ROUND 7: Wests Tigers v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (CommBank Stadium, 23/4/22, 23-22)

The Tigers had a big job at their hands when they returned to CommBank, this time as actual hosts, after taking ownership of the stadium and the season with their sublime field goal win against Parra last week. James Roberts was out with a back injury, bringing Luke Garner into the centres, and Jacob Liddle was replacing Jake Simpkin following his late ankle issue against the Eels, while South Sydney were coming off back-to-back wins, and three from four, with an extra three rest days, despite struggling for thirty minutes against the Bulldogs last week.

Still, the Bunnies hadn’t played a really consistent eighty minutes of footy this year, and had their strongest stint against the Roosters back in Round 3, leaving them vulnerable to a Wests Tigers outfit that notched up an early 6-0 lead, and then recovered it fifteen minutes from the end, when Luke Brooks worked his way back from weeks of media scrutiny with a long-range try that culminated two terrific outings in the five-eighth jersey. With Keoan Koloamatangi crossing soon after, the score was locked 22-22 as the game became a battle of field goals.

It was an appropriate ending to such a closely-contested match, which had involved a double from Nofa, along with two massive moments from the Johnston-Walker combo, both of which came when Taane Milne was in the bin. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Brooksy cemented his rebirth in the no. 6 role by slotting through the one-pointer fifty seconds out from the siren, in a poetic sequel to Jackson Hastings’ field goal win against the Eels – a pair of plays that beautifully encapsulate the potential of the Tigers’ latest halves experiment.

South Sydney started by keeping the Tigers in their own forty, while Alex Johnston got a good bounce and Cody Walker spread it left three plays later to bring his men inside the red zone. Starting at prop for only the second time in the NRL, Hame Sele hit the ten, where Walker booted a grubber that seemed destined to produce a dropout, only for David Nofoaluma to toe it forward, out of the goal area, and then fall on it back in the field of play. It was exactly the flamboyance the Tigers needed to steel themselves for their second set of the night.

Again, they struggled to make metres, but there was a new elasticity to their attack as they got Jackson Hastings in place for a kick from the right side of the park. This time the Bunnies remained outside the thirty, until a Lachlan Ilias ball ricocheted forward off Damien Cook, giving the Tigers a chance to start where they’d made their opening two kicks. James Tamou drove it inside Souths territory for the first time, and while Josh Mansour gave away six again when he dove on a loose ball, he bounced back by dragging Starford To’a over the side.

Put that down, in part, to a mistimed pass from Luke Brooks, although he got a let-off when the call went the Wests Tigers’ way, before a Campbell Graham offside got the hosts their first significant field position of the match. They were at the ten three plays in, and secured a dropout a play after that, as Hastings found himself in the middle of a left sweep, realised he didn’t have any room to work with, and soberly booted through the grubber that Blake Taaffe was forced to bump into touch, in a brilliant vision of serenity under pressure.

Sele copped the full brunt of Zane Musgrove’s hip on play one and left the park immediately, a disappointing end to his first start of the season, while the Tigers didn’t slow down after the pause, garnering another restart when Ilias infringed the ruck up the left. After two sets on the line they had to score here, and this time the right sweep came together. Hastings reached out to rein in a Liddle pass, and Daine Laurie had a career high at fullback with a superb catch-and-pass for Nofa, who tucked it under his right arm and set his eyes on the chalk.

Pivoting off the left boot, he beat Taaffe completely, then got the ball down with Walker on his back, while a superb strike from the sideline saw Hastings make it six on the board. Laurie had one assist from one touch, Jacko had bookended another terrific play, Taane Milne was sent to the bin for high contact on Laurie in the midst of the catch-and-pass, and the Tigers were glimpsing the finesse and flow of last week’s game against Parra. With twelve men on the opposition, and the first Bunnies bin of the year, they had to capitalise again now.

Musgrove took his sixth run to begin the restart, and then copped massive contact from Cameron Murray on his seventh, while Brooksy got good hang time with the kick, giving the chase space to prevent Taaffe making it back beyond his thirty. Nevertheless, the Rabbitohs got a penalty on the very next play, as Tamou became the next big bopper to make high contact, after Johnston slipped and fell into his arm. This was pretty lucky for South Sydney, and Jai Arrow fuelled them further by breaking over the red zone on tackle two.

A try with twelve men would be a big motivator now, and Walker laid the foundation with a gentle grubber to the left edge, where Laurie was unable to bring it back into play with Arrow and Johnston at his back. Koloamatangi got six again on play one, off a ruck error from Tamou, a Murray fumble killed the momentum, and the Tiges stayed strong as big Keaon bookended the set with a strong run on the right, before a Johnston-Walker combo back on the left edge got South Sydney on the board in the most spectacular manner.

