The SP PNG Hunters have finished their 2023 regular season at home on a high, producing a miracle comeback 22-18 victory over the Townsville Blackhawks in Round 21 of the QRL Hostplus Cup.
The visitors endured a shaky start as the Hunters muscled up in defence to force an error in Townsville’s opening set.
Some promising movements through halfback Jamie Mavoko on the right edge and Judah Rimbu around the ruck threatened to punish that error with first points, but the Blackhawks were able to recover possession from a Joshua Lau grubber on fifth tackle.
Both sides completed their next few sets as the game settled into an early grind, until a grubber kick went long from Gehamet Shibasaki to give PNG a seven-tackle set. The Hunters went the length with the extra tackle but put a heavy kick in themselves, handing the advantage back to the Blackhawks.
Another strong defensive display from the Hunters middles forced an error from James Tamou in the tackle, putting the Hunters right back on the attack.
Again they asked questions through Mavoko and Morea Morea on the right edge before Rimbu’s fifth tackle grubber was herded over the dead ball line by Townsville fullback Brendan Elliott.
The game continued to go from end-to-end as the Blackhawks rolled downfield courtesy of a yardage penalty. They couldn’t crack PNG on their own line though, with Rodrick Tai producing a jamming tackle on Jack Gosiewski on the last to turn the ball over.
And so it continued.
The Blackhawks had no trouble working downfield in yardage but kept coming up empty when searching left in attack. Tai jammed in smartly from the centres and was well supported by Solo Wane to his outside and Mavoko on his inside.
As for the Hunters, they also found easy metres when working out of their own end but failed to find the final pass in good-ball. The spine combined smartly but every time they constructed a try scoring opportunity, the Blackhawks defence forced an error.
Despite their poor execution in attack, the Hunters looked the better side in the grind and the pressure eventually told in the 21st minute.
A strong run from Ila Alu near halfway got the Hunters rolling in yardage before Epel Kapinias backed his skipper up with a strong carry towards the posts. Winning a quick play the ball, Kapinias gave Mavoko time to dig into the line and roll a delicate grubber into the in-goal for Morea to collect.
The Hunters narrow lead lasted just a few minutes though, when the visitors enjoyed a stroke of luck to answer straight back.
Townsville’s kickoff bounced millimetres inside the dead ball line to force a line drop-out before another grubber kick pulled up in the in-goal, earning another repeat set.
With the weight of possession and field position, the Blackhawks finally cracked the Hunters line when Kulikefu Finefeuiaki poured onto a short ball to stroll through untouched.
The ebbs and flows persisted when Brandon Nima’s line speed forced an error from Townsville when they next attacked PNG’s line, and he collected the loose ball to run 60 metres upfield.
The Blackhawks scrambled well though, repelling the Hunters on three tackles before another brilliant grubber kick from Lau was called back for an offside penalty.
Lau wouldn’t be denied on a second occasion though.
Some smart footy from the Hunters on tackle five saw Morea offer a two-pass kick option wide of the ruck. He chased hard after putting boot to ball and won the race to put in a second kick in the passage.
That second kick took a wicked bounce right over the heads of the kick chase and into the lap of Lau, who took the Hunters out to a 10-4 lead with Mavoko’s conversion.
Just as with their first try though, the Hunters couldn’t defend their lead.
Some enterprising footy from the Blackhawks saw them charge into attacking field position courtesy of some second-phase play. With the ensuing momentum, Gosiewski passed Zac Laybutt into a hole to finally cash in on their left edge.
Thomas Duffy’s successful conversion gave the Blackhawks a 12-10 lead at the break.
A big solo effort from Sam McIntyre saw the visitors start the second half like they ended the first. The 39-game NRL forward showed all his experience and class to fend off one would-be tackler before some great footwork and speed to beat a few more on his way to the try line.
Down by eight points early in the second half, it took a special defensive effort from Morea, Siki Konden and Wane to prevent the Blackhawks from extending their lead.
When an attacking kick from Mavoko was intercepted from deep inside Townsville’s half, a race ensued as the Blackhawks sprinted into the backfield. They would be denied by Morea, Konden and even Wane though – who tracked the ball all the way from the far side of the field to make a try saving tackle in the left-hand corner.
Tensions started rising midway through the second half when players were dragged into a scuffle, resulting in both sides being reduced to 12 men for 10 minutes.
It was the Hunters who navigated this period best, dominating possession and playing most of the game in Townsville’s half. The home side couldn’t turn that field position into points though as the Blackhawks desperately held onto their eight-point lead with 20 minutes remaining.
It took a massive tackle from bench forward Seal Kalo to turn the momentum in PNG’s favour.
Winning possession near the halfway line, Kalo’s effort gifted the Hunters a fresh set in Townsville’s half but the Blackhawks again showed great resilience to turn the home side away.
Despite the clock winding down the Hunters wouldn’t go away.
With just five minutes remaining, a strong yardage carry from Wane triggered a short side raid through Rimbu and Mavoko from 30 metres out.
Stripping the Blackhawks edge defence for numbers, Mavoko and Tai provided the quick hands to find Whallan Tau-Loi unmarked on the wing. The young backrower showed wonderful speed and intent to win the race to the line and dot down in the corner.
Tau-Loi’s special diving effort set things up for a grandstand finish and like they’ve done all season, the Hunters saved their best for last.
Winning the jump to a bouncing short kickoff, Brandon Nima pounced on the loose ball and beat two defenders before releasing a miracle offload to the man of the moment – Jamie Mavoko.
Showing wonderful speed in the shadows of fulltime, Mavoko streaked into the backfield to burn the cover defence and dive over under the posts, capping off an emphatic Hunters win in front of a heaving crowd at the Santos National Football Stadium.
That winning passage from Nima and Mavoko marked the second time in as many weeks that the Hunters snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Against the Dolphins last week it was Joshua Lau and Benji Kot producing the match-winning moment as the fulltime siren sounded, and this time it was Nima’s and Mavoko’s turn.
Having banked a famous 22-18 win over Townsville in QRL Round 21, the Hunters ensured they finished their 2023 regular season at home on a high.
With just one game remaining next week against the Norths Devils, the Hunters have done everything in their power to make a late run into the finals series.
With a number of other results still needing to go their way, the race into the Top Eight now comes down to next week’s game against Norths at Bishop Park, Brisbane.