Last time the Wests Tigers met the Warriors, in Round 11, the game came down to the wire as Adam Doueihi failed to find the try line with 26-30 on the board. Yet that was nothing compared to Friday night’s loss at Suncorp, which saw Daine Laurie off with a broken leg in the first minute, and two agonising back-end plays from Luke Brooks – a ten-metre dropout that Euan Aitken grounded on the bounce, and a ninety-metre run that was denied when the replay showed that Brooksy’s forearm had hit the ball as he took a ricocheted Peta Hiku kick.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Warriors got some closure after a pretty dire loss to the Rabbitohs last week, making good use of their bench, as Bunty Afoa, Kodi Nikorima, Kane Evans and Jazz Tevaga all contributed big plays at critical moments. They haven’t had a victory since they played the Tigers, despite a couple of one-point losses, which says something about the nadir the Tiges have reached at this point in their season. Yet this was also arguably one of the Warriors’ best wins of the entire COVID era, especially in the wake of RTS’ departure.
Stefano Utoikamanu took the first carry, and Luke Brooks the second, glimpsing some empty space when Ben Murdoch-Masila momentarily broke away from the line. Murdoch-Masila regathered with a tough hit on Daine Laurie two tackles later, but he came in too high and hard, sandwiching Laurie between Eliesa Katoa, who’d come in on top, and Taniela Otukolo, who’d started the play with an ankle tap. The Tigers got a penalty, but it was small consolation, since they lost their fullback a minute in as Laurie limped gingerly from the park.
We’d find out later on that Laurie had broken his leg, while Michael Chee Kam came off the bench now to fill out the Wests Tigers backline as Moses Mbye shifted to custodian. Adam Doueihi plunged over out of dummy half three tackles later, with only Reece Walsh beneath him as last line of defence, but Mbye didn’t do well in his first play at fullback, ending the subsequent left sweep with a mistimed ball that bounced pas Ken Maumalo and over the side, before allowing himself to be driven back ten metres under his first high ball a set later.
The Tigers were clearly keen to regather during the rest of this set, and they did a pretty good job, starting with a strong run up the right from Doueihi, who brought Marcelo Montoya in for a desperate legs tackle. From there, the hosts shifted it left, before Brooks chipped to the right, where David Nofoaluma leaped up to take it on the full, and flicked it back in field with one hand. Doueihi got to it and managed a second kick, but DWZ took it with no difficulties.
For a moment it looked like the Tigers had gained a fresh bout of field position when Montoya made contact with Mbye’s legs as he was leaping up to collect the high ball, but the call went the Warriors’ way, as Nofoaluma was pinged for an earlier escort on Adam Pompey. For the second time, Michael Chee Kam was the balm to a Murdoch-Masila situation, this time a lost ball from the big front-rower on play one, while Jamayne Taunoa-Brown conceded the first restart in his first game since shifting from St. George, infringing the ruck a few tackles later.
The Tigers didn’t do much with it though, since Joe Ofahengae fumbled the play-the-ball almost immediately, and was put on report for an earlier hit on Aitken, while the Warriors got six again of their own off an Alex Twal error. Sean O’Sullivan consolidated with his best kick of the game so far – a well-weighted grubber that split the Tigers’ defence, and sat up for Viliami Vaileia to nearly score on debut right on the back line. The bounce was hard, but Vailea also showed his inexperience, slightly mistiming the chase as Maumalo slammed into him.
Walsh still hadn’t touched the footy in good field position as the Tigers got a twenty-metre restart. Doueihi and Chee Kam asked questions on both sides of the park, with the ex-Rabbitoh breaking the line up the right sideline, and Jacob Liddle built on their sweeping momentum by trying to go it alone out of dummy half when he reached the New Zealand line. The Warriors just survived, but Wests responded with a big pack to drive DWZ back in goal from five metres out, despite Walsh commandeering a counter-pack to keep him in play.
The next set was steady, focused and methodical, marking the start of a consolidation period for the Tigers, who scored the only two tries of the first stanza over the next seven minutes. Brooks went grubber-for-grubber with O’Sullivan, forcing a dropout from DWZ on the left edge, as the Warriors already started to show signs of fatigue. They’ve had a harder run of COVID than any other oufit, and they tend to wear their exhausation on their sleeves at key moments, especially since they feature a fair few players who haven’t enjoyed regular footy.
To their credit, they were still pretty staunch here, forcing the Tigers to congeal around two rapid pivots to and from the right side of the park. Their first sweep almost came apart on the third tackle, only for Nofoaluma to take a low ball from Doueihi right on the ground, and offload back in field through an equally low tackle from O’Sullivan. Doueihi managed to drift it back to the left edge, but the Tigers returned to the right pretty quickly, where Nofa took an offload from Leilua, bumped off Walsh, and offloaded back to Luciano through Montoya.
