The SP PNG Hunters inspired 2023 campaign has come to an end at the hands of Norths Devils on Saturday, 19th August, falling short 30-40 in Round 22 of the QRL Hostplus Cup.
Although they finished on the wrong side of the scoreboard, the Hunters made the most of their last showing this season to give fans plenty of hope for what is to come.
It’s been a year of learning for Head Coach Stanley Tepend’s men, who have developed out of sight to just miss out on a finals berth this season.
With one of the youngest and least experienced squads in the entirety of the Hostplus Cup competition, the Hunters have embraced the underdog tags all season and produced some memorable performances.
A farewell game for Devils skipper Jack Ahearn made things too difficult for the Hunters in their last game of the year, but not without threatening to spoil the party at the Devil’s home ground.
A trademark try to Hunters prop Junior Rop kicked off an entertaining contest at Bishop Park, Brisbane on Saturday.
As he’s done all year, Judah Rimbu’s craft from behind the ruck bamboozled Norths goal-line defence and gave Rop an opportunity to crash his way over the line. Burrowing low and using his strength to drive into the in-goal, Rop gave the Hunters first points in their last game of the season.
Try scoring sensation Solo Wane almost added to Norths troubles when the Hunters backline combined smoothly down the right edge. Rodrick Tai’s quick hands sent Wane down the touchline but a desperate tackle from the man of the hour – Jack Ahearn – managed to hold Wane up over the line.
The game quickly settled into a grind from there as the try scoring opportunities dried up and the Hunters and Devils traded blows in yardage.
A half-break through Norths five-eighth Kyle Coghill finally broke the deadlock in the 10th minute but the Hunters scrambled desperately to deny the runaway half. They defended the next few tackles bravely until a lovely short ball from Ahearn sent his backrower Moses Noovao-McGreal over on the left edge.
The points quickly dried up again as the Hunters bravely defended their own try line for extended periods.
They looked the better side when they held the ball and were winning the yardage battle around the ruck to slowly create try scoring opportunities down the other end of the field.
One of those opportunities came when Hunters five-eighth Sakias Komati rolled a beautiful grubber into the in-goal to force a line dropout. With the ensuing possession, halfback Jamie Mavoko plucked a loose ball off the ground to score the Hunters second of the afternoon.
Just as with their first try though, the Hunters lead was short lived.
A clever offload from Norths centre Jacob Gagan found Manase Kaho unmarked and the winger nailed his assignment to dot down in the corner.
And so it continued.
Whenever the Hunters looked like gaining the ascendancy, the Devils would strike back. And whenever the home side started getting comfortable, the Hunters would flex their muscles and make things interesting again.
A try to Gagan just before halftime gave Norths a 20-14 lead at the break which lasted less than five minutes into the second half.
A trademark Komati show-and-go split the Devils defence on their try line to score first points after the break before Rimbu crashed over himself just three minutes later.
Both tries came on the back of some Devils’ ill-discipline and the Hunters impressed to take the opportunities presented to themselves in attack.
It’s a good example of the Hunters development this season. Rimbu – once a utility and now a specialist hooker – and Komati – playing in just his first year at Hostplus Cup level – have consistently turned half-chances into points in 2023 and the Hunters improved ladder position is testament of this.
Faced with the prospect of losing their farewell game for Ahearn, the home side gathered themselves for a late comeback.
A barge over try to Justin Makirere quickly tied things up but the Hunters wouldn’t go away, scoring again through Siki Konden as the Hunters spine clicked into gear. Komati and Morea Morea this time linked smartly on the left edge to create an overlap for Konden on the paint.
With 20 minutes to go and everything to play for, it was the home side who finished strongest.
A second try to Manase Kaho and a late finish for Jayden Stephens saw the Devils sneak away with a 40-30 win, much to the delight of their home fans and the family and friends of retiring skipper Jack Ahearn.
It’s hardly a disappointing end to the Hunters 2023 campaign, though.
A desperate and emotional Norths Devils side were too good on the day, but the Hunters were never out of it. It’s a good example of the improvements made by Stanley Tepend this season to put the Hunters in a position to win almost any game in their 2023 campaign.
With key players like Rimbu, Mavoko, Morea, Tai and Whallan Tau-Loi now all a full season older and wiser, the Hunters will begin the 2024 season with a host of confidence and experience – something they’ve lacked in previous years.
If the bulk of this playing squad can return for next season, the Hunters will start leaps ahead from where they kicked things off to begin this campaign.
The SP PNG Hunters are undoubtedly on the right trajectory and will be back bigger and better in season 2024.
For now though, the Hunt is over.
Norths Devils 40 def. SP PNG Hunters 30