ROUND 6: Parramatta Eels v. Wests Tigers (CommBank Stadium, 18/4/22, 20-21)
Sometimes a footy game encapsulates an entire era of frustrations and disappointments, and so it was with the Wests Tigers’ shock win over Parramatta at CommBank tonight. Finally, over the last few weeks, the Tiges have gone the way of the Dogs, Knights and Broncos, glimpsing rock bottom so decisively the only way out was up – or for Michael Maguire to be fired. For years they haven’t been quite bad enough to ever get better, just middling in a way that’s even difficult to counter, but their win over the Eels felt like the start of a new period.
In fact, this match will likely come to be seen as the tipping-point in moving them beyond their finals drought, even if they don’t make finals footy in 2022. There was a new energy, exhilaration and volatility on display, combined with their most dramatic shakeup in the spine over the last decade – Luke Brooks, the pride of the team, shifted from five-eighth, making way for Jackson Hastings to lead from the no. 7 jersey. It was a controversial decision, but it paid dividends immediately, and may have just saved Madge’s coaching career in the process.
Ironically, putting Hastings at half made Brooksy play more like himself, since with an extra couple seconds to read the field he was able to reach back to those scintillating plays that once put him in the same league as James Tedesco and Mitch Moses, and may well do so in the future so long as he continues to build on this new position. Hastings himself also came full circle from his departure from Manly with an utterly sublime show of leadership, right down to the field goal a second off the siren that brought the Tigers faithful to their knees.
Until tonight the Tiges had never quite got over the belting they received in their first game at Bankwest, but by the time Hastings booted it through this truly felt like a shared home ground, even or especially because Parra were celebrating their 75th anniversary with 12 hall-of-famers forming a guard of honour as the players trotted onto the park. Add to that Dylan Brown’s continuing brilliance over 2022, and Brooksy’s opening assist for Luciano Leilua felt miraculous in itself – miraculous enough to give his men the self-belief needed for the win.
Brooks may have been wearing the no. 6 jersey but he still took the first kick, while the Tigers came in hard to defend the first couple of sets, but found it work against them when Joe Ofahengaue was pinged for a strip early in the county. Kelma Tuilagi came in hard as Nathan Brown broke the red zone, and James Tamou did the same on RCG five metres out on the left, before Dylan Brown sliced a Mitch Moses-like kick down the corner to force the dropout off Daine Laurie, barking out orders to the Parra troops as Hastings lined up a sixty-metre kick.
Moses already had his second run by midway through the set, a rapid dart up the right, and Reed Mahoney continued his momentum with an equally plosive run beside the right post, where Tamou only just held him up before Mitch showed he could secure a dropout every bit as clinically as his halves partner. Already, this was some of the most desperate footy in Wests Tigers history, as Oregon Kaufusi delivered a powerful charge in his fifth game at starting prop, and Will Penisini offered a chink in the armour by knocking a wide from Gutho over the side.
These chances might well be few and far between, so the Tigers wasted no time elasticising as they moved up the park, before Hastings sent a fairly easy kick Gutho’s way, but not without David Nofoaluma coming in for a tough chase to prevent the Parramatta captain from gaining any metres. It didn’t matter, though, since James Roberts became the second Tigers to leak a penalty early in the count, this time a slow peel that got RCG back into Wests territory on tackle two, before Brooks smashed in for a David-and-Goliath shutdown on Isaiah Papalii.
This was a heroic moment, but even so the Eels were killing it here, so it was slightly surreal to see them botch it on boths sides of the park, as Papalii attempted a slam-dunk offload on his knees and found Marata Niukore unable to clean it up. It didn’t take Parra long to get the ball back, as Penisini made up for his error with a heroic legs tackle on Nofa, dragging him over the sideline from ten metres in field, so it was doubly surprising when the Tigers found themselves on the attack again thirty seconds later, off a sudden Papalii drop on tackle two.
By this stage, Parra had so much more confidence and crowd support than the Tigers that they needed to regain control immediately to prevent that adrenalin spilling over for the visitors to absorb. One more set and they might have done it, but Brooksy now came up with an assist to silence his critics, receiving a short ball off Hastings and popping an even short one out for Luciano Leilua to execute the best run and putdown of his career. Seven metres out, Tom Opacic grabbed the bottom of his jersey, and didn’t let go for this entire sequence.
Nevertheless, Luciano barrelled forward, and while his ball-playing arm hit the ground as Mahoney slammed in for support, and while he was smothered by back-up work from Penisini and Nathan Brown, he still maintained enough momentum, and tough enough ball control, for the footy to come to ground right on the line with the whole plosive propulsion of this scintillating sequence still behind it. This was one of the most heroic Tigers tries in years, and the crowd knew it, booing doubly loud as Brooksy capped it off by booting through the two.
