Last week’s loss to the Warriors was one of the most diabolical in Wests Tigers’ history, so they would have sunk into a deep depressive slump if they’d capitulated to the Bulldogs at Cbus on Sunday night. Given that Canterbury are at the bottom of the ladder, there could be no real joy for Tigers’ fans in coming away with a ten-point win – just a muted relief – while Luke Brooks got a chance to make up for his back half against New Zealand with some decent plays with the boot here. Still, he may never go short with the dropouts again in his career.
He needed to be staunch, too, since Daine Laurie is out for the rest of the season with a broken leg, throwing the Tigers’ spine into further disarray as they play for pride in yet another season without finals footy. Yet their best moments in this game tended to come from Adam Doueihi, who led his men in speed, strength and general dexterity, stepping into the spotlight with big plays when it was required, while quietly organising behind the scenes.
Brooksy collected the kickoff behind the line, and James Tamou took the first hit-up after missing last week’s loss to the Warriors, only for Luciano Leilua to cough it up a play later, off a poor pass from Thomas Mikaele. Canterbury now had their first set in the Tigers’ twenty, as Nick Meaney drew in three defenders to hold him up on the right edge, and Adam Doueihi saved the day by beating Bailey Biondi-Odo to take a beautiful Jake Averillo kick on the full.
The Tiges had an aborted set to start the match, and now they bounced back with an augmented set, as Jack Hetherington conceded the first restart with an offside error. Play slowed down on the last, as Mikaele rose from the tackle, and Jeremy Marshall-King was put on report for dangerous contact. The visitors now found themselves in the Bulldogs’ red zone and they swept it left, where Doueihi popped out a nice offload to Brooks, who brought it back inside, and sent it across to Jacob Liddle for a dazzling run across the face of the defence.
Liddle must have showed it about five times, taking it as far right as he could, before offloading out of a BOO tackle for Leilua to make up for his opening error by slicing through the line and banging off Meaney to slam down the first four. Doueihi bookended a sequence that had begun with his offload by booting through the extras, and the Tiges were a point per minute. This was a good hit back after their opening, and they kept it up on the restart, when strong post-contact metres from Utoikamanu tempted a second effort from Hetherington.
They were inside the Canterbury twenty by tackle three, where Leilua took the hit-up to avoid an obstruction, before Shawn Blore took it inside the ten. The Bulldogs survived, even if Averillo had to kick on his own forty, and the sun emerged over Cbus as Moses Mbye took the next kick, and Meaney leaped up to collect it on the full. The Tigers were sitting at 73% possession, but the Dogs levelled the score on this set, thanks to a rapid play-the-ball from JMK that allowed Meaney to burst into open space when nobody was prepared at marker.
This wasn’t clear sailing for the Canterbury fullback though, since he had to bust through a legs tackle from Liddle, sway his whole body left to elude Tamou, and get through some Utoikamanu contact before linking up with Averillo in the face of Mbye, who hesitated a little too long, and so failed to contain Meaney while only getting a fingertip to Averillo. This was brilliant spine synergy, and Averillo knew it, intuitively sensing his fullback’s position when he bumped into a Ken Maumalo tackle a second later – the last defensive play in this sequence.
Averillo could have easily taken the hit here, but instead he made the clutchiest offload of the game – flick pass, one hand, totally blind – and sure enough the footy found Meaney on the volley. Fullback and halfback were playing as one unit, as Meaney surged over the line untouched, and Averillo added the extras to make it six on the board. The Dogs got an augmented restart off a Tamou ruck error, and more position when Mbye put a boot on the line while trying to collect a kick, forcing the Tigers to double down on their goal line defence.
Canterbury experimented with a couple of different options, but didn’t quite find the right combination, as BOO ended with a grubber that Mbye was able to clean up right on the line to make up for the error that started it all. The Dogs weren’t quite done with trying to force a dropout, as Dylan Napa charged in for massive contact on Shawn Blore a play later, momentarily stunning him as Josh Jackson dragged him back over the line. Like Mbye, though, Blore withstood this defensive push, planting the Steeden in play to preclude the repeat set.