Walker started by plunging the footy deep into the line, where he flicked it out for a Jacob Host tap-on to Johnston, who in turn came to ground beneath a sea of Tigers defenders, but still managed to lob the ball back for Cody to scoop up and ground behind the crossbar. It was such a heroic effort that the Bunker didn’t seem able to believe it, scrutinising the whole sequence to show that there had indeed been no obstruction in the buildup, nor a knock-on into Hastings before Johnston somehow managed to squeeze the Steeden out.

With Taaffe slotting through the two, this was a sobering response to the Tigers, who had not only conceded a try with an extra man, but allowed South Sydney to showcase their most flamboyant footy so far. The Tigers survived the restart, To’a parlayed a bouncing Brooks ball into extra speed up the left, and Broosky booted it high to force Johnston to get down on his back to collect it. Since the Milne sin bin, the Rabbitohs had enjoyed 70% possession, and got more when Brooks overplayed his next pass to Alex Seyfarth, who put it down on the left.

Two plays later, the Johnston-Walker combo got a double on the wing, with a try as simple as the last was complex. All it took was a Walker cut-out to produce a three-on-two and expose some sloppy Tigers defence. Johnston had assisted with half the opposition on top of him, and now he crossed untouched, for a pair of plays that spoke to South Sydney’s capacity to contain the Tigers’ residual flow from last week, especially since they both occurred with Milne in the bin. Taaffe missed the kick, so the Bunnies were sitting at a 10-6 lead.

The Tigers got their first letoff against this twelve-man outfit when Koloamatangi lost the footy into a combined hit from Seyfarth and Joffa midway through the restart. Laurie could barely make a metre on tackle one, but Tamou did well with the war of attrition, while getting his men six again off a ruck error from Tevita Tatola. Alex Twal continued Tamou’s gritty attack a play later, while Brooksy built on that grunt work with a superb wide ball to To’a, who responded with a deft assist for Ken Maumalo to get down before Taaffe could touch him.

In doing so, the ex-Warrior became the third highest tryscorer of 2022 after Ryan Papenhuyzen (8) and Taylan Man (7), bringing the Tigers to a two point lead once Hastings booted through another two, every bit as confident from the left sideline as the right. The Tigers might have let in ten points with twelve men in the opposition, but their ability to bounce back this quickly was a tribute to their newfound spirit with Jacko in the no. 7 jersey.

The restart paused, and then intensified when Liam Knight floored Tamou with undue neck pressure, before Liddle got six again, and a penalty to boot, when Murray infringed the ruck and Knight took out his frustration with a second dangerous shot, this time by lifting the Wests hooker by the foot and dumping him on his back. Twal reached the ten with a monster run, Brooks sent another cut-out to Maumalo, and then booted it early for a chaotic chase that ended with South Sydney getting the first touch to concede a Wests Tigers dropout.

Twal hardly made it to halfway on tackle one, and Joffa almost bobbled it on tackle two, yet Twal’s run on the third effectively restarted the set, clearing space for Brooksy to almost break past Koloamatangi on the left. Things accelerated from here,as Jacko booted it into the left corner, Maumalo came agonisingly close to a try, and Mansour missed it cold to turn a second dropout into a twenty-metre tap for South Sydney. They only got two tackles in before Knight, who was having a rough first stanza, lost the footy, and Mansour got done for crowding.

Between Mansour’s save and his subsequent penalty, the momentum had swung back Wests’ way, as Hastings brought it inside the twenty, and Liddle darted out of dummy half to bring it inside the ten, where Taaffe knocked on to give the hosts a scrum on the Rabbitohs’ line. Over the last ten minutes, the Tiges had 79% of possession, so they had to put down points here, and for the moment the pressure overtook them on play one, when Brooks sent it left, Nofa put in a superhuman effort to bop it back from touch, and Walker came up with it.

If Walker had scooped it up, Souths would certainly have scored here, since even if he didn’t go all the way he had Johnston unmarked on his inside. Instead, after that chaotic opener, the Tigers got the ball back, and channelled the pressure better this time, with a rapid sweep to the left where Taaffe had to clean up an early Laurie grubber for another dropout. Twal took a near-high shot from Burgess, Hastings almost fumbled it on the fourth, Maumalo got hands to Brooksy’s chip to the left, but knocked on into a strong contest from Mansour.

This was the biggest letoff so far for South Sydney, who had 0 tackles in the opposition half (compared to the Tigers’ 20) over the last ten minutes. They’d done well to survive the Tigers’ surge at their line, but couldn’t get any points on this next set, even if they did slam in to prevent the hosts from breaking the thirty over their first three tackles. Maumalo came up with the critical run on the fourth, laying room for Laurie to get Jacko a kick from the forty, and it sat up beautifully in goal, giving the Tiges time to trap Taaffe inside the ten.