Parramatta survived the restart, and then got their third piggy-back out of their own end with a Jake Simpkin offside, as Moses promptly booted it forty metres down field to get his men a full set in the red zone off Kaufusi’s opening charge. Ken Maumalo came in for a low tackle to prevent Papalii completing a right sweep on the penultimate play, but Moses’ boot did the job on the last, with a silky grubber that Gutho was always going to put down for the first four. Between Gutho’s raw passion, and the calm of Moses’ two, this was pure Parra power.
After conceding two penalties in the Parramatta end, the Tigers had finally let their errors get the best of them, so they played it safe on the first three tackles of the restart. So did the Eels, eschewing offloads only for Moses to step into the spotlight with a superb run up the short side, a dummy to the wing, and a brilliant ball back inside for Gutho, who looked set to score then and there, only for Starford To’a to rattle the Steeden free in what was deemed a loose carry. Simpkin channelled Moses with a swerving run down the middle, and Brooks booted it.
Gutho didn’t have any problem collecting it on the left corner, even if he couldn’t make any metres, while the Tigers, sitting at 24-6 tackles in the opposition half, conceded even more when Dylan Brown made metres up the left edge. A moment later, Brown took his eyes off the footy, and made another unforced error for Parramatta, who were having surprising issues with completion, and only sitting at 7/10. On the other side of the Steeden, the Tigers started closer than any set so far, so it was frustrating to see Hastings lose a Tamou offload.
Brown didn’t waste any time making up for his error by invoking Moses’ superb chip-and-chase against the Sharks, with a grubber up the left edge that he ran down and came agonisingly close to grounding before Laurie toed it into touch. This was the best eyes-up footy so far, but again the acceleration overtook the home team, as Moses lobbed a superb starter out to Papalii, who continued the sweep with a short ball that Bailey Simonsson misfired into touch. It turned out to be one mistake too many, and the Tiges started to roar.
To’a got them rolling with a monster run across the park, disposing of Nathan Brown, Kaufusi, and Dylan Brown before getting around Gutho and offloading for Nofa to make it third phase play for Simpkin, who continued his scintillating charge up the middle with what might have been a tryscoring run if Mahoney hadn’t come in for a bone-rattling tackle. Nevertheless, the Tigers had the momentum now, and Simpkin set up the best sweep of their year a moment later, shifting it out for Hastings to organise what turned out to be Brooksy’s best pass as well.
It was a beautiful wide ball, sailing across a third of the field to find the chest of Nofa, who got his head down and burrowed through Opacic and Simonsson with all the frustration of the Tigers’ first five games propelling him on. This was heroic footy, born in the cauldron of weeks and years of disappointment, and it seemed to galvanise the boys from Balmain and Campbelltown into a new team, even if Brooks didn’t make the conversion here. It was also their turn to get a penalty on the restart, off a Mahoney flop, high on their best flow in years.
The new halves combo continued to shine on the last, as Brooks fed it out to Hastings, who glanced up, saw that Penisini was caught in field, and chipped out for Nofa to catch it on the full and curve around to score the double. It felt like we were glimpsing (however distantly) the start of a new Wests Tigers era as Hastings held up a finger to Madge in the box, since even if they lost this afternoon they were finally playing like a top-tier footy team. Yet for a brief moment, it looked like Parramatta would bounce back and resume their opening flow.
First, they survived the restart; then, Penisini got some joy with a break, and finally Joffa conceded six again. Everything looked set to converge with a mad Moses pivot off the left boot, but he couldn’t break through the line, and had to resort to a very late offload that Roberts dove on before Dylan Brown could get there. He may have knocked on, but the refs called play on, and there was no way for Parra to send it upstairs, while an Opacic slow peel bumped the Tigers back into blue and gold territory, where they nearly scored another four.
Instead, they succumbed to the Eels’ issues with completing their edge plays, thanks to a massive Simonsson tackle that dishevelled To’a as he was shaping for an assist to Maimlo, who would have crossed untouched if the ball had been a bit less wonky. Returning to the rhythm of the opening sets, Simpkin made a slow peel early in the set, and once again it produced Parramatta points, as a pair of restarts off Joffa and Leilua errors got Matterson in place for a massive charge that Brooksy shut down in his second huge hit on a big bopper.
Still, Matto had built enough momentum for Papalii to smash over on the very next play, a metre further out towards the wing, bringing the Eels to a four-point deficit once Moses missed the kick from the side. Meanwhile, Tuilagi was put on report for a late tackle on Mitch, while Brooks was giving a formal warning to clean up the ruck errors or else face the consequences. The Tiges got some better news a set later, when they sent up a successful challenge to prove that a supposed knock-on had actually come off a Lane error in the air.
