The SP PNG Hunters couldn’t claim the chocolates over premiership leaders Burleigh Bears in Round 17 of the QRL Hostplus Cup, falling short 30-22 in a seesawing affair. Despite the end result however, the Hunters impressed to go toe-to-toe with one of the competition heavyweights in front of a heaving crowd at the Santos National Football Stadium.
The Bears played with an attacking mindset right from the get go, kicking short off the tee to regather and immediately apply some early pressure to the Hunters line. The proud PNG-based club defended the opening sets strongly but as fatigue set in Burleigh quickly took their advantage.
Attacking down their left edge through NRL veteran Ken Maumalo and skipper Sami Sauiluma, the Bears made good inroads down that channel in yardage before going back there in good-ball. Halfback Guy Hamilton – one of the most experienced campaigners in the Hostplus Cup – turned the ball back against the grain, catching the Hunters edge defenders napping to score through Sauiluma.
Hamilton was back in the spotlight just minutes later, orchestrating a right-edge movement this time from just inside PNG territory. Taking the ball deep into the defence, Hamilton made the most of a questionable decoy runner to dig into the line and float a pass over the top for winger Nicholas O’Meley to score.
Five-eighth Tom Steadman added both the extras to give Burleigh a 12-0 lead after 15 minutes played.
Despite being on the wrong end of the possession and field position stats, the Hunters threatened with their limited opportunities. They made half breaks in consecutive exit sets only for some desperate scramble defence from the Bears to force an error on three occasions, stifling PNG’s momentum.
Having absorbed a mountain of pressure inside the opening 20 minutes, the Hunters impressed to keep the Bears to just 12 points and they finally got reward for effort in the 26th minute.
Some astute rotations from Head Coach Stanley Tepend saw Casey Dickson and Sanny Wabo enter the fray and immediately make an impact on the game.
Dickson triggered a length of the field movement with a powerful carry and quick play-the-ball early in the set, and he was backed up by Wabo who split the ruck defence to break into the backfield. One tackle later and Jamie Mavoko, Judah Rimbu and Sakias Komati combined to shift the ball to the left wing for Brandon Nima to score in the corner.
Komati then helped the Hunters go back-to-back in the kick off set.
Some enterprising play from the home side saw the Hunters travel 60+ metres from the short kickoff to set up camp on Burleigh’s line.
Epel Kapinias almost crashed over himself early in the count before Komati straightened things up on the left edge to poke his nose through the line and get an offload away.
Benji Kot was the man on the spot in support, collecting the pass and improving his position to put the Hunters just two points behind following Morea Morea’s successful conversion.
With all the momentum and possession heading into the break, the visitors cracked under the pressure in the seconds before halftime to gift the Hunters a shot at goal after the siren. Morea nailed his assignment to level things up at 12-all after 40 minutes played.
In contrast to the opening half, the Hunters and Bears embraced the arm wrestle to begin the second stanza. Errors from both sides presented the other with attacking field position, and it was Burleigh who made the most of their early chances.
A scything run from Tom Steadman split the defence on PNG’s left edge where he linked with Hayden Schwass in the backfield to score. Steadman added the extras to give Burleigh a six point lead with 30 minutes remaining.
It looked like the Bears would extend their lead when a late offload was knocked forwards by a Hunters defender, but the home side muscled up on their own line to turn the visitors away. A huge shot from Rodrick Tai – who flew in from his centre position to shut a Bears backline movement down – saved the day for the Hunters on this occasion.
Showing great resilience and composure, the Hunters turned defence into attack to travel 100 metres in their next possession and force a line drop-out from the visitors. The Bears answered right back though, repelling PNG on their own line before going the length to score through fullback Creedence Toia.
Another class conversion from Steadman gave the Bears a 22-12 lead with 17 minutes left on the clock.
Down on the scoreboard and with time against them, the Hunters flexed their muscles and showed their class to claw themselves back into the contest. Making the most of some rare field position, the home side compressed the defence around the ruck before shifting to Mavoko on the right edge.
A delicately weighted grubber kick from Mavoko found the space between the Burleigh winger and fullback but it was Morea who wanted it most, exploding onto the ball to score on the right edge.
Much to the delight of the electric crowd at the Santos National Football Stadium, Morea wasn’t done there.
A clever yardage kick from Komati earned a result when Burleigh knocked the ball on, giving PNG a fresh set on the Bears line. Setting up from a midfield scrum, Morea owned his moment to draw the defence towards the ball before shuffling it along to Tai and Solo Wane in the corner.
Wane finished what was a beautifully worked team try and brought PNG to within two points of the Bears, but that’s as close as the Hunters would get to the competition leaders.
A try in the shadows of fulltime to Tom Steadman gave Burleigh an eight-point margin at the death, masking the competitiveness of this contest.
The SP PNG Hunters showed incredible resilience and patience under pressure to withstand the Bears attack for extended periods in both halves. They refused to make it easy for the visitors and brought the crowd to life in the dying stages with an inspired comeback.
With the game in the balance, involvements of Mavoko, Komati, Tai and Morea almost dragged the Hunters over the line. They combined effectively in attack and made the most of limited opportunities in good-ball to manufacture points.
Although the end result is disappointing, this performance highlights the Hunters considerable improvements this season.
To fight back twice after being down by 12 points or more against one of the competition heavyweights is a feat the Hunters couldn’t have accomplished in previous seasons – or even at the start of this year. But after 17 round played this season, the Hunters are now defending within their systems and attacking with a real confidence and understanding of their strengths.
While it’s easy to just look at the wins and losses column when gauging performance, Hunters fans must stay patient and trust the process. There are genuine signs this season that the Hunters are trending in the right direction and this narrow loss to the Bears is the latest evidence.
With Junior Rop and Sherwin Tanabai due to return after the bye, the Hunters now look towards a final block of four games leading into the finals series. The Tigers, Dolphins, Blackhawks and Devils await the proud PNG based club as they aim to finish their 2023 campaign on a high.
Burleigh Bears 30 def. SP PNG Hunters 22
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