Brooksy chipped to the right on the last, where the Warriors got it back, and yet this elastic play on the right edge steeled Wests into their best passage of play now. Maumalo got them rolling with the best kick return so far, building up speed over twenty uncontested metres and absolutely drilling the New Zealand forward pack into submission. Leilua responded with yet another offload to Doueihi on the right, and Shawn Blore added his voice to the fracas with a big fend-off on Vailema, only for Pompey to take Brooks’ concluding bomb on the full.
Even so, the Tigers continued to bunch New Zealand in their own end, despite Walsh getting his first real touch of the football now. He also kicked on the last, but it ricocheted off Doueihi, allowing Mbye to bring it back as everything finally clicked for the home team. They got a restart off a ruck error from Murdoch-Masila, and all their pivoting and elasticising on the right edge paved the way for a clean, clinical sweep now, as they finally got the formula right.
Brooks got them going, and Doueihi dug deep into the New Zealand line, parlaying a poor read from Pompey into a strong pass to Mbye, who dummied and assisted Nofoaluma, who crossed over the chalk in turn, despite a decent defensive effort from Montoya. Doueihi struck it beautifully from the sideline, the forwards were resolute on the restart, and Mbye continued to make up for his opening pass by staying busy around the ruck, and involving himself as much as possible, foreshadowing his mammoth effort a couple of minutes later.
For the moment, DWZ showed he could match Maumalo with the kick returns, laying a platform for Montoya to break through the line on the third. Yet the ex-Bulldog mistimed the pass that would have sent Walsh across untouched, and the Tigers brought it together for a second time on their next set, when Mbye made his mark at fullback with one of the toughest tries of his career. Receiving it from Brooks at the left, he made a big dummy out to the wing, ricocheted off Vailea, and briefly considered whether to opt for a late offload to Chee Kam.
Instead, he pivoted away from Peta Hiku, and spun through Bayley Sironen to get the Steeden to ground, managing a clean putdown despite Walsh piling in on top. Doueihi may not have added the extras, but this was exactly the gesture of leadership the Tigers needed in Laurie’s absence, and should have galvanised them into at least another pair of tries over the next quarter. Even one more unconverted crossover would have likely won them the game, but they struggled to make inroads before the break, although the Warriors didn’t score either.
Put that down to a series of escalating errors from both teams that precluded any chance of a linebreak, goal line dropout or other consolidation of field position, culminating with Vailea fumbling the play-the-ball in the face of a Chee Kam tackle, a couple of minutes out from the sheds. Both teams had to return ready to consolidate – determined to put this error-laden twenty behind them – and Bunty Afoa got them running with a punishing kick return, hair streaming behind him in his slipstream, before taking the football again for the third tackle.
Despite Vailea’s closing error, the Warriors had started to resume some energy right at the end of the first half – for the first time, the Tigers had looked fatigued, and at risk of conceding a try. New Zealand continued that drive now that the hosts had ball in hand, keeping them deep in their own end for the first couple of plays before Kodi Nikorima and Kane Evans combined to force an error in Nofa’s next play-the-ball. Even worse, word came down from the sideline that Laurie was unlikely to return to the park for the remainder of the season.
The Warriors didn’t waste any time scoring off this first opportunity of the second stanza – and the try was disarmingly simple after the backlog of the second quarter. The halves got things rolling with a pair of plays to the left edge, where Hiku delivered a superb no-look assist to Aitken, who didn’t even have to contend with the Tiges’ defensive line when Doueihi misread a decoy run from Walsh. Breaking through untouched, Aitken only pivoted slightly to get on the outside of Mbye for an effortless grounding that Walsh converted a moment later.
This was exactly the kind of try that shifts momentum, bringing us back to a four point game, and galvanising the Warriors into scoring off the very next Wests Tigers error – a pretty dire riposte to a home team that had failed to capitalise off set after set camped out on the New Zealand line. The mistake came from Tom Amone, who stripped the Steeden with Tui Simpkins in the tackle, and fumbled the ball to boot, giving New Zealand the first scrum back.
Nikorima stepped into the spotlight two tackles later with arguably the best assist of the game, bending backwards at the ten metre line as if looking for a long-distance runner, only to pop a no-looker back across to Afoa, who continued the barnstorming charge that started this second half. Amone went from try-enabler to try-conceder now, succumbing to Nikorima’s trickery and sliding out the back, leaving Liddle to contend with Afoa’s bullocking mass. By the time Leilua came in it was too late; he ended up tacking Liddle more than Bunty.
