The SP PNG Hunters mounted an extraordinary comeback in Round 10 of the QRL Hostplus Cup, chasing down a 22-point lead and almost coming away with the result in a 28-24 loss to the Wynnum Manly Seagulls on Saturday afternoon.
The form the Hunters displayed in this game was in complete contrast to their Round 9 performance.
From the opening set, the proud PNG club ran with intent to get over the ad line and generate ruck speed in yardage. Completing their sets smartly, halves Jamie Mavoko and Sakias Komati kicked to the corners and were well supported with a strong kick chase. Backing up their efforts with the ball, the Hunters line speed was strong in defence to force an early error from the home side.
The Seagulls held firm on this occasion but struggled to work out of their own end due to the Hunters aggression without the ball. They relied on yardage penalties to get downfield as the Hunters muscled up in defence to win the ruck.
For all their dominance in key effort areas though, the Hunters quickly ended up on the wrong side of the possession and penalty count and the Seagulls leant on their first-grade talent to take an early lead.
Wynnum Manly right centre Delouise Hoeter showed why he already has 14 NRL appearances to his name with a tackle busting, offloading effort in yardage that ended with Hoeter himself scoring in the corner.
The home side scored the next three tries as they enjoyed a mountain of possession and attacking territory. Starved of the ball, the Hunters could do little to stop Wynnum Manly’s assault as Kyle Foxwell, Matthew Milson and Tyson Smoothy capitalised on their momentum to take a 22-point lead into the break.
The half time score wasn’t a fair representation of PNG’s competitiveness in yardage, and as the possession stat evened out in the second half, the Hunters comeback began.
It started with a big defensive play from Hunters prop Junior Rop.
Flying off his own line to apply kick pressure deep inside PNG territory, Rop got a foot to the Seagulls grubber kick and chased down the loose ball to win possession for his team.
Not finished there, Rop then got busy in yardage to carry the Hunters into position for an attacking kick themselves. Sakias Komati produced the goods on this occasion, rolling a clever grubber into the in-goal despite some considerable defensive pressure for Matthew Jesse to score on the left edge.
The Hunters took plenty of confidence from troubling the scoreboard and quickly went straight back on the attack.
Rop was again at the forefront of it all, punching through the line to find his front and generate some momentum for his teammates to play on the back of. In this instance, Rop’s hit-up skittled the defence and created half an opportunity for his prop partner Tommy Moide on the following tackle.
Moide attracted four defenders towards the ball as he threatened to score beneath the posts, stripping the Seagulls defence for numbers on the next play. From there, Judah Rimbu passed Rop into a one-on-one situation beside the ruck and Rop produced the offload assist for Sanny Wabo to score.
Wabo was in for his second try just a few sets later, relishing his bench impact role.
Wabo’s speed and pass option gave the Hunters a point of difference through the middle of the field as PNG moved the ball efficiently from coast to coast. Running it on the last, the ball went through Wabo’s hands to Komati on the edge, where the five-eighth’s signature show-and-go made a mockery of the Seagulls defence.
Wabo backed up Komati on the inside to reduce Wynnum Manly’s lead to 12 points.
The impact of Wabo and Rop around the ruck continued to pay dividends for the Hunters as fatigue levels rose. The Seagulls had no answer for the ruck speed and second-phase play Rop and Wabo were able to generate in yardage, folding through the middle and conceding cheap metres all the way down the field.
Finally enjoying their share of possession, again PNG poured through the middle before shifting to the edges.
Having had some luck running it late in the count, the Hunters this time shifted it down the right tram line on tackle five for Rodrick Tai to finish a beautiful team try in the corner.
The Hunters had a chance to bring Wynnum Manly to within two points when Julius Igila broke through down the left touch line in the kick-off set, but the home side scrambled well to stop PNG scoring their fifth consecutive try… for the time being.
With the clock running down and time on their side, the Seagulls tried desperately to defend their shrinking lead through to fulltime.
They had no answer for Julius Yakopa though, who shrugged off multiple attempted tackles on his own 10m line to send Wabo 80+ metres downfield. Wabo was dragged down just short of the in-goal, but the Hunters summed things up smartly on the following tackle.
All key spine players – Wesser Tenza, Mavoko and Komati – knew what was needed in the moment and combined effectively to shift the ball to Tai, who popped up on the left edge this time to score in the corner.
With just four points separating the two sides and PNG with all the momentum, the only thing that denied the Hunters comeback was the game clock.
Wynnum-Manly limped their way to a 28-24 win but it was the Hunters who finished with the moral victory.
They completely dominated their opposition after the break to win the second half 24-6, displaying all their attacking talent and strength in yardage. Despite the Seagulls boasting a wealth of NRL talent and experience, it was PNG who looked most comfortable under pressure to score five unanswered tries in the second half.
It’s a lesson for the Hunters as they look ahead to a four-game stretch at Santos National Football Stadium, starting next Saturday 27th May with the Northern Pride in Round 11.
If PNG can limit their errors and penalties early on, they know they have the blueprint to beat far more experienced opposition in this competition.
SP PNG Hunters Head Coach Stanley Tepend was disappointed with the team’s start but commended his players for responding in the second half.
“It was a game of two halves,” said Tepend
“We went set for set to begin the game but those yardage penalties just allowed them (Seagulls) into good-ball too often and they capitalised well.”
“It was good to see some improvement after halftime. We finished strongly and that’s a second half we can build off.”
Tepend is now looking forward to a run of four home games starting this weekend with the Northern Pride.
“Hopefully we can come back to PNG, get a good week of training in and then get back to NFS with a win this weekend,” Tepend said.
“The boys will take a lot of confidence out of how they finished the game today.”
Wynnum-Manly Seagulls 28 def. SP PNG Hunters 24
Photo supplied by Jim O’Reilly Photography