With three minutes on the clock, the top priority for the Tigers now was to avoid errors and keep Parra to ten. Hastings booted it, Gutho caught it on the full, and in the tackle of the game Laurie charged down man and ball, barging himself into Gutherson at full pelt and smashing him back into touch for one last dropout before the break. Moses went short, the Tigers handled it, and Gutho got his own back at the end of a Broosky-orchestrated strip by jamming in with Simonsson to prevent Maumalo taking the Steeden securely on the edge of the park.
Gutho was as fuelled with passion now as he had been on the back of his try, and his reaction (and the crowd’s reaction) brought the game to a fever pitch of emotion as the siren rang out. Matto got the second half rolling with a very late offload, the only rupture in a strong defensive stint from the Tigers, who got some second phase of their own to help them barge back from their own red zone. Hastings hoisted it high at the Parra forty, Zane Musgrove prevented him making it much beyond the ten, and the big men got going to build the metres.
A good Brown kick and Opacic chase kept the Tigers trapped in their twenty for the first half of the next set, so Brooksy booted it long and hard when he arrived at the forty, before Parra got the first penalty of the second stanza, off a slow peel from Hastings for working on the ground on tackle one. The sheds seemed to have steadied the Eels, who had channelled the overspill of volatility that marked their opening quarter into a more methodical and assured brand of football, producing their calmest and longest sweep midway through the repeat set.
Nevertheless, Parra couldn’t nail the sweep back to the left, returning to their spotty edge plays of the first stanza when Lane undid a good Moses-Brown combo by lobbing it past Penisini and into touch. We now reached the most volatile moment of the game so far, as Chris Butler penalised Matterson for contact on Thomas Mikaele, and Moses surged over from the left side of the park to bark out a captain’s challenge when it became clear that Gutho and Matto were going to let it pass – and got even more amped up when it succeeded.
This was probably the peak moment for Moses, whose vision and leadership had allowed him to see what nobody else had – that the play-the-ball from Mikaele had been an issue in and of itself. To match it, the Tigers had to deliver a play that encapsulated all their drive this afternoon, and they got it by contesting the subsequent scrum, slamming the Parramatta packers backwards until Simpkin came up with the footy. They were sitting on 76% completion to Parra’s 67%, they got their fifth tackle in the twenty, and it was time to congeal.
That’s just what happened late in the set, when Brooksy fed the footy from dummy half, and Hastings continued to lead from halfback, roaring out for Laurie to join him as they surged into the line, and making space for his no. 1 to lob a one-handed underarm assist out for Maumalo to slam through Gutho for four more on the wing. Hastings banged it straight from the sideline, the Tigers hit a ten point lead, and Mahoney hit back on Parra’s next incursion into Wests territory, virtually assisting himself with a wide one to put Dylan Brown into space.
Brown sliced through the line as mercurially as he ever has, before flicking the footy back to Mahoney to score up the middle. Moses was always going to convert from this angle, and we were back to a four-point contest. The Eels had sent a clear statement back to the visitors. RCG and Lane took huge carries to glimpse the thirty by tackle two of the restart, Makahesi Makatoa built more position up the middle, and Moses hoisted it high to the right edge, where Laurie leaped up to take it on the full without missing a beat or conceding any speed.
Parra started their next set in a good position as well, and Niukore added to it with the best post-contacts of the game so far, making fifteen into the defence to accelerate the set – too much, as it turned out, since Gutho sent it too heavy off the boot to grant the visitors a seven tackle set that was quickly augmented by their third penalty of the game, a mildly dangerous hit from RCG, who seemed to be struggling with a leg injury. This was a critical chance for the Tiges, and the crowd knew it, growing more hushed as Tuilaga got an offload back to Hastings.
Of course, the muted tone was also due to RCG leaving the park immediately, while back on the grass Tamou took a mad charge up the middle, Hastings chipped to the left edge, and Brooksy came in for an enormous tackle just as Simonsson was about to land, Steeden under his arm, in the field of play. Call it Brooks’ third David-on-Goliath, as Gutho went short again, only for play to pause abruptly on tackle one, when Simpkin was downed with an ankle sprain after bumping Penisini at an awkward angle during the kick contest, a heartbreaking moment.
His injury was so bad that he had to go off in a minicab, a tragic sight both for such a promising young gun and for a Tigers outfit that had been on the verge of surging when he came to ground. Jock Madden didn’t waste any time making metres off the bench, but the set fell apart on tackle four, when Hastings drove it deep into the line and glimpsed a gap that Leilua might well have breached if Dylan Brown and Opacic hadn’t converged for a bone-rattling trysaver. With Niukore making more brutal post-contacts, Parra were on the front foot again.
