ROUND 23: Wests Tigers v. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (Browne Park, 21/8/21, 20-50)

Both the Tigers and Sharks had won eight and lost thirteen when they rocked up for the first ever NRL game (and the third attempted fixture) at Browne Park on Saturday afternoon. The Sharkies had the upper hand on the ladder, but they’d also had three straight defeats, and were hurting from their two-point loss to the Knights at the death last week. Blayke Brailey was a superstar in that game, reaching more minutes than any other NRL forward this year, and he’d prove crucial in their win today too, right down to the closing two tries.

If the Sharkies had lost three, the Tigers were looking to win three in a row for the first time since early 2018. More generally (and more aspirationally) they still had faint hopes of their first finals berth since 2011, as the eight continues to elude them through all their different permutations. Yet Cronulla built a sublime flow by the second quarter, piling on the tries in the back forty, and responding to a near-comeback from the Tigers by doubling down to arrive at their best ever winning margin over the boys from Balmain and Campbelltown.  

David Nofoaluma took the kickoff and Joe Ofahengaue the opening run, before the Tigers got a restart on tackle two, with an offside from Briton Nikora. They were over the halfway line by play four, where Luke Brooks booted it out towards the left edge. Not only did Will Kennedy take it on the full, but Moses Mbye was pinged for high contact, as Jack Williams ferried it up the middle, channelling his critical performance last week as the only forward to make 100 metres against Newcastle.

Toby Rudolf was at the ten by tackle four, and Cronulla swept right, where only a Michael Chee Kam ankle tap prevented Jesse Ramien crossing on the wing. This became the changeover, as the Tigers got another early boost out of their own end, thanks to some early crowding from Rudolf. They elasticised out to the right, and were in the red zone by the close of their first play, before pivoting out to the other wing just as rapidly, where a series of silky passes ended with Mbye running deep into the line to assist a Chee Kam try.

Ramien, Trindall and Kennedy put in a valiant effort five metres out, and yet the second rower-turned centre stayed staunch, pulling all three defenders down before reaching for his first four-pointer of the season. Adam Doueihi had kicked eleven consecutive goals, and had a pretty easy angle here, but he was booting it straight into the breeze, which carried the Steeden far away from the posts. Even so, the Tigers had made a strong statement, and got another augmented set when Siosifa Talakai knocked on an Utoikamanu offload.

This was a bit of a letoff for the hosts, since the second phase hadn’t been that great to begin with, meaning they had to really consolidate over the next few tackles. Instead, Doueihi lost it, and the Sharks were at the ten midway through the set, mirroring the Tigers with a rapid sweep out the left, only to pivot back inside as Luke Metcalf tried to send Rudolf across beneath the crossbar. Jake Simpkins made a David-on-Goliath effort to shut it all down, while Mbye was just as deft in chasing down a Kennedy grubber to prevent anyone scoring.

The Tigers might have conceded a dropout but they’d also displayed the best goal line defence so far, as the Sharks now caught some of their messiness with two loose plays – first an offload from Brailey, who rolled rather than passed it back to Rudolf, and then an equally awkward second phase effort on the right wing, from Kennedy to Katoa, who had to roll it back in turn. This was close enough for the Sharks to send it upstairs, and they got some joy here, since the replay showed the ball had cleared Katoa’s fingertips before he shepherded it behind him.

It was crunch time for the Tigers’ goal line defence – after two sets in their own twenty they had to keep out Cronulla again now. Yet the Challenge turned out to be the clincher, leading to the first in a torrent of Sharkies points, as the visitors showed the Tiges that they could sweep even better – with a mere pair of wide balls, from Brailey and Metcalf, that put Katoa across untouched in the same corner where he’d almost been held to have knocked on. It was a great way to celebrate his 24th birthday, especially since Trindall added the sideline kick.

Brailey made good metres out of dummy half midway through the restart, and Kennedy followed him straight up the middle, adding some post-contact work for good measure. By tackle five, the Sharkies were back where Katoa had scored, travelling a hundred metres in a single set. Even though Mbye wrested the Steeden back at the death, Cronulla had found a flow here that promised a cascade of points once they really sunk into it. For the first time, the Tigers looked frantic on the next set, from a risky early flick pass to a drab Doueihi kick.