Corey Allan was the next man to make a mistake, capping off the messiest period of the match so far, and gifting the Tigers the scrum feed in the middle of the park. They took a couple of tackles to drive the Steeden deep into the left corner, before Utoikamanu straightened the play, and Brooks fed it to the other wing, where David Nofoaluma was forced to send it back inside again after finding himself unable to wrong-foot the Dogs at the end of a Doueihi ball.
Even so, Nofa’s run injected the set with a fresh dynamism, and Mbye drew on it with a sneaky grubber that Jackson knocked on, conceding a fresh set in his team’s ten. Mikaele did well to extemporise a run out of an unexpected Liddle pass, Leilua continued to tire out the Canterbury forward pack, and Mbye finished with a beautiful harbour bridge ball, sailing the Steeden twenty metres, over three Bulldogs, out to Maumalo. The ex-Warrior pivoted off the left boot, disposed of an Allan tackle, and finally got it down with Will Hopoate on his back.
This was a really silky sequence, a perfect ending to this recent accumulation of field position, especially when Doueihi mirrored Mbye’s soaring pass with an arcing sideline conversion to make it a six point game. Mikaele got the restart rolling with a tough opening carry, and while a pack of Dogs defenders dragged Alex Twal back two metres on tackle three, Brooksy recovered immediately with a beautiful 40/20 – and possibly the most languorous 40/20 of the year, since the footy seemed to linger for an age before finally careening over the chalk.
It was a terrific way for Brooks to execute his first 40/20 of the season, so it was frustrating when he followed with a forward pass to Mbye, just after the Tigers had received six again on the Canterbury ten, off a ruck infringement from JMK. Ava Seumanufagai rallied the troops against his former club with a big carry that tempted a ruck error from Brooksy in turn, and Jackson popped his nose through the line, but Mbye managed to clean up the kick on the last.
For a moment, the Tigers seemed galvanised by Brooksy’s error, moving it fast and hard for the first couple of tackles, only for their halfback to make a second mistake – this time a loose carry as he tried to wrong-foot Seumanufagai. This was a pretty dour sequel to his 40/20, and the Tigers were vulnerable here if the Bulldogs could manage to congeal on the following set. Instead, JMK lost the footy at the base of the scrum, trying to play the ball so quickly, in preparation to send it out for a set piece with Averillo, that he knocked it on then and there.
This was the biggest momentum-killer of the first half, and finally reset the balance back in the Tigers’ favour. Five minutes after the fact, they drew on the energy of Brooksy’s 40/20, scoring the try they should have put down as soon as they received that previous burst of field position – and it came off Brooksy’s next kicking statement, a perfectly weighted crossfield chip that Maumalo caught on the full. Leaping a metre above Allan, he was always going to smash down a double, and Doueihi followed with another great sideline conversion.
Brooks took the kickoff, as he had to start the game, and the Dogs did well to hold up Leilua, who poked his nose through the line, then Joe Ofahengaue, who was pumped for big metres up the middle of the park. They got a restart off a Liddle ruck error, and escalated into one of their fastest sets so far, but the Tigers responded with one of their classiest takes under the high ball – Nofa leaping up to collect it under pressure in the corner, and offloading to Mbye a second later, while Tommy Talau had done well to block without conceding an obstruction.
This was a pretty limber sequence, so it was one deflation too many when Mbye booted it out on the full at the end of the following set. The Tiges actually got one more chance when BOO was called offside downtown, but by this point the tide had turned against them, as a Michael Chee Kam error and Twal ruck error paved the way for one more Canterbury try before the break. It started with a strong JMK run out of dummy half, and then a strong carry from Seumanufagai, both of which paved the way for a third, tryscoring charge from Waddell.
All it took was a trio of well-timed passes from JMK, Jackson and Averillo to send the ex-Eagls through on the right edge, where Mbye came in low, and got him to ground, but not quite resolutely enough to forestall the four. Waddell was momentarily dishevelled, but got an arm away, and ground the footy a couple of times to make sure, before Averillo easily booted through the two to bring us back to a converted try game as both teams headed to the sheds.
