgibbon. Hoy got his first conversion, and just like that we were down to a twenty-two point deficit.
The Knights broke into space up the left edge on the restart, and gradually accelerated back inside, overtaking the Tigers with each fresh pass and run until they looked certain to score – and score they would have if Brailey’s grubber for Mann hadn’t ricocheted off the post for the Tigers to concede the dropout after trying to work it back into the field of play with a pair of passes right on the dead ball line. This was terrific Tigers defence, and they got their reward when Saifiti dropped a Barnett pass on tackle two.
As it turned out, the Brailey try was the only points that the Tigers conceded with Joffa in the bin, as Best made an error and Mann was put on report for a dangerous tackle at the 75th minute. Tempers flared shortly after, after Tamou was pinged for crowding, but the Wests Tigers captain regained his composure by collecting a Barnett offload right on his own line as Joffa jogged back onto the park, while Fitzgibbon was sent to the bin at the 75th minute for a professional foul and Barnett was put on report.
In a final twist, Mbye was sent to the bin with zero seconds on the clock, and Watson sent Frizell over for a final try on the last tackle. Yet this was the very definition of a consolation try, since the siren had already blown, and half the Tigers players were on their way to the sheds, unprepared for this unconventional end to the game. If Hoy had converted the Knights would have at least won the tally since the Tigers’ splendid opening quarter, but he missed it, and they remained double Newcastle at 36-18.
To their credit, the Knights had managed to curb that opening flow of points, but the game had also testified to a new vision in defence from the Tigers, who were fortunate to have Kalyn Ponga off the park, but still made the most of it. They’ll be looking to continue this magic beyond Magic Round when they rock up to play the Warriors at Central Coast Stadium next week, while the Knights will be looking to regroup and regather before they head to Townsville to play the Cowboys next Thursday night.