ROUND 18: Brisbane Broncos v. Wests Tigers (Suncorp Stadium, 18/7/21, 24-42)
The Broncos were one of only a few teams to have a genuine home game during this first week of COVID-safe football, and it looked like they might have a shot at the win when they hosted the Tigers on Sunday afternoon. Despite some strong moments from the black and gold, Brisbane managed to hold their own until the final fourteen minutes, when the Tiges went from a two-point lead to an eighteen point lead in a sublime trio of successive tries – a finale that’s destined to live on in the club’s ongoing rebuild, galvanising many games to come.
David Nofoaluma caught a deep kickoff right in the corner, almost getting a boot to the dead ball line, so the Tigers had to work hard to get to the halfway line, where Luke Brooks made the first kick after a pair of strong runs from James Tamou and Stefano Utoikamanu. Payne Haas responded in kind, dragging Thomas Mikaele and Utoikamanu four metres after contact, building on a terrific run up the left edge from Tesi Niu, and setting up Tyson Gamble for a decent kick to the right, where the Tigers just survived when Jamayne Isaako knocked it on.
Brooks booted his first high ball on the next set, and Nofoaluma had his first run a set after, before Tamou made the first offload of the game, only for Ken Maumalo to give up on a mistimed Brooks pass out to the left edge. Meanwhile, TC Robati was taken off the park, after taking the brunt of the previous Brisbane set, as Jordan Riki came on for an early stint, adding some fresh(er) blood as the Broncos quickly built on Brooksy’s error with a left sweep through Brodie Croft that ended with Herbie Farnworth putting Corey Oates across in the corner.
Isaako curved a stunning sideline conversion through the posts, and the Broncos were just under a point per minute. This had been too easy – Nofoaluma and Tommy Talau had been caught too far in field – so the Tigers really had to rally to survive the restart. Gamble had a strong run on the fourth, bumping off a couple of defenders and poking his nose through the line, and Haas followed suit with further metres after post-contact, but the Tigers survived, and got through a competent set, while just managing to defend the next Brisbane set as well.
Yet the Broncos got the upper hand as soon as the Tigers got possession again, thanks to a big individual effort from Kotoni Staggs, who slammed in to slide Maumalo across the sideline on tackle one. Maumalo had seemed sluggish on the wing since the start of the game, and that continued into the scrum feed now, as he leaked a penalty for not packing it properly. All things considered, the Tigers were lucky that the Broncos opted to take the kick, with Isaako booting it through from right in front to make it eight unanswered points for the home team.
They had another defensive challenge soon enough, as the Broncos got the first six again at the start of their next set, off a ruck infringement from Mikaele. Yet this quickly turned into a major let-off – a fumbled play-the-ball from Croft, under pressure from Tamou, who was probably lucky not to be penalised for his involvement. It was the sudden shift in possession the Tigers needed, bolstered when they got a restart of their own, off a Gamble ruck error, and then another from Farnworth – and so it felt like a game-changer when they scored here.
It came a deft passage of third-phase play, a pair of one-handed offloads – first from Utoikamanu, who popped it out to Liddle in front of the posts, and then from Adam Doueihi, who received it from Liddle on the right edge, and sent it back inside for Luciano Leilua to curve back beside the posts. The Tigers had been 0-26 at the end of the first stanza against the Bunnies last game, and 0-40 against Melbourne the game before, so this was a big motivator, especially when Doueihi booted it through against a booing stadium to make it six.
Yet the Broncos regained the rhythm immediately, as Luke Garner put down the ball on tackle two, Gamble popped a deft offload out to Jake Turpin right on the line, Haas added more metres to his post-contact tally, and Riki pounced on a Gamble grubber. He didn’t restore Brisbane’s eight point lead, since Isaako’s kick ricocheted off the right post, but this was still a decimating comeback – until Rhys Kennedy followed Garner with a put-down early in the restart. This time, though, the forward’s captain took a risk on sending the decision upstairs.
The replay clearly showed that the error had been Kennedy’s, and so the Tigers got a chance to regain the rhythm as quickly as Brisbane had stolen it from them. Play paused as Alex Glenn took out the frustration of his failed challenge with an over-eager tackle on Leilua, but it didn’t quite qualify as a crusher, and in the end this advantaged Brisbane, since they got a chance to resume their defensive line, while the Tigers never quite recovered their energy this set.
The Tigers started to elasticise and experiment at the start of the next set, as Nofoaluma abruptly changed direction on the collect, skidding away from Farnworth to pop it back to Talau, and Doueihi followed with a parabola ball that almost sailed clean over Daine Laurie’s head. It didn’t pay dividends then and there, but it galvanised the Tigers into their best defence of the game so far, when Niu broke into space up the right edge on the following set.