Moses’ next bomb came with a dangerous bounce, eventually heading over the sideline to get the Tigers a start from the twenty that Matterson partially thwarted with a huge shot on Nofa. It took the visitors a couple of tackles to hit back from that contact, and only then by shifting it left midway through the count, for an elastic experiment that went nowhere, forcing them to bring it back down the middle before Hastings floated a fairly innocuous bomb that Simonsson caught clean. Again, though, the chase from the backline made the difference.
This time it was Laurie who slammed in to prevent Simonsson making metres, but Peninsini recouped the position with a massive run and offload up the middle, while Moses outdid his last kick with the most towering bomb of the night – a reverse torpedo that wobbled precariously in the breeze, sailing so high that Mitch himself bounced a metre off the turf as he ricocheted back from it. The bounce was doubly dangerous, condensing all that altitude into the smallest of trajectories off the grass, defying Maumalo and leaving the work to Laurie.
It took him a couple of bounces to get it, and even then he was only able to smash it one-handed, volleyball-style, into touch, with Papali’i on his back. The Tigers were now defending their fifth dropout, with Maumalo also off the park with a knee issue, and they did the job, as Leilua made up for his knock-on by slamming in to make sure Kaufusi did the same. It was bad enough to have RCG off, but Opacic became the next player to leave after copping a brutal fend in the neck as Leilua was on the attack, bringing Hayze Perham on for the last twelve.
Dangerous contact from Garner at the same time got Parra their next burst of position, and they built on it immediately, gathering all the frustration, messiness and rotations of the last passage of play with the try that levelled the score. The metres came easily now – the Eels were sitting at 1288 to the Tigers’ 1019 – and Moses ended with a deft chip to the right, where Laurie had a tough moment under the high ball, and Niukore was in place to make the most of it. Collecting it on the ricochet, all he had to do was slice past Madden to get it to ground.
Full credit to Simonsson, too, for the bone-rattling contest in the air that forced the Laurie cough-up in the first place. When it came down to the line, Moses’ vision with the boot had made the difference, and yet the ex-Tiger couldn’t slot through the conversion to secure a lead against his former club, while a Mitch Rein error abruptly turned the restart into seven tackles for the Tigers. Nofa now delivered his most heroic run, taking on half the Parramatta team as Kaufusi spearheaded a pack to hold him up at high speed and keep the Steeden aloft.
This was easily the best pack defence of the year, and one of the best packs in recent Parra history. With even a little more wiggle room, it would have been a sure four for Nofa, but the Tigers still had three tackles to parlay that momentum into something special. They started by driving it out to the left, where there was nothing doing, before a Twal settler established their final sweep back to the left, where Niukore on Madden and Simonsson on Garner ensured the Steeden sailed over the side, as both outfits started to enter field goal territory.
Still, the Tigers survived, and got a critical penalty late in the next count, fifteen metres out from halfway, thanks to some Makatoa crowding. Hastings was in position for the field goal, but in his first howler of the night he opted to boot it hard up the right, as Perham delivered his best play off the bench by chasing it down and waiting for the last moment to touch the footy, ensuring that it bounced off the dead ball line by the time he got hands to it. Parra had seven tackles, the Tigers intensified in defence, and Papalii was outside the forty on play five.
By the end of it all, this was one of Parra’s poorest sets of the afternoon. Moses wasn’t in position to get the field goal, so he compensated with another soaring bomb to the right wing that ended up conceding seven tackles back to the Tigers. It was the moment for the visitors to shine, so it was heartbreaking when Madden went the way of Simpkin, booting it too hard up the right to gift the Eels another seven tackles with two minutes on the clock. Parra did better this time, thanks to a strong opener from Dylan Brown, as Mahoney barked out orders.
Like Simpkin before him, however, Moses eschewed a chance to kick on the fourth, and then took a shot on the fifth, only to sail it past the right post, leaving us with a 20-20 game with fifty seconds left. All the Tigers had to do with this zero tackle set was get in position for the kick, and a Tamou-Roberts offload went some way to building up the position, before Hastings took a shot at the one point field goal, and slotted it through the posts with a second to go.
It may have been one of the most powerful and passionate conclusions to a Tigers game in the post-finals era, culminating the Hastings experiment so sublimely that it’s hard to believe they haven’t entered a new footy period in which Brooksy permanently takes up the mantle at five-eighth. It’s also a terrific comeback for Hastings himself, after his departure from the Sea Eagles, and the first game that’s really hit back in a complete way against that first ever loss at Bankwest – all brilliance the Tigers have to bottle to take on the Bunnies next week..
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