There’s sure to be plenty of feeling at the Santos National Football Stadium this Saturday, 12th August when the SP PNG Hunters host the Townsville Blackhawks in their last home game of the 2023 regular season.
The Hunters have enjoyed some stirring performances at the spiritual home of rugby league in Papua New Guinea this year, coming into QRL Hostplus Cup Round 21 with a 6-and-4 record on home soil in 2023.
The Hunters have collected some big scalps in front of home crowds this season, including the Sunshine Coast Falcons, Tweed Seagulls and most recently the Redcliffe Dolphins last weekend. The Santos National Football Stadium has long been a fortress for the SP PNG Hunters and they’ve made great strides this year to rediscover their home form.
Fresh of the back of a spectacular win over the Dolphins in QRL Round 20, the Hunters will be eager to finish their season at home with a win.
The Townsville Blackhawks won’t make it easy for them though, currently sitting just above the Hunters on the Hostplus Cup ladder and equally desperate to make a late run into the 2023 finals series.
The Blackhawks are coming off a heavy 44-22 loss to the Central Queensland Capras last week in Rockhampton, and will be looking to make amends on Saturday afternoon.
That loss to the Capras ended a three game winning streak for Townsville, who scored 40 points in all three wins to greatly boost their for-and-against. It’s only those extra points that separates the Hunters and Blackhawks on the ladder right now, with both clubs needing the win this weekend if they’re to put themselves in a position to play finals football this season.
Unlike the Blackhawks, the SP PNG Hunters will ride a wave of confidence into Saturday’s fixture, having produced a miracle comeback against the 6th placed Redcliffe Dolphins last weekend.
The Hunters led the scoreboard for most of that contest but a desperate Dolphins outfit impressed to fight their way back into the match. Redcliffe’s NRL contracted players Mason Teague, Jack Bostock and Harrison Graham did their best to turn the momentum in the visitor’s favour, but the Hunters would not be denied in front of a roaring home crowd.
With the clock counting down, a special offload from rookie five-eighth Joshua Lau got Benji Kot into the clear, and the strike backrower did the rest from there. With a big fend right into the chest of Dolphins fullback Bostock, Kot won the race to the corner and slammed the ball down to secure an emphatic Hunters win.
Head Coach Stanley Tepend has opted for the same squad that beat the Dolphins last week, with Lau retaining his spot in the halves alongside Jamie Mavoko.
The Hunters spine combined smartly last week, with Lau having a number of positive actions with the ball in hand. He rolled a perfectly weighted grubber into the in-goal for Whallan Tau-Loi to score his maiden Hostplus Cup try, before slicing through the line with a powerful fend to score himself.
Lau’s recent development in the Hostplus Cup gives the Hunters even more depth in what is a strong squad, already. As the likes of Joshua Mire, Trevor Solu, Siki Konden and Tommy Moide before him, Lau has stepped up to take his opportunities this season, offering more competition for spots and helping drive standards at training.
Lau’s inclusion this week sees Sakias Komati in the reserves, despite Komati’s convincing form throughout the season.
It’s a pleasant headache for Head Coach Stanley Tepend to navigate in the coming weeks, as the Hunters look to finish the season on a high.
Players to Watch
Joshua Lau produced an eye-catching performance last week but it was all about the Hunters right edge to begin the match.
The old firm of Rodrick Tai and Solo Wane was on fire for the Hunters last week, capitalising on the good work of halfback Jamie Mavoko and fullback Morea Morea in the lead up.
We can throw the work of Judah Rimbu – who’s grown into the starting hooker role this season – into that mix, too. He’s bringing his forwards onto the ball around the ruck and creating positive match-ups in yardage. With the momentum Rimbu helps to create throughout a set, Mavoko and Morea are enjoying time with the ball on the edges.
Mavoko is improving with every game, using hit footwork to straighten the Hunters attack and engage specific defenders in the line. He doesn’t always register the try assist pass, but plenty of the Hunters tries this year would not have been scored without Mavoko folding in the defensive line in the lead up.
Mavoko’s efforts are allowing Morea to display his vast skillset out the back of shape.
Lightning quick across the ground and capable of passing at or through the line, Morea is the cherry on top of the Hunters attack in 2023. If he’s not burning through a hole himself, Morea is throwing the final pass for a try in the corner.
Last week it was Tai and Wane who benefitted most from the work of Rimbu, Mavoko and Morea further infield.
Tai is enjoying a career year in 2023 following a preseason training with The Dolphins NRL squad. His ability to beat his opposite man with a fend or a burst of speed has helped Wane to eight tries this season – just one shy of his best season return of nine tries in 2021 – while seeing Tai cross for another eight himself.
No doubt the Hunters will work towards Tai and Wane again on Saturday whenever they earn a shot at Townsville’s try line.