They needed to capitalise immediately on the forward pass from Kennedy that aborted the next bout of Cronulla possession, especially since it came early enough for them to pack the scrum at their own forty. Joffa got them rolling with five post-contact metres, Tommy Talau drove it deep into the right corner, Nofa pivoted it back out to the middle, and the Tigers explored the right edge, before Brooks opted to run it on the last, as his men tried to replicate Katoa’s try by feeding it through Doueihi for Talau.

While Tommy didn’t have quite enough space to get around the defence, Brooksy’s confidence in running it on the last, and the sheer elasticity of this sequence, signalled their commitment to matching Cronulla’s flow. Yet their dynamism was quickly swallowed up by Trindall’s first 40/20 of the season at the end of the subsequent set. Trindall consolidated a tackle later, with a left sweep along the ten metre line, but Doueihi shut down this intensified flow as soon as it had started with an epic strip on Talakai five out from the line.

Buoyed up by this individual effort, Doueihi came up with a more convincing kick now, sending it soaring off the side of the boot deep into the Sharks’ right corner. It didn’t stop the visitors building field position, however, as Metcalf broke into space and brought his men to the red zone, before they shifted right, where Nikora planted it down for what would have been an easy try if Nikora hadn’t obstructed Chee Kam in backplay. This was poor judgement from Nikora, since this was the precise moment when Cronulla should have congealed their flow.

Even so, the buildup had been pretty impressive, so the Tigers had to find a flow of their own on the next set – or absorb the Sharkies’ flow. What they didn’t need was a forward pass from Brooksy out to Talau, an error so egregious, at this point in the game, that in retrospect it felt like one of the key tipping-points. Ronaldo Mulitalo might have dropped the footy on the left edge a few plays later, and the Tigers might have received seven tackles, but Ramien’s massive early run up the right showed that the Sharks hadn’t lost any of their momentum.

Once again, it felt like Cronulla had all the dynamism for an unbroken string of tries if they could just sort out some of the messier parts of their game. Even these errors seemed like they could eventually be an asset – an incentive to refine themselves and reach finals mode with the Tigers as a relatively easy hurdle on their way to the big dance. They got their second successive scrum feed off a Ken Maumalo error, and used it to head out to the left as seamlessly as they’d set up Trindall on the right.

This time there was no obstruction to contend with, as Brailey set up Connor Tracey to pop a beautiful harbour bridge ball across for Mulitalo to cross untouched. In its simplicity, elegance and apparent effortlessness, this felt like the critical try for Cronulla – the first try that looked commensurate to the superb flow that they’d glimpsed intermittently during the opening quarter. Trindall might have missed the conversion, but they were still a converted try ahead – the first time that either side had reached this margin.

The restart was less impressive, beginning strong but ended with an awkward play from Brailey, and yet the Tigers weren’t able to do much with their next set, despite Brooksy trying to break into space up the left, and then looking for a combination out on the right wing, where Doueihi found himself cleaned up without managing to get boot to ball. Meanwhile, the Sharks continued to build space up their own right, where Ramien came up with a clutchy offoad on the ground to Trindall that turned out to be too clutchy – and was called forward.

These were all good opportunities for the Tigers, who really only need to score a converted try here to absorb some of Cronulla’s momentum as their own. We might have been in for a very different game if they’d put down just one try before the break – and they came close on the last two plays, when Mbye broke through the line. He would have score if not for a last-ditch ankle tap from his opposing fullback, while Simpkin was crunched ten centimetres out as he tried to sink into his no. 1’s slipstream.

In two defensive moves the Sharks had matched the Tigers sustained goal-line defence from the first quarter, although Brooksy’s organisation in setting up these last two plays was nothing to scoff at either. The game hung in the balance with a new precarity as both teams seemed to sense that the next try could determine the passage of play for a long time, and perhaps even shape the third quarter when they eventually returned from the sheds.