Seumanufagai took the first hit-up back, and lost it just after, tempting the Bulldogs into wasting their Captain’s Challenge to contest it as an Utoikamanu strip. This was a pretty dour opening for Canterbury, but the Tigers didn’t do much with the subsequent scrum, thanks to a drastically mistimed pass from Liddle that wasted a tackle, before Blore was cleaned up while trying to offload on the left edge. Things only came together with Brooksy’s bomb to the right, where Aaron Schoupp took it on the full but BOO was penalised for an obstruction.
The Tigers opted to take the two here, reaching an eight point lead when Doueihi booted it over the crossbar, and their next set was a fragmented affair, only reaching the halfway line by tackle four, when Blore compounded his missed offload by flicking it forward to the wing in the face of Hopoate. Now it was the Bulldogs’ turn to pack the scrum, and they did better than their last effort, as JMK chose to run the footy himself instead of risking a second fumble.
Yet Averillo came up with an even more mistimed pass than Liddle, who scooped up the ball and secured it between his knees as it careened back over the Canterbury attack, which appeared to rewind itself as the Tigers got six again a tackle later. This was the first real acceleration since the break, and the critical turning-point might well have been a Doueihi offload on the right edge if Talau had been prepared for it. Instead, he let it slide down his legs, as the Dogs packed another scrum, and Leilua took a Hoppa loose carry four plays later.
The Tigers now had a chance to continue the acceleration of their previous set, and they managed the right side attack better this time, pivoting away from some deft Nofoaluma ball handling and then sweeping out to the other wing. Finally, Douehi and Talau made good on their previous miscommunication, as five-eighth chipped back to the right edge, and centre leaped a metre above the Dogs defenders to take it on the full. Schoupp barely left the ground, and BOO ducked for cover as Talau put down the Steeden for a rousing four points.
Doueihi added his easiest conversion of the game, bringing the Tigers to more than double Canterbury at 12-26, and yet this would be the last black and gold try of the afternoon, as the Dogs didn’t exactly mount a comeback, but managed to quell a potential surge of points. They started by shutting down a tough Doueihi charge up the right on the restart, contending with some big post-contact metres before finally bringing him to ground without a pass or offload.
Still, they struggled to get out of their end on the next set, as Hetherington searched in vain for an offload and Averillo was forced to boot it within the thirty. Nofa now followed Liddle with a bouncing ball, and Brooks steadied the ship with one of his highest bombs of the afternoon, which was taken on the full by Allan in the face of a tough Tigers chase. Hoppa mirrored Doueihi’s metres after contact, but again the Dogs didn’t look likely to make Tigers territory – until they got some much-needed field position with an offside from Ofahengaue.
This proved to be the critical ingredient, laying the platform for Schoupp to take his toughest run of the night, wincing as he palmed off Doueihi, ducked under Talau, and tucked the footy under his arm to come to ground beneath Nofa, before playing it quickly for BOO to trap Nofa behind the line with the silkiest grubber of the game. Biondi-Odo came close to grounding it himself, spinning around off the slipstream of the kick and almost getting a hand to it as Mbye and Talau converged for a simultaneous knock-on that gifted Canterbury a goal line dropout.
Brooks will probably never go short with the kick again in his life after the debacle against New Zealand, and his boot here was a beauty, skidding dangerously along the turf as it reached the halfway line. The Bulldogs contained it effectively, but lost all their newfound rhythm when Hetherington flung Leilua to the ground without the footy. He stayed on the park, and so did Luciano, despite seeming to sustain a rib injury, although both teams got fresh blood a few seconds later, when Zac Cini came on for Liddle, and Napa for Chris Patolo.
Hetherington was pretty luck not to get sent to the bin, and Talau’s took out his team’s frustration with a rollicking run on play one, as the final quarter started to loom – that critical period when the Tigers so often give up the lead and momentum they’ve developed over the first hour of footy. They got six again when Doueihi’s grubber came off BOO, as Chee Kam drove it right to the line on the left, Twal tried to twist and spin a few metres inside, and Doueihi took another tough carry after a pair of sweeping passes back out to the right wing.