For a moment, Niu looked set to go it alone, and even then had Staggs unmarked on his right shoulder, but Laurie shut down both potential plays with a last-ditch ankle tap, before Kobe Hetherington lost the footy while trying to offload out of a Tamou tackle right on the line. Brooks took an early kick, and the Brisbane error count continued, from a blatantly forward Turpin pass, to a ruck error from Gamble at the start of the subsequent set. Yet Staggs now mirrored his earlier effort on Maumalo by bumping Junior Pauga across on the opposite wing.
Brisbane now had a shot at absorbing all the Tigers’ recent momentum, and Glenn led with his most restless run so far, but Pauga got some joy early in the next Brisbane set, popping Isaako into touch just as Staggs had disposed of him. This steeled his men into one of their toughest sets so far, as they asked question after question in the Broncos’ red zone, spreading it left before heading out to the other edge of the park, where Nofoaluma collected an enormous assist from Doueihi – wide enough to turn him into the top Wests Tigers tryscorer.
The pass was so broad that Riki barely touched Nofa, who’d passed Benji Marshall and Chris Lawrence, as he plunged down his 85th try in the western corner. While Doueihi shanked the sideline kick, keeping it 10-12, there was no doubt this was a consolidation moment, segueing into an augmented restart when Nofa stuck a boot back on the line for Isaako’s kickoff. Yet Laurie now had a rough patch, knocking on into Turpin as he was taking a short ball from Doueihi, then slamming into the right knee of Tom Flegler under the high ball two sets later.
Tuki Simpkins made a deft offload for his first involvement, three minutes out from the the break, but Oates responded by leaping a metre above Talau to take the next kick, culminating a terrific opening forty as Laurie was finally taken off the field for medical attention. Moses Mbye came off the bench, and turned into the main casualty of the next Brisbane try, when Flegler built on a Kotoni-assisted linebreak from Isaako up the right edge, and an unseen Riki error, to storm over a limp ankle tap from the Wests Tigers no. 17 and slam down four more.
The Tigers were 18-10 as the siren sounded, and yet they’d manage to put down 32 more points over the back forty, while the Broncos would only score another converted try. Brisbane had the first set back, and Gamble continued to target Maumalo, while Simpkins got the Tigers rolling with an offload to Laurie, and Brooks was able to shoot his first kick without much pressure. Gamble then came up with the first big play of the second half, breaking through a Mbye tackle and garnering a restart off the subsequent offside error from Simpkins.
Still, Gamble’s enthusiasm got the best of him at the end of this set, when he ploughed into a Garner-led tackle on the line, and tried to grind through alone, rather than opting for a pass out to Flegler, who was untouched, or Staggs, who had more of a chance as well. The contrast couldn’t have been starker at the other end of the park, where the Tigers built on a dangerous penalty from Riki with their best right sweep of the night, ending with a superb run from Doueihi, who drove the footy deep, and cleared up space for Laurie to cross on his outside.
This was a splendid pair of runs from fullback and five-eighth, with both men linking around Farnworth – Doueihi by running deep enough to draw him in, and Laurie with the dummy to get on his outside shoulder. Even if Doueihi missed the kick, the Tigers had narrowed the deficit to four points, and got the best restart so far, thanks to a superb one-man effort from Laurie, who scooped up the Steeden out of dummy half, on the very first tackle, and broke up the line on the left edge, making a good fifty metres before Niu finally tumbled him to ground.
It felt as if Laurie wanted to parlay his try into a long-ranger, so it also felt right that his speed laid the platform for Talau to reprise his effort on the right edge. Again, Doueihi provided the assist, waiting long enough, this time, for Farnworth and Oates to converge on him, before flicking it out for his left centre to defy a last-ditch tackle from Glenn. Doueihi capped it off with a superb sideline conversion, the Tigers were at twenty, and looked as if they had all the flow behind them, only for Kotoni to make up for a pretty quiet game with his first try of 2021.
The Broncos absorbed the energy of Laurie’ two linebreaks now, as Gamble took the footy at the Tigers’ forty, eyed off Brooks as if preparing for a tackle, and then flicked it out to Riki, who broke through the defence, twisted away from a Laurie ankle tap and sent it back inside to Staggs in the same gymnastic movement. The play was so quick, and Staggs had hit the ball at such speed, that the try was scored untouched, behind the crossbars, setting up Isaako for his easiest conversion of the night, from right in front – and the last points for the Broncos.