Brooks continued to deliver with an offload for Tukimihia Simpkins on the left edge, clearing up space for a mammoth Shawn Blore dive at the chalk, where he barged into a David-on-David battle with Brailey. The young rake did brilliantly to get beneath the ball and prevent the try, notching up the adrenalin once again before Kennedy added to his post-contact tally on tackle one. A moment later, Ramien finally made good on all that right side energy, breaking through the line and laying a platform for Metcalf to come up with two terrific plays.

The first was a charge to the ten, the second a grubber to the left edge that looked certain to produce a dropout when three Sharks surged in to prevent Mbye crossing back over the try line. But the Tigers fullback now executed the high-risk play of the afternoon – a no-look offload back for Nofoaluma to only just make it over the chalk and preclude the offload. Even better, Talakai was pinged for a second effort, as the Tigers suddenly seemed to have seized the sublime flow the Sharkies had glimpsed – until Billy Walters promptly put it down.

With five minutes on the clock, and five errors apiece, there was adrenalin surging up and down the park – it was just a matter of which team would harness it before the siren rang out. Kennedy sent Tracey deep into the left corner to start the next set, while Talakai spun through a couple of defenders to almost crash over beside the left post, and Braden Hamlin-Uele mirrored his effort further out towards the right wing. These plays exuded a simplicity and elegance that recalled the Sharkies’ last try, so four more points felt imminent now.

Sure enough, they scored again a play later, and with the same economy and efficiency. All it took was a cut-out ball from Kennedy for Muliatlo to cross untouched and curve behind the posts, setting up Trindall for an easy kick to quadruple the Tigers at 16-4. In the context of this closely contested forty it was a big lead, but the Sharks would lean in to their flow even more comprehensively in the second stanza, conceding twelve to the Tigers but racking up another 34 of their own to leave the park with a half century under their belts. 

Trindall shaped for a two-point field goal to cap it off, and while he missed the mark, the Sharks wouldn’t have to wait long to nab their next points. Two minutes into the second half, at -50 on the live ladder (four behind Gold Coast at -46), and after Luciano Leilua seemed to have sustained an ankle injury, the Sharkies claimed this back forty as their own. Receiving the footy at his own twenty, Metcalf broke past Chee Kam, twisted through Simpkin and shaped a big dummy to dispose of the last line of defence before breaking into space.

He had so much headway that he could have easily scored himself, so it was an integrity move when he opted to assist Metcalf, who was surging up on his inside, for his first NRL try. It was also a confidence move, proof the Sharks had the luxury to score on their own terms here, as Trindall got his two points to bring them to a towering 22-4 lead. The one blemish was that Nikora was pinged for the hip drop that had now taken Leilua from the field with an ankle issue, although it was only a minute before Luciano was cleared to return to the fray.

He didn’t take long to make an impact either, surging up the middle to continue a metre-eating run from Nofoaluma, before Broosky sent a superb short ball out to Mbye, who had space to cross over on the left edge, but instead opted to feed it out to Talau, and then receive the offload in turn. The Tigers had their chance and blew it, so they had to make the most of the scrum feed that came off a subsequent Jack Williams error – and while Doueihi did well to muscle his way through Brailey on play one, the try was denied due to a Tuilagi scrum error.

While the Tigers would go on to score three more tries, this felt like the critical turning-point in the game, especially since this was a pretty tough call – a response to Metcalf over-committing in defence more than a conventional scrum infringement. Luckily for the hosts, a Metcalf forward pass prevented the Sharkies capitalising off this call immediately, and with six again off a Brailey error they had a shot at returning to the determination of their last period on the Cronulla line, only for Mbye to cough it up on the very first tackle.

The first forty had contained some terrific flashbacks to Mbye’s golden era, so seeing him return to his messier form was dispiriting here – and right when the Tigers needed their fullback to guide them towards their first finals season since 2011. They got their next chance when Doueihi hoisted his highest bomb since the break, and Kennedy lost it, setting up Brooks for some deft handling – first out to the left edge, and then back inside, where the footy travelled through a cascade of Tigers before Kennedy was penalised for the loose contact.

