Despite finishing on the wrong side of scoreboard in QRL Hostplus Cup Round 11, the SP PNG Hunters once again showed their trademark spirit and resilience in a 22-16 loss to the Northern Pride in front of a heaving crowd at the Santos National Football Stadium.
Kicking off a stretch of four games at the spiritual home of rugby league in Port Moresby, the Hunters ran out to an early lead but couldn’t overcome two sinbins and an injury to talismanic skipper Ila Alu.
In contrast, the Pride made the most of their opportunities after the break to score three second half tries as the rain began to fall on the Santos NFS turf.
With more than 5000 people turning out on Saturday afternoon to show their support, an electric atmosphere filled the stadium even before the Hunters took the field. The PRL curtain raiser game set the tone for a brutal contest as the Hunters and Pride suited up for their second match-up of the season, following a win to the Pride on home soil back in Round 5.
The visitors jagged an early try through Will Partridge in the left-hand corner, with the winger icing a smooth backline movement which stripped the Hunters for numbers on their own line. Partridge converted his own try to give the Pride a six-point lead after five minutes.
It was all the Hunters from there, though.
Shrugging off the early scoreboard pressure, the proud PNG-based club roared to life thanks largely to the involvements of halfback Jamie Mavoko.
Making just his 17th QRL Hostplus Cup appearance, Mavoko’s continual development was on show as he steered the Hunters across the park and kicked smartly to end their sets.
It wasn’t long before the Hunters found themselves in attacking field position thanks to Mavoko’s influence, and the halfback set up PNG’s first points from there.
Taking the ball deep into the line with fullback Morea Morea sweeping out the back, Mavoko fooled the Pride defence to tip backrower Julius Yakopa into a yawning hole on the right edge. Some fancy feet from Yakopa beat the cover defence from there, and Mavoko’s successful conversion tied things up at six-apiece.
Mavoko was in the box seat not long after, again pulling shape on the Hunters right edge when attacking the Pride’s line.
With Yakopa demanding attention from the defence and Morea a constant threat out the back, Mavoko took the right option for a second time when he dummied to a teammate before tucking the ball under his arm and challenging the line himself.
Showing great strength to complement his sleight-of-hand, Mavoko dragged two defenders over the line to score his first try in the QRL Hostplus Cup. A challenging conversion attempt just missed the left upright, leaving PNG with a 10-6 lead midway through the first half.
The Hunters weren’t done there.
With Mavoko threatening on the edges and Wesser Tenza scheming around the ruck, PNG quickly found themselves back on the attack.
Junior Rop was a colossus again in the front row, repeatedly dragging the Hunters into good field position and winning quick play the balls for his team. Eventually the pressure told on the Pride who couldn’t stop PNG’s momentum through the middle of the field.
Setting up on the visitor’s line, the Hunters fell into shape on both edges to stretch the Pride defence. Mindful of the threats of Mavoko on the right and Sakias Komati on the left, the visitors momentarily forgot to check the most dangerous Hunters player – the one with the ball.
Scooting out of dummy-half with the ball out in front, Tenza scanned the defence before putting his foot down and streaking through a hole beside the left upright.
The defence had no answer for Tenza’s speed and strength as the Hunters took a 16-6 lead into the break, following Mavoko’s successful conversion.
Unfortunately for the Hunters, they couldn’t maintain their rage through until fulltime.
The weather turned at the break as the clouds opened up and a light drizzle settled over the Santos National Football Stadium. The drop in temperature favoured the visitors who were otherwise struggling in the humid weather, and they played to the wet conditions smartly to camp themselves on PNG’s line.
Overcome by a weight of possession and field position, the Hunters were resilient in defence to repel the Pride on multiple occasions – sometimes in consecutive sets on their own line. Eventually though, the pressure told as the Pride ran in three unanswered tries in the second half.
Two of those tries had more than a fair share of luck about them, as the bounce of the ball went the visitor’s way and desperate offloads hit their mark in the slippery conditions.
The Hunters looked like mounting another unlikely comeback when bench utility Sanny Wabo made two linebreaks late in the piece, but neither led to points as the Pride scrambled desperately in defence.
In the end, the Hunters were asked to play with 12 men for two separate 10-minute periods and the subsequent fatigue was too much to overcome. The loss of Ila Alu – one of PNG’s most productive yardage merchants and an important link man between the ruck and the edges – also hurt, as the Hunters battled against the odds to maintain their lead to the siren.
Despite not coming away with the two points, there are plenty of positives to draw from their Round 11 loss to the Pride.
The Hunters play with one of the least experienced squads in the QRL Hostplus Cup competition but will never be found looking for excuses. A starring performance from Jamie Mavoko in this contest is a good example of the ongoing development of the Hunters players in the face of more experienced opposition.
Given time, the Hunters continue to show that they can be a force to be reckoned with in this competition. They embrace their underdog tag most weeks and refuse to make it easy for the opposition, no matter the odds.
The Hunters will play their next three games out of the Santos National Football Stadium against the Tweed Seagulls (Saturday 3/6), Western Clydesdales (Saturday 10/6) and Souths-Logan Magpies (Saturday 17/6) in the coming weeks.
If there was ever a time to get out and support your team by Joining the Hunt, this is it!
Northern Pride 22 def. SP PNG Hunters 16