The SP PNG Hunters have produced an inspired performance against the Brisbane Tigers in Round 3 of the QRL Hostplus Cup, falling just short 38-36 in an entertaining contest at the Santos National Football Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Two early penalties in yardage gifted the Tigers free passage into PNG’s half in the opening sets, but the Hunters defence held firm on both occasions to repel Brisbane’s attack on either edge. Having won the early contest without the ball, the Hunters then impressed to quickly go on the attack with their first possession in Tigers territory.
Just as they did in their opening two games, the spine combined beautifully as Jamie Mavoko and Morea Morea moved the ball to space on an edge. From there, a brilliant cut-out pass from Morea hit a flying Solo Wane on the chest and the try scoring winger dove over in the corner.
More bruising defence in their next defensive set earned PNG another opportunity with the ball in hand. Some enterprising footy down their left edge this time found Brandon Nima in space, and the powerful winger found easy metres when he cut back in-field to expose some tiring middle defenders.
The Tigers scrambled well though to contain the Hunters attack and work themselves back into the game. They made the most of a sin-binning to PNG’s Sherwin Tanabi in the 12th minute to score shortly afterwards through halfback Brayden Torpy. With the Hunters backrower on the sidelines, Torpy showcased all his experience and guile to attack where Tanabi would’ve been in the line, darting over in the 13th minute.
It felt like the Tigers were gaining momentum in this contest thanks to the numerical advantage, but someone must’ve forgotten to tell Hunters fullback Morea Morea.
Earning a crack at Brisbane’s line courtesy of a penalty in yardage, the Hunters again displayed their efficiency in attack to score in the very next set.
Taking possession on the left edge and with shape outside him, Morea cut back in-field when faced with a rushing defence. Using his vision, speed and silky footwork, Morea spotted a hole beside the posts and exploded to life, darting forwards and dragging two defenders into the in-goal to score.
The Hunters were in again just minutes later as Nima finished off a lovely set-piece move from the scrum.
Good service from Wesser Tenza saw five-eighth SakiasKomati take possession with time and space, and he made the most of it to sell the defence a big dummy and poke through the line. The Tigers could only manage a legs tackle as Komati got his arms free and offloaded for Nima in support. Some desperate cover defence from Brisbane couldn’t match Nima for speed, who slid over in the 22nd minute to give PNG a 14-6 lead.
It took 25 minutes of bruising, end to end football before the Hunters made their first mistake with the ball in hand. That error was followed by back-to-back ruck infringements as fatigue began creeping into the game, and it looked like the Tigers would turn that ill-discipline into points. Not to be dissuaded though, the Hunters muscled up on both edges to repel the Tigers attack on their own line and defend their errors.
The home side seemed to draw confidence from their defence, quickly working upfield and into their attacking shapes. A dangerous run from Tanabi threatened to breakdown the Tigers on the left edge, before a fifth tackle kick by Komati produced an error from Solomona Faataape on the other side of the field. Hunters backrower Julius Yakopa pounced on that error to scoop up the loose ball and score his first try of the season.
Staring down an 18-6 lead and with halftime approaching, the Tigers were desperate for points and eventually found them through left winger Max Lehmann. Brisbane five-eighth Ryley Jacks used all his NRL experience to chip a pinpoint kick in behind the defence which the Hunters couldn’t handle, allowing Lehmann to fall on the loose ball in the in-goal.
Jacks was at it again in the Tigers next set, again sending the ball high on the last and pitching the towering Kane Bradley against the much smaller Morea on the Hunters line. Bradley’s athletic effort was backed up by a superb offload as he fell to the ground, finding Tristan Hope back on the inside to tie things up at 18-18.
The Hunters were dealt a tough blow right on halftime with Sakias Komati sent to the bin for a high tackle. The Tigers nailed the penalty goal to take a 20-18 lead into the break.
Brisbane’s good run of fortune continued into the second half with a remarkable try to Robert Jennings in the 43rd minute. Attacking PNG’s line, hooker Tristan Hope tucked in behind a questionable decoy runner which bought him time to roll a curling grubber into the in-goal. The kick beat all of PNG’s cover defence to pull up perfectly for Jennings, who produced a put-down any NRL winger would be proud of to extend the Tigers lead.
With all the momentum against them and the pressure piling up, the Hunters needed someone to step up and that someone turned out to be Morea. With yet another pinpoint Jacks kick bearing down on him, Morea took the catch, beat the kick chase and offloaded for Wane in support. Wane sprinted into the backfield and with one defender to beat, passed back inside to Morea who refused to die on the play, racing 50 metres to score under the posts.
The visitors answered back not long after with a well-worked left edge movement that ended with Lehmann going over in the corner, scoring his second of the afternoon to give Brisbane a 30-24 lead.
That lead quickly disappeared when skipper Ila Alu crashed over beside the posts in the 68th minute. Some lovely deception from Tenza out of dummy-half bamboozled a collapsing Tigers defensive line, and Alu sliced through to tie things up with 10 minutes to go.
The twists and turns continued when Lehmann completed his hattrick just minutes later. Again the Tigers enjoyed their fair share of luck, when another wicked grubber kick from Hope took a nasty bounce off Rodrick Tai’s chest and into the waiting arms of Lehmann, who fell over the line to score.
The Hunters threatened a miracle comeback when Morea scored his own hattrick with one minute to go, but it wasn’t to be as the Tigers desperately clung to a 38-36 lead.
After a highly disciplined and dominant first half, the Hunters succumbed to fatigue in the second stanza having played 20 minutes with just 12 men. To keep the result alive right until the final minutes against a Brisbane side with extensive NRL experience is a promising sign for Stanley Tepend’s men, who for the second week in a row have scored more tries than their opposition without getting the win.