For the second time in as many minutes, however, the Tigers turned it over on tackle one, as Talau followed Mbye with a subpar carry. A Cronulla try now would really twist the knife, so it was massive that Nofoaluma managed to both collect Brailey’s next bomb in the air and withstand a three-man pack to only just remain in the field of play. Even so, the Tigers didn’t break their red zone until tackle four, meaning Brooks had to absolutely boot it from just inside his thirty to prevent the Sharks from escalating into more goal line attack.

However, as it turned out, the visitors didn’t need to break the red to put down their next try, since Kennedy and Katoa paired up to continue Mulitalo and Tracey’s sublime command of the park. Kennedy got the play rolling with a well-placed pass from dummy half, and Katoa read the field beautifully, tucking the footy under his right arm, and breaking through a combined low shot from Maumalo and high tackle from Utoikamanu before drawing in Mbye, only to pop it back out to his fullback, who crossed over untouched before Trindall converted.

With each new try, the Sharks had found a fresh way to showcase their capacity for simplicity – for the kind of clinical plays that build confidence. The symmetry of this Trindall-Katoa-Trindall effort was the latest addition to that tally, although the Tigers put a dent in it a few minutes later, thanks to some deft communication between Tuilagi, Walters and Tom Amone as they came in for a combined tackle on Mulitalo on the brink of their own forty. Just when the play seemed complete, 18 and 19 pulled back, leaving Tuilagi to effect a stealthy strip.

Brooks had focused his running game up the left edge since the break, while the Tigers had explored some second phase play in this part of the park too, neither of which had consolidated as consistently as they might have hoped. That just made it all the more cathartic when Brooksy drove the footy into the corner and popped it out for Talau to execute a pitch-perfect offload to Maumalo, who got some joy after letting Katoa through by popping the Steeden down in the corner, before Doueihi made the sideline kick to bring us to 10-28.

With a try on the restart the Tigers might just have a chance, but the Sharks survived Doueihi’s torpedo bomb – the most dangerous kick from either team all night – as Katoa collided with Maumalo and ricocheted the ball backwards for Ramien to scoop up. This was a pretty precarious moment for Cronulla, and yet they recovered immediately by marking the arrival of the final quarter with their first try off a kick.

The big men laid a solid platform here, as Aaron Woods barged into Utoikamanu midway up the park, and Teig Wilton disposed of three defenders twenty metres further on. From there, the Sharkies swept it seamlessly out to the right wing, where Ramien swerved and tried to find the chalk, before sending it back inside. None of these men broke through the line, but the set was just as much an exercise in mapping out every part of the park, invoking the last two long-rangers in smaller segments, as if the team were narrowing their focus play by play.

By the time Trindall booted a stellar chip to the left wing, it felt like his men had decided that this was where they would score, after considering their options everywhere else. Sure enough they came up with one of their best tries here – and their clutchiest, as Nofoaluma never got a hand to the footy but caused enough disruption for Mulitalo to spill it backwards, where Mbye reached out both hands to collect it on the line, only to find Wilton running an oblique trajectory to grab it into his chest and tumble over beside the left post for four more.

Brooks went short with the next kickoff, Maumalo tapped it on, and Mbye managed to clean it up on the sideline while avoiding touch, as shadows crept across the east side of the stadium. The Tigers made good inroads to the right corner, where Doueihi took the third tackle five metres out, before shifting it rapidly to the other side of the park, where Mbye came up with a beautiful wide ball to Chee Kam, who couldn’t catch-and-pass quite rapidly enough to create space for Maumalo out on the wing.

Nevertheless, the Tigers got a fresh set off a Katoa error, and proceeded to execute and perfect the last set in reverse, swinging out to the left and then pivoting back to the opppsite wing, where Brooksy sent it through Leilua and Mbye for Talau to dispose of Tracey and then get through two more defenders to plant the footy down. He’d now scored in three consecutive games, and with Doueihi booting through the extras, the Tigers could just glimpse a comeback here if they managed to score the next four points.

They delivered on the restart, mirroring the last Cronulla try by dominating every part of the park. First, Simpkin ducked out of a couple of tackles and nearly broke through the line up the right, then Mbye shifted the play out to the left before Utoikmanu ate more metres up the middle. By the time they burrowed into the right wing at the end of the set they’d come full circle, while the flashback to Doueihi’s earlier run into the corner suggested a try wasn’t too far away either.