This was a pretty low moment for the Tigers, who’d lost the lead just as they seemed to be building momentum, as well a stark reminder of just how much their conversion game was lacking with their current setup. At many other points during their last few seasons they would have wilted here, and probably conceded a few more tries back to the opposition, but this wasn’t going to be one of those games. Brisbane had the flow now, but the Tigers stayed staunch, waiting patiently for the errors and penalties they needed to get back on the board.
The first error came two sets later, when the Broncos accelerated a little too quickly, resulting in a lost ball from Staggs, and then again at the end of the following set, when the Tigers showed Brisbane how to do a Captain’s Challenge right, on behalf of their own captain, who was deemed to have knocked on until the replay showed Hetherington stripping the ball with three in the tackle. Nofoaluma was bunched right on the sideline for the kick, and had to contend with a bouncing ball to boot, but once again the Tigers patiently waited for the error.
It came right on the hour mark, after Laurie showcased his best footwork to curve around the right post and bring a Croft grubber back in field, where he bumped off Staggs, and danced over an ankle tap from Gamble, to make ten metres before Staggs got him down with his second effort. Flegler tried to regather with a big hit on Nofoaluma on tackle two, but instead got himself put on report for a dangerous tackle, ushering in one of the greatest Wests Tigers tryscoring periods in the last two years – 24 in the last quarter, more than a point per minute.
The next try was the consolidation try of the match, not just because it set up this final surge of tries, but because it fused the last two tries from Laurie and Talau into a sequence that was greater than the sum of its parts. This time Laurie received the footy from Doueihi, running into the line and offloading out to Talau, who dummied right, and seriously seemed to consider reprising the last two putdowns on the wing, only to veer back inside at the last second, eluding Hetherington’s attempted ankle tap and slamming through Flegler to score.
Doueihi got the conversion, and for the last time the game hung in the balance, as Haas prepared to return to the park with only a two point difference. The Broncos got their last chance when Pauga played at a Staggs kick, resulting in a fresh set of six. On the very next play, Croft and Gamble combined for a right sweep that ended with Staggs sending Isaako across in the corner. The try seemed certain – Gerard Sutton blew the whistle, the points were on the board, and Isaako backflipped – only for a Riki-Brooks obstruction to deny it all.
This was the last and biggest let-off – and for the last fifteen minutes the game was all Tigers. Brooksy might have slipped two tackles into the subsequent set, but Doueihi made up for it with a couple of metres after contact, while Isaako’s night went from bad to worse when he knocked on the high ball after a super leap above Maumalo in the left corner. The Tiges headed right out of the scrum, again on tackle three, and then once more on the last, when it seemed like half the players converged on a well-tempered Doueihi grubber into the corner.
Oates got there first, lunged for it, and got a hand to it, but couldn’t maintain control as Glenn piled in on top. Haas came in next, but was moving too fast to collect the bounce, while Niu was the third line of defence, reaching out a boot to at least deflect the footy away from the Tigers defence and give his other men time to get there. In any other game he would have succeeded, since the Steeden was still moving pretty quickly and unpredictably between Leilua and Nofoaluma – so much so that neither Tiger seemed to have ground it in real time.
Just as the Broncos try had been revised at the other end of the park, so this looked very different in slow motion, when you could see that Nofa had exerted just enough pressure with his left hand to get the footy down, eventually grounding it with the very tips of his fingers before he lost control. He’d scored one of the freakiest tries of his career just after becoming top Wests Tigers tryscorer – and the freakiness continued with Doueihi’s second ricochet off the right post, and again with the toughest, fastest try of the night on the restart.
It came off the best bomb of the night too – a towering effort from Brooksy that compounded Isaako’s torment. This time Maumalo leaped up to collect it cold, almost using Isaako as a climbing aid before falling directly on him, somersaulting over his prone body, and somehow managing to flick a sublime one-handed offload back for Pauga to score on debut. These had been two of the best 2021 tries for the Tiges, bringing them to 36 when Doueihi converted.
Isaako reached his nadir with the kickoff, as he tried to confound the Tigers by sending it short, but ended up not even making the requisite ten metres. No surprise, then, that the visitors scored their final try on this augmented restart, as Leilua made good metres up the right, Mbye (only just) secured a deft Tamou offload, and Utoikamanu ran a hard line to bump off Turpin and dispose of the two opposing props to slam the Steeden beside the left upright.
Doueihi added the extras to bring the Tigers to their final scoreline of 24-42, culminating an extraordinary trio of tries during these final fifteen minutes. Even against the Broncos, this was a stunning effort, so the Tiges will be keen to parlay this belief and spirit into a big win when they take on the Sea Eagles at Suncorp again next weekend. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a pretty frustrating end for Brisbane, especially after only tailing by two points, so they’ll need to do some real soul-searching before facing the Panthers next week.
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