It was the best kick-and-chase of the game so far, and the Bunnies couldn’t match it when Nofa leaped a metre off the turf to take the next high ball on the full. Determined not to let the South Sydney defence have its way again on this set, Brooksy slammed Mansour to ground two tackles in, while the Tiges made it a second superb kick chase, culminating with a Nofa strip that got them a full set on the Rabbitohs line, where they notched up six again when Mansour found himself offside within the ten.

With two and a half minutes left on the clock, this was the critical play of the second half, and gave way to one of the most dramatic moments of the year so far. Luciano Leilua had woken up with his third run on the previous set, and shifted it out to Nofa now, before taking it back from his winger and almost sending Musgrove across a little further infield. From there, the Tiges shifted left, where an errant Brooks ball cost them twenty metres, forcing Seyfarth to take the next play outside the thirty, before Hastings booted it to the left corner.

Not only did Mansour come up with it, but he offloaded for Graham to build space up the left, where Laurie was unable to stop him before he shifted it across to Ilias. In one of the greatest chases in years, Liddle brought the young halfback to ground five metres out, and by the time Graham got the footy again the Tigers’ defence was in place. Twal may have got sent to the bin for a professional foul, but at least it stopped a try, while Brooksy stepped up with a huge tackle on the left, rattling the footy free for Nofa to scoop up and keep the two point lead.

The first nine minutes back would be critical for the Tigers, since in addition to Twal’s sin bin they received news that Laurie had possibly done his MCL, forcing To’a to fullback as Oliver Gildart took over the reins at left centre. A Leilua ball strip got the Bunnies extra space on their first set, but the Tigers stayed strong in defence, eventually forcing a Graham knock-on and dishevelling Taaffe into a near knock-on beneath the next high ball. The time was right for Damien Cook to make fifteen with his first run, but even then the Bunnies couldn’t score.

By seven minutes in the Tiges were sitting at 96% completion, and while Taaffe leapt and spun spectacularly in the air to take the next high ball, Jacko got enough hang time to chase him down and prevent a kick return, only for Graham to revitalise the set with a daring run across the defence and a last-minute offload for Koloamatangi to continue his momentum up the right. It laid the platform for Ilias to toe through a crafty grubber that Mansour, who was well infield, was able to chase down and ground clean to make it a 16-12 lead with the kick.

The Bunnies made it seventy metres up the middle on the restart, and while To’a did well in his first big challenge at fullback, he was still wrapped up in the ten, as the South Sydney defence flew off their wing to keep the hosts inside their red zone for the first half of the set. Even when Leilua broke the twenty he only made a few metres, so the Tigers couldn’t have asked for an more opportune moment to receive their next penalty, a marker error from Murray that ushered in their first real attacking opportunity since the sheds.

Play paused on tackle two for Liddle to leave the park for an HIA, bringing Jock Madden off the bench shortly before he was set to come on for the interchange anyway. Joffa steadied the ship with the opening run, and Madden got a touch immediately to set up a sweep to the left, where Gildart was unable to step inside Graham. It all came down to a Hastings bomb to the right, where Johnston executed a superb catch between Leilua and Nofoaluma, only for Brooksy to smash the footy free and slide to ground for a putdown behind the chalk.

If Brooks hadn’t also knocked-on then this would have been a sublime riposte to that prodigious Johnston-Walker combo that started the game, but even so the Tigers got a fresh set when Walker was pinged for a pretty harsh obstruction. Supposedly, he’d signalled his intention to obstruct by looking over his right shoulder, although you could equally argue that he was bracing himself for contact, putting the Bunnies in a particularly strong defensive mindset as a massive Burgess hit on Twal anchored a struggling start for the Tigers.

A pair of back-to-back tries now ensued for both teams, starting with a Jacko boot to the left wing, where Mamualo popped it back for Madden to assist Gildart in the corner, only for the replay to show that big Ken’s right foot had been in front of Hastings when he made the kick. At the other end of the park, Ilias came up with one of the most mercurial chips of his career to date – so crafty that it split the South Sydney chase before Burgess came up with it on the second round, but not without Cookie knocking it on in the preceding confusion.

These two missed tries reset the game, as Madden got the Tigers some breathing room with a deep kick, and Burgess got pinged for an illegal strip on Leilua late in the count. Musgrove did well to rein in a poor pass from Joffa, Garner glimpsed space up the right, Twal took it straight and hard over the twenty, and Jacko sent it back to the left edge, where Maumalo couldn’t prevent the Bunnies recovering it, before Taaffe was called back for an elusive call of knock-on that seemed to have come from either Graham or llias.