Brooksy capped it off with a crossfield bomb on the last that totally defied Katoa while catching Trindall offside. From there, Leilua compressed and condensed Talau’s try on the other wing, receiving a deft pass from Simpkin and putting his whole body on the line as he barged through Talakai and Kennedy at close range, launching himself into the tackle with so much force that he seemed too disoriented to register whether he’d got the Steeden down.

At 20-34, the next conversion was critical, so a groan rang out from the Wests Tigers supporters in the crowd when Doueihi shanked it away from the posts. Still, two tries in three minutes was nothing to scoff at, especially since the Tigers had reversed the whole momentum of the game by this point, settling into the flow that the Sharkies had spent most of the afternoon claiming as their own. To take it back, it wasn’t enough for Cronulla to win – they had to put down a sparkling sequence of tries, which is precisely what they delivered.

For a moment, it looked like the restart might end with another nightmare sequence under the high ball for Cronulla. This time the boot came from Doueihi, and utterly defied the Sharks, leaving space for Chee Kam to execute a second kick that sailed five metres over the dead ball line. This was the last key tipping-point of the game, providing Moylan with the platform to test his recovered calf by breaking through the line at the other end of the park, and popping it out for Metcalf to curve around the posts for his second NRL try.

This was exactly the consolidation play the Sharkies needed at this point. Not only was it a linkup between a veteran and young gun (if you can call Moylan a veteran), but it was a special linkup – testament to Moylan’s footy genius after a sustained period on the sideline, and rousing for Metcalf, who before today hadn’t scored a single try in first grade. Trindall added the extras, and just like that the visitors had gone from the spectre of a twelve-point game to double the Tigers at 40-20, while Metcalf barked out orders like the oldest player on the park.

To their credit, the Tigers got the ball back again, off another short Brooks kickoff, taken this time by Nofoaluma. They also swept left with panache, while Mbye sent a second brilliant wide ball out to the wing, where Maumalo was only just held up by the Cronulla defenders. Yet the set started to falter when Walters was crunched to ground by Wilton, and dissolved entirely when Utoikomanu coughed it up a play later. From here, it was all straight sailing for the Sharkies, who moved seamlessly from forty to fifty over the final seven minutes.

The Tigers survived the next set, as the light turned golden over Rockhampton, but they really struggled for field position now, even with a restart two tackles in, off a ruck error from Wilton. The death knell was a second cough-up from the forward pack, this time from Joffa – testament to a Wests outfit that was utterly exhausted, both by this game and by the season as a whole. Conversely, the Sharks looked relaxed out of the scrum, already thinking ahead to next week – and ended with their chilliest try of the 2021 season.

The play started with two languorous dummies – the first subliminal from Moylan, the second expansive from Trindall, but both performed as if for a training run, without a single shred of urgency in the face of the defence. Utoikamanu and Joffa had showed their exhaustion, and Tuilagi followed suit, allowing Kennedy to bump him to ground after receiving the Steeden from Trindall. All Kennedy had to do was tuck it under his arm, and decelerate to a casual jog as he curved around to set up his halfback for another easy conversion.

To come back from the Tigers’ double, the Sharkies needed to find their flow in a special way – and they’d delivered. Metcalf had a debut double, Moylan had a comeback break, Kennedy had the most leisurely try of his career, and with this last four-pointer Cronulla had broken their all-time record against the black and orange. They’d done more than enough to propel them into next week’s game against the Broncos, so the century was icing on the cake, as well as a painful reminder of the Tigers’ frustrated potential on their own right wing.

The sweep was as languorous as Kennedy’s break – and once again Brailey, Moylan and Trindall were the key players, setting up Katoa for an easy four points. Trindall missed the sideline conversion, but the clean fifty actually felt like a more emphatic statement. Cronulla shouldn’t have too many issues next week, despite Brisbane’s late season courage, and despite the pain of losing Mulitalo to a broken jaw while trying to defend Talau’s try. On the other side of the Steeden, the Tiges have a tough job on their hands when they play Penrith, as yet another bout of finals footy goes begging for the most frustrated team in the league.

About Billy Stevenson (724 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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