The SP PNG Hunters have produced a miracle comeback in Round 20 of the QRL Hostplus Cup, defeating the Redcliffe Dolphins 26-22 with a match-winning try as the siren sounded across the Santos National Football Stadium.
The Port Moresby locals were treated to an entertaining and see-sawing contest on Saturday, 5th August as the Hunters and Dolphins traded blows from the kick-off.
It was the Hunters who started fastest, with their key players having positive involvements in the opening exchanges. Jamie Mavoko’s boot found the corners early on and slowly won the territorial battle for his team. In good-ball, Judah Rimbu craft from behind the ruck was asking questions of the Dolphins middle, where he linked smartly with Junior Rop to compress the defence around the ball.
Having laid the platform around the ruck, Rimbu’s crisp service set things up for Mavoko and Morea Morea to fire their first shot in attack.
Swinging around to the right edge, Mavoko held up the ball expertly to engage the defence before throwing to Morea out the back. Quick hands from the Hunters fullback and strike centre Rodrick Tai beat the jamming defence from there, sending Solo Wane into the in-goal for the opening try.
With the confidence of an early lead, the Hunters played expansively in attack.
They generated plenty of second-phase play in yardage thanks to offloads from Rop and five-eighth Joshua Lau, which allowed Morea to get involved as the Hunters worked upfield. The talismanic fullback was everywhere in the opening quarter and nearly stripped the Dolphins for numbers again in yardage sets.
Eventually though, the Dolphins earned attacking opportunities for themselves and the Hunters were asked to muscle up in defence.
They did just that, repelling the Dolphins attack in consecutive sets as the visitors camped on the Hunters try line. Redcliffe halfback Cameron Cullen produced three forced drop-outs in this game as he tried to build pressure in attack, but the Hunters defence held firm to turn Redcliffe away and force errors with their line speed and aggression in the tackle.
The kicking game of Cullen was keeping the Dolphins in the contest, despite the Hunters dominance in yardage. On more than one occasion, a good fifth tackle kick from Cullen saved what was otherwise a poor yardage set from Redcliffe, and he eventually took his opportunity in attack too.
From a mid-field scrum, the speed and footwork of Cullen split the Hunters defensive line on the right edge to slice through for Redcliffe’s first points in the 28th minute.
The Hunters wouldn’t go away, though.
Some enterprising play in yardage saw the Hunters fire two shots in the dying stages of the first half. Halfback Mavoko almost powered over the line himself in good-ball before five-eighth Lau created an overlap down the short side near halfway. Siki Konden broke into the backfield as a result, but couldn’t find a teammate back on the inside with a kick.
A late tackle from Redcliffe in that passage saw Mavoko kick a penalty goal after the halftime siren, giving the Hunters an 8-4 lead at the break.
The Hunters started the second half like they finished the first one; on the attack.
They were winning the yardage battle and creating plenty of chances in good-ball, and eventually the pressure told when Wane crossed for his second.
Again he had the fast feet and soft hands from Tai to thank, as the Hunters strike centre stood up his opposite number to draw in the winger and pass Wane into the in-goal.
The old-firm of Tai and Wane had contributed the Hunters first two tries but it was their next-gen talent who combined for PNG’s third of the afternoon.
Rookie five-eighth Joshua Lau put himself in the box seat on fifth tackle and rolled a perfectly weighted grubber kick into the in-goal for backrower Whallen Tau-Loi, who won the race to the ball and grounded it just before the dead-ball line.
That try wrapped up a stellar performance from Tau-Loi in just his third game in the Hostplus Cup. With one try and a team-high 50 tackles, Tau-Loi once again showed he is a real player of the future in this Hunters outfit.
With a 14-point lead and time on their side, the Hunters were doing everything right but couldn’t repel a desperate Dolphins attack.
The pressure eventually told when Harrison Graham dived over beside the ruck and then Jack Bostock leaped above Morea to score Redcliffe’s third for the afternoon.
It was no surprise that the Dolphins NRL contracted players stood tallest with the game in the balance. Using their experience, Redcliffe played to their strengths to bring the scores back to 18-16 with 15 minutes left to play.
Redcliffe had all the momentum and the weight of possession in the second half but couldn’t contain the class of SP PNG Hunters fullback Morea Morea.
Collecting a regulation yardage kick just out from his own try line, Morea beat no less than six Dolphins defenders on the kick return to put his team right back on the attack.
Three tackles later and five-eighth Lau turned that half chance into points with a scything run and powerful fend on the left edge.
A difficult conversion attempt just missed the uprights to leave the Hunters with a six-point lead in the final 10 minutes.
Still in with a chance, the Dolphins impressed to manufacture another try for Levi Wilson just minutes later. Cullen missed that conversion but was gifted a free two-points in the 78th minute when Redcliffe drew a penalty right in front of the posts.
It felt like a 22-22 draw would decide this back-and-forth contest, but no one remembered to tell Hunters backrower Benji Kot.
Attacking from near the halfway line, a clever offload from Lau found Kot between defenders and the backrower exploded to life in the backfield.
With Dolphins fullback Jack Bostock chasing hard from the inside, Kot displayed his trademark right-hand fend to push Bostock away and dive over in the left corner.
With a one-handed put down just inside the corner post that any winger would be proud of, Kot scored the match winner to seal the result for the Hunters, much to the delight of the home crowd.
The SP PNG Huntes will now prepare to take on the Townsville Blackhawks next Saturday, 12th August at the Santos National Football Stadium.
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SP PNG Hunters 26 def. Redcliffe Dolphins 22