It only took the Tigers one play to score with a crisp clinical sweep off the ruck – a neat pass from Brooksy, a great follow-up from Madden, and a hard run from To’a, who swept around from the middle of the park and drove it deep into the line to put Nofa through Arrow for a double on the wing. On the cusp of the final quarter, and in their first big stint on the South Sydney line since the break, the Tiges had levelled the score to 16-16, while Jacko’s first miss from the sideline kept them there, setting the stage for a grandstand finish.

For five minutes both sides went set for set, avoiding penalties and errors to bring us fifteen out from the break, as Tevita Tatola became the next player to leave the park with injury, bringing Knight back for another stint. Yet that quiet patch just became the prelude to the most sublime single moment of the Tigers’ season, as an Ilias pass ricocheted off Graham, Broosky scooped it up, tucked it under his arm, and ran seventy metres, making so much headway Maumalo was already cheering with the crowd as Brooks decelerated over the line.

To see Brooks pull off this kind of play after some of the most intense media scrutiny in the modern NRL was absolutely inspiring, cementing his shift to five-eighth with a bang before Jacko booted through the easiest kick of the night to regain the Tigers’ six-point lead (and the biggest lead of the night) for the first time since their 6-0 start to the match. No surprise that Wests were pumped for the next chase, when they prevented Sauce breaking the ten, before South Sydney sent up a challenge to secure a To’a knock-on beneath the next high ball.

It was paramount that the Tigers survive the South Sydney scrum from the ten, especially once a Garner offside conceded a fresh set on tackle one – and they did so, with some of their best defence of the season, until a ruck error from Seyfarth conceded another set on the last. Davvy Moale smashed over on tackle two, where he was held up, and the Bunnies got a chance to regroup from the ten, making good on this rapid surge of field position when Koloamatangi collected a short one from Ilias and trampled over Jacko to score on the right.

Taaffe added the extras, and we were back to a locked-up game at 22-22, seven minutes out from the siren. The Tigers were still sitting at a single error as they tried to withstand a barnstorming restart from the Bunnies, including Cook’s second run of the night, and got a huge heartbreak when Leilua was pinged for a strip on the final play. Only a categorical loss from Arrow could overturn this decision, and the Tigers got it when the replay unequivocally showed the big second-rower fumbling the footy without any ruck interference.

Taaffe was at a kickable distance from the crossbar here, so this challenge was the most important of Round 7 so far. Wests had almost made another fatal mistake on the final play, so they drove it up field as hard as possible now, wasting no time with fancy edge options, and instead getting Hastings in place to shoot through a field goal attempt from the halfway line. Not only did he miss the posts, but he sent it too far, giving the Bunnies seven tackles, more than enough to take a shot at a field goal themselves.

With Knight squatting in discomfort on the sideline, South Sydney were down to fourteen men, a potential issue if the game ended up going to golden point. Three tackles into the set, before they could shape for a field goal, Milne coughed it up, before Gildart took a steadying run up the middle, Tamou followed in his wake, and Jackson had a second missed kick, this time an attempted one-pointer. The Bunnies now had another seven tackles to try and boot through the winning margin, hitting the twenty on play four only for Ilias to feed it to Arrow.

Jai took a shot at slicing it through but instead sent it low and hard beneath the crossbar, meaning the Tigers had the upper hand again in this battle of the field goal attempts. Maumalo left the park, Madden returned from the bench, and promptly came up with the third missed field goal for the home team, before Cook charged it down, Arrow got a desperately unlucky touch, and the Bunnies lost their challenge trying to contest it, making this an accidental offside. With ninety seconds on the clock, the Tigers had a set to win it.

They took the scrum in the middle of the park, Madden shifted it left for Gildart to break the twenry, and Hastings popped it back again for Madden to take on three South Sydney defenders. Joffa was the next man to hit the line, before Jacko shot it back for Brooksy to boot through the field goal from right in front, with fifty seconds on the clock – and the Tigers survived those fifty seconds to come away with their second field goal win in two weeks, off the boots of a halves combo that have breathed new life into the team.

It may only be two in a row, and they may be close wins, but it’s impossible to underestimate the significance of this win – both for the team as a whole, many of whose young guns have never experienced this level of club confidence, and for Brooksy himself, who stoically weathered the media onslaught of the last few weeks, made good on his shift to five-eighth against Parra, and recovered his form in the most spectacular way with his long-range field goal and try tonight, in what will surely come to be seen as a historic win for the Tigers, and a great motivator for next week’s clash with a St. George outfit fresh off their Anzac Day clash with the Chooks.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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