The SP PNG Hunters have produced their best performance of the 2023 QRL Hostplus Cup season, overcoming the Tweed Seagulls 34-18 in a dominant second half display on Saturday afternoon.
With the stands at the Santos National Football Stadium filling slowly as the game kicked off, the Hunters had everything to play for and they rose to the occasion.
Despite conceding first points through experienced NRL halfback Toby Sexton, the Hunters held their nerve to quickly drag the game into a grind. A huge shot from Tommy Moide – starting at lock in place of his injured skipper Ila Alu – in the kick-off set forced an error from Tweed on tackle one, and Moide was the man to turn that field position into points a few tackles later.
Setting up around the posts, Judah Rimbu asked some questions of the Tweed defence from dummy-half to inject panic and fatigue into the line. The Seagulls couldn’t reset following consecutive tackles around the ruck and Moide caught the defenders napping to barge over under the posts.
As a light rain settled over the stadium, both teams were forced to adjust their approach in attack.
The Seagulls though – who employ an expansive approach to their footy – stuck to their guns to move the ball smoothly across the field. That ball movement proved too much for the Hunters when fullback Lindon McGrady matched up on Epel Kapinias and used his speed to beat the big Hunters prop.
With a 12-6 lead it looked like Tweed were in control of proceedings, but the Hunters fifth tackle options kept them in the contest. Joshua Mire and Jamie Mavoko kicked smartly to end their sets, winning field position for PNG and putting the pressure back on the visitors.
That pressure eventually told when Tweed conceded consecutive penalties in yardage to gift the Hunters attacking field position of their own. Halves Mire and Mavoko made the most of their opportunities in attack from there.
Mire was first to setup points when he rolled a beautifully weighted grubber kick into the in-goal for captain Brandon Nima to score just short of the dead-ball line.
Not to be outdone by his halves partner, Mavoko stepped up in PNG’s next attacking set to bamboozle Tweed’s defence on their own line. Just as he did last week against the Pride, Mavoko used his footwork and sleight of hand to engage two defenders before passing Morea Morea into a space on the edge.
Morea’s try gave PNG an 18-12 lead going into the sheds.
No doubt mindful of their second half capitulation last week against the Pride, the Hunters took the field in the second half with intent. They went set for set with Tweed in yardage as both sides fought for ascendency.
Again though, it was the kicking game of Mire and Mavoko that slowly swung momentum in PNG’s favour.
Mire’s floating bombs piled the pressure on Tweed’s back three as they were repeatedly asked to work it off their own line. And when the Hunters looked like being trapped in their own half, a perfect 40/20 kick from Mavoko instead marched them into good field position.
Strike centre Rodrick Tai would extended PNG’s lead from there, icing a trademark Hunters attacking set.
Energetic carries from Nima and Junior Rop in yardage bent the Seagulls line to get PNG on the front foot. A late offload from Rop compounded things for Tweed as Sanny Wabo chewed up the metres in second-phase, eventually linking with Mavoko and Morea on the right edge. Stripped for numbers, Tweed had no answer for Tai who beat the cover defence to slide over in the corner.
Mavoko’s starring performance continued on the other side of the ball as the Seagulls desperately tried to reduce PNG’s lead. Twice in consecutive attacking sets the visitors fell into shape down their left edge, only for Mavoko to come up with a big defensive play to shut things down.
Taking confidence from their defence, the Hunters added to the scoreboard as the clock wound down.
Again forcing a Tweed error with their line speed, Tai was on the spot to scoop up a loose pass and send speedster Solo Wane racing into the backfield to score.
The Hunters weren’t done there though. Getting reward for his leading role in the front-row, Hunters prop Junior Rop crashed over the line in the final minutes to ice the game for PNG.
Rop scored courtesy of a signature switch-play from behind the ruck, orchestrated this time by utility Trevor Solu. Fooling the ruck defence by shaping infield, Solu dropped Rop back against the grain at fatiguing Tweed defenders who couldn’t contain Rop’s strength through contact.
A consolation try to Seagulls winger Kaleb Ngamanu allowed Tweed to finish on a positive note, but it was all the Hunters in Round 12.
With improved discipline and a good kicking game to end their sets, the Hunters were able to play most of the contest in Tweed’s territory. The craft and ballplaying of Mire and Mavoko proved too much for Tweed to handle from there as PNG took their opportunities in attack.
To overcome injuries and suspensions to key players in this game will give the Hunters plenty of confidence in the back end of the season. They played to their strengths with the ball and defended their errors well to limit Tweed’s chances of a comeback.
With two more home games at Santos NFS in the coming weeks, the Hunters have a wonderful opportunity to climb up the Hostplus Cup ladder and stay in touch with the top eight.
SP PNG Hunters Head Coach Stanley Tepend was delighted with his team’s response after a recent run of narrow losses.
“Some of the defence on our own try line was great,” said Tepend. “We scrambled really well to save a couple of certain tries.”
“The boys really showed a never give up attitude. We were undermanned by injuries and suspensions, we had young players in the spine but despite the disruption we got the job done.”
Tepend said it was a strong team performance but was happy to pay tribute to some individual efforts.
“I thought Jamie (Mavoko) was great for us. They targeted him all game but he held his own in defence and made a number of crucial tackles. We’re starting to see the kind of player he really is which is great for him and for us as a team.”
“Sanny (Wabo) through the middle is doing a good job too. His leg speed and footwork once fatigue sets in is a real point of difference for us. Against those tired forwards he’s working really well.”
“The boys will take a lot of confidence out of that one and we’ll carry that into training this week. It should be another good game next Saturday (10/6) against the Clydesdales.”
SP PNG Hunters 34 def. Tweed Seagulls 18