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The SP PNG Hunters have kickstarted their 2024 QRL Hostplus Cup campaign in emphatic fashion, outscoring last year’s finalists Wynnum-Manly Seagulls to a 36-22 win at the Santos National Football Stadium. 

The Port Moresby locals were treated to a high scoring affair on Saturday afternoon but it was the Hunters defensive improvements that will be most pleasing for new Head Coach Paul Aiton. 

Right from the opening exchanges, the Hunters attacked with their defence to force early errors and win possession and field position. Papua New Guinea’s left edge in particular – featuring debutant Clent Lama in the centres and veteran winger Brandon Nima – repelled the visitors on multiple occasions as the Hunters started best. 

Fresh off another preseason with The Dolphins NRL squad, Hunters hooker Judah Rimbu looked a class above with his running game and deception around the ruck. He combined nicely with rookie halfback Joshua Lau in the Hunters first attacking set but the Seagulls defence withstood the early test. 

Taking confidence from their efforts without the ball, Wynnum-Manly absorbed the early pressure and quickly went on the attack. They would score first through left centre Connor Broadhurt but not before being denied on multiple occasions by a convincing Hunters defence. 

As the frantic pace of the opening exchanges slowed it was the Hunters who looked more confident in their systems. Another solid defensive set on their try line produced a result when Cory Paix rolled a grubber over the dead ball line and Sanny Wabo took his opportunity, exploding to life and racing 50+ metres downfield from the restart. 

The Seagulls conceded two penalties in their attempt to slow things down but again had no answer for Wabo who won a quick play-the-ball close to the line for Lama to pounce and score on the following tackle. 

Wabo’s heroics triggered a response from his teammates as the Hunters went the length from the kickoff to score again through Nima. A ferocious charge from Jordan Pat split the defence down the right edge before Lau, Whallan Tau-Loi and Ila Alu carried PNG into attacking field position. 

Enter Wabo:

With Wabo proving the spark for PNG’s attack, five-eighth Sakias Komate again played to his superstar fullback in the next raid of Wynnum-Manly’s line. 

Having conditioned the defence to slide out and chase towards the sidelines, Komate displayed lovely skill and deception to this time roll a grubber back against the grain for – you guessed it – Wabo. 

A three try blitz inside nine minutes gave PNG a deserving lead heading into the break however it was cut short by Bryce Donovan in the shadows of halftime. Although disappointing to concede on the siren, the Hunters made the visitors work for it in what was becoming a theme for this contest. 

That theme continued into the second half as Coach Paul Aiton’s men took their opportunities in attack and refused to make it easy for their opposition in defence. 

An error from the kickoff gifted PNG first attacking opportunity after the break and Rimbu’s craft from dummy-half finally paid dividends. The better hookers in the competition can engage the markers and manipulate ruck defenders to get forwards one-on-one close to the line, and that’s exactly what Rimbu did to gift Weiyah Koi and Jordan Pat their first tries of the 2024 season. 

Suddenly out to a 14-point lead, the Hunters did anything but put the que in the rack.

Komate was next to get in on the action, throwing his trademark dummy to slice through the left edge in yardage. Wynnum-Manly scrambled hard from the inside but couldn’t deny a red-hot Hunters offence as Komate linked with Nima who found Lama back on the inside for his second of the afternoon:

Finally the weight of possession turned and the Seagulls earned the right to reply. As they did all afternoon though, the Hunters never made it easy for the visitors. Some resolute goal line defence turned Wynnum-Manly away in consecutive sets until Josh Stuckey eventually crashed over twice on the left edge. 

With 15 minutes to play it felt like the Seagulls might be working towards a miracle comeback but Hunters backrower Robert Mathias had other ideas. 

Racing out of the line in the ensuing kickoff set, Mathias landed a big shot on Seagulls forward Cruise Ten to dislodge the ball and win possession back for his team. 

Five tackles later and Mathias was in the spotlight again, this time pouring onto a lovely short ball from Komate to poke through the line and release a superb offload for Lama to complete his hattrick on debut.

Fittingly given the nature of the contest, the Hunters defended their way to the siren as Wynnum-Manly desperately searched for points on either edge. 

Some big defensive plays from Elijah Roltinger, Lau and Wabo ensured the Hunters held their 14-point lead in the dying stages, highlighting the defensive improvements Head Coach Paul Aiton and his coaching staff have clearly worked hard on over the summer. 

The SP PNG Hunters will travel to Rockhampton this coming weekend to face the Central-Queensland Capras on Saturday, 16th of March in Round 2 of the QRL Hostplus Cup. 

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2022 Hostplus Cup