Walsh was always going to convert from right in front, and just like that New Zealand had the lead for the first time. Yet the Tigers responded with their first big play since the break, as Leilua bumped into the line, and offloaded for Tommy Talau to slice through the line up the right, forcing Montoya to jam in for one of the closest trysavers of the game. Brooksy built on that speed with a kick to the left corner, where Mbye tapped it back inside, and Chee Kam dropped it and recovered it, setting up Wests for an equally rapid sweep back to the right.
This was the fastest and most exciting passage all night, pivoting on a one-handed Brooks offload through Nikorima in the middle of the park. If they’d pulled off the putdown, this would have been the best team try of the year, and more than enough to restore their momentum, so it was agonising when Nofaluma misjudged the very last play on the right sideline, where he booted the ball back inside only to see it careen off Pompey and into touch.
Things went downhill very quickly from here for the Tigers, starting with an unsusccessful Captain’s Challenge to contend that Aikten had stripped the Steeden from Utoikamanu, which he hadn’t. The Warriors consolidated with a punishing pair of sets that featured some of their best plays of the night – a no-look flick pass from Hiku that Vailea popped on through his legs, and then a Tevaga-Sironen offload in front of the posts that fueled an equally tough trysaver from Utoikamanu – before O’Sullivan returned to his great grubber game from the first half.
Maumalo only just popped it into touch and the Tigers got in position to defend the dropout, but they needn’t have bothered, since Brooksy now made the most egregrious error of the Tigers’ entire season – perhaps the worst of their last couple of seasons. He sent the dropout short, but not too short, meaning it had just cleared ten metres when Aitken took it on the bounce and smashed over to score. If Aitken’s last crossover was easy, this was a joke, evoking the 1991 Grand Final as Walsh converted before the Tiges fully processed what had occurred.
They’d only completed two sets by this stage in the second stanza, so they needed to go straight and simple for their next tryscoring effort – there wasn’t space or time any more for the extravagant team try they’d attempted a few minutes before. To their credit, that’s just what they did, on the back of the very next error from Montoya. Once they reached the Warriors’ red zone, the spine congealed – Liddle to Brooks, Brooks to Mbye, and Mbye to Doueihi, who pivoted away from a O’Sullivan miss, and ground the ball with Hiku on his back.
Still he didn’t manage to convert his own try, keeping it a two-point game as both sides got stuck into the final quarter. Hiku came closer than any player this season a few minutes later, coming to ground right on the line, and lifting the Steeden above the chalk, as the entire match seemed to decelerate into slow motion. Mbye eventually stormed into to force the knock-on, but the trysaver came off a heroic ankle tap from Brooks, who went some way to making up for his botched dropout by showing his men what determination looked like here.
O’Sullivan bounced back with a strip on Doueili a moment later, but Vailea ended the set by sending it over the sideline while trying to offload to DWZ, while Brooks nearly completed the long journey back from his dropout a set later. At first, this looked like the most rousing Tigers comeback of the season, as Brooksy collected a ricocheting Hiku kick twelve metres out from his own line, and cruised ninety metres down the park, shifting it from his left hand to his right as he approached the chalk, where he slammed over for a clean, untouched putdown.
Yet in the single biggest heartbreak of the Tigers season, the error that finally put their finals hopes to bed, the replay showed that the Steeden had ricocheted off Brooksy’s left forearm before he took possession. Michael Maguire has never looked grimmer than he did at this moment, since there was almost no way the Tigers were going to bounce back now – they had one more long-range try, one more heroic effort, in their arsenal, and they’d used it up.
Sure, enough, the Warriors managed to keep them out over the last eight minutes – or perhaps more accurately, the Tigers failed to make any headway, since New Zealand laid down some of their most abysmal sets in weeks. The Tiges weren’t any better, falconing the footy off Chee Kam before Doueihi missed a two-point field goal, while Chee Kam found nobody at dummy half on the last, three minutes out, right on the New Zealand line. It was as if the spectre of Brooksy’s two aborted efforts had neutered them, deflated any self-belief.
Still, you had to feel a bit sorry for Brooks, who followed Doeuihi with another failed two-point field goal attempt on the Tigers’ last set. Many kickers have gone short with the dropouts this season without the same results, so the Tigers defence was also at fault during that first error, while the forearm incident could have happened to anyone. The issue here stemmed more from the Tigers’ inability to capitalise during their first stanza surge – and how easily they let Aitken through the first time around. Both will haunt them, and hopefully motivate them, when they take on the Bulldogs for a western derby at Redcliffe next week.