Finally, Brooks kicked it crossfield, only making about five metres headway, and defying Hoppa, Schoupp and Maumalo, who got to his feet gingerly after Allan rolled over his ankle. Still, the ball remained with the visitors, as Hoppa was pinged for an escort, and they got stuck in for a full set within the Canterbury ten, in what was starting to feel like a make-or-break sequence for both sides. Doueihi’s bullet ball to Chee Kam looked like a potential assist on the left, or at least an indirect assist, since it cleared up space for Blore to cross in the corner.
Yet the Bulldogs rallied the most scrambling pack so far to hold up the no. 11, meaning that the Tigers again had to rely on a crossfield bomb from Brooks. Talau came close to reprising his combo with Doueihi, tapping it back for Cini to smash it down, but the replay showed what was pretty clear in real time – that Tommy had knocked it into Schoupp before his potential assist, denying the try. This was the kind of turnaround that has so often cost Wests Tigers games in the past, so it was a credit to them they managed to stay strong over the last twenty.
Still, the Dogs were clearly galvanised by this let-off, with Schoupp himself accelerating them into some of their fastest opening carries since the break. Just as they seemed to be slowing down midway through the set, Hetherington made a mad charge up the middle, and Averillo bombed at speed to force the Tigers to work it back from their own try line. Nofa swerved it sideways to try and find a way around the wall of Canterbury frontrowers, lost the footy into a Matt Doorey tackle, and lost the Tiges their Captain’s Challenge as he sent it to the Bunker.
Both teams were without Challenges, then, as the Dogs packed the scrum. They continued the momentum of their last set immediately, getting a restart on the very first play, and priming themselves to elasticise, only for Doueihi to strip the footy from Schoupp – and then lose it a second later. The game now felt precarious, on the verge of falling apart for each team, and yet Canterbury also had their best field position since the break, making this an especially volatile period for the Tigers, who had to do their hardest defensive work right now.
They withstood charge after charge within the ten, closing down offloads and holding up big men, but they couldn’t survive a restart on the final play, when Talau found himself offside. Three tackles later, the Bulldogs condensed all this field position into their best single sweep of the afternoon – Averillo to Hopoate, and then a superb assist from Hoppa, who ran straight at Maumalo, staring him down and bracing for a tackle as he flicked it out to Allan to slam it before Chee Kam could bump him into touch. Averillo missed the kick, so the Dogs had 16.
After an endless parade of frustrated scrums, this felt like it might be a consolidation moment for Canterbury, but it turned out to be their last points of the game. They had a decent enough restart, building on a pair of big carries from Napa and Hetherington, along with some stunning footwork from BOO, as Cini was once again forced to bring it back from his own line. This wasn’t enough to quench the Tigers flow, though, as Mikaele got them out of trouble with big post-contact metres on the next set, and Maumalo took Averillo’s next bomb clean.
A set later, Brooks came in for a monster tackle on Doorey, driving in low, lifting him by the left leg, dumping him on the ground, and wrapping both hands around him for good measure. He didn’t force a knock-on, but this was still the statement of intent that the Tigers needed to steel themselves over the last ten minutes. It also forced two gestures of over-compensation from the Bulldogs’ big men – first Napa, who was put on report for high contact on Mikaele, and then Hetherington, who was finally sent off to the bin a couple of sets later.
In the interim, Canterbury got their first penalty off Utoikamanu, for holding down, and accelerated into their last great burst of field position. Hetherington was red with rage and barking orders as he rose from a tough first carry, so it was agonising when Adam Elliott coughed up a Jackson ball into a crunching tackle from Leilua. A minute later, Mikaele was taken from the park, due to the ongoing impact of the Napa tackle, before Hetherington tried to rally the kennel with a high shot on Twal that saw him trot off to the bin for his troubles.
This wasn’t the toughest contact, so Hetheringon’s reputation seemed to precede him here, as Doueihi took the penalty kick, bringing his 2021 tally to 160 – fourth behind Nathan Cleary at 164, Adam Reynolds at 214, and Reuben Garrick at 240, and significantly ahead of Jamal Fogarty and Mitch Moses at 126 apiece. It wasn’t the most convincing conclusion for the Tigers, but it wasn’t a heartbreaker either – and after last week’s disastrous loss to the Warriors it was a minor miracle, steeling the black and gold as they prepare for the Cowboys.