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The SP PNG Hunters encountered a confident Central-Queensland Capras outfit at Browne Park, Rockhampton in Round 2 of the QRL Hostplus Cup, going down 38-18 in a fiery contest on Saturday evening. 

The Hunters again showed glimpses of the resolute goal-line defence they displayed in Round 1 against Wynnum-Manly but could only do so much against an opportunistic Capras attack in this one. The home side made the most of a favourable penalty count to dominate territorially and come away with seven tries thanks to the weight of possession and field position. 

In what ultimately became a theme for Saturday’s contest, the Capras impressed with their goal-line defence in the face of a threatening Hunters attack. Papua New Guinea debutant Junior Talin looked immediately at home on the left edge early on to offer some genuine punch outside five-eighth Sakias Komati, but the home side had all the answers to begin with. 

Having earned possession courtesy of their defensive efforts, the Capras then won the first of many relieving yardage penalties to quickly march into attacking territory themselves. Backrower Jesse Jennings took his chances from there to open the scoring for the home side. 

Rising to the challenge, the Hunters wasted no time hitting right back. 

Halfback Joshua Lau – playing in just his sixth Hostplus Cup game – was a constant running threat on the right edge where he combined smartly with fellow rookie Elijah Roltinga in the centres. This pair posed a number of early questions to the Capras edge defence to pour into good-ball and stretch the defensive line across the field. 

With the ensuing space, Hunters five-eighth Sakias Komati organised some shape to his outside before selling a dummy and poking his nose through the line. As the Capras defence scrambled around the posts, Komati played the ball quickly enough for Judah Rimbu to find Seal Kalo with a wide pass from dummy-half to score:

The running games of Komati, Roltinga and fullback Sanny Wabo continued to cause problems for a tiring Capras defence as the game went on. 

PNG looked purposeful in attack and took the right options more often than not as they moved the ball along the backline, but ill-discipline in defence consistently undid all their positive work in possession. Despite PNG looking the better side when the game was in the grind, consecutive yardage penalties again gifted Central-Queensland cheap field position and slowly swung the momentum back in their favour. 

Given how much ball the home side were beginning to enjoy inside PNG’s half, the guile and speed of Capras hooker Trey Browne was becoming an issue. 

The Hunters defended desperately on their own try line and looked like repelling the home side against all odds, but as fatigue set in the pressure finally told. 

Central-Queensland struck twice more through Jennings and Blake Moore midway through the first half, but only after being forced to push the pass on multiple occasions by a desperate and resilient PNG defence. The Hunters players repeatedly turned up for each other to plug holes or cover gaps from the inside, refusing to make it easy for their opposition.

It looked like the Capras might run away with it as half time approached, only for PNG to produce some special defensive efforts with their backs against the wall. 

A spectacular try saving tackle from Jordan Pat finally turned the tide as the Hunters won back possession and roared to life. 

Having absorbed a mountain of pressure throughout the opening 40 minutes, PNG impossibly found enough gas in the tank to march downfield and mount an unlikely attack in the shadows of halftime.

The fresh legs of Finley Glare proved a point of difference as the Hunters utility snuck out from behind the ruck, busted a few tackles and found Lau in support. The young halfback summed things up nicely from there, holding the ball out in front and picking up a charging Manisa Kai for a special try on debut: 

The second half followed a similar trend to the first. PNG were asked to absorb some early pressure with their defence before earning opportunities for themselves in attack. 

In response, Central-Queensland again showed their quality without the ball to turn away a growing Hunters offence on multiple occasions. All of PNG’s creative attacking players – Komati, Lau, Wabo, Roltinga – looked likely throughout this period but couldn’t find the last pass as the home side scrambled desperately. 

Having successfully defended their line, the home side quickly made their own luck to earn more relieving penalties out of their own end. One of those penalties saw Hunters prop Kai suddenly sent for 10 minutes and Browne took advantage of the extra space through the middle to sell a dummy and burrow over the line himself. 

With Central-Queensland jumping out to an early eight-point lead in the second half, the game settled into an arm-wrestle period. 

Both sides fought for ascendency in yardage and looked for a player to turn the momentum in their favour with a big tackle or a strong carry. That player turned out to be Hunters left centre Clent Lama, who raced out of the line to jam Capras halfback Jack Madden with a dominant tackle. Lama’s aggression rattled the home side who made an error two tackles later, but again their defence held firm in response.

When yet another penalty piggy-backed the Capras out of their own end and on the attack, the pressure finally told. A highlight reel effort in the corner from winger Bob Tenza broke the deadlock before Moore scored his second to extend Central-Queensland’s lead to 20. 

In typical Hunters spirit though, the proud PNG-based side refused to go away. 

A late try to Komati – featuring his trademark dummy and running game – threatened to spark an unlikely Hunters comeback but the home side wouldn’t allow it, scoring next through Khaiya Waiembi to seal the result with 10 minutes to play. 

SP PNG Hunters Head Coach Paul Aiton was disappointed with his side’s discipline and conceded they beat themselves in this one. 

“We just hurt ourselves,” Aiton said. 

“There were too many penalties and we just asked ourselves to make too many tackles. Eventually that pressure and fatigue told and they were good enough to take their chances.”

The Hunters scramble defence repeatedly forced Wynnum-Manly to look for alternative routes to the try line last week and Aiton said that effort was on display in patches again today. 

“I thought we scrambled really well at different times and made it difficult for them. We just ran out of gas in the second half,” Aiton conceded. 

Although the final scoreboard doesn’t make for pleasant reading, the Hunters improvements were evident in different moments throughout the contest. 

Despite spending almost all of the first half on their own try line, the Hunters stuck to their defensive systems and consistently made it difficult for their opposition to find the in-goal. They defended errors and penalties desperately, burning through plenty of petrol on their line while still having enough energy to mount a counter attack on a number of occasions. 

While obviously not the result Aiton and his team were looking for, this loss highlights what we already knew about the SP PNG Hunters; if they can improve their discipline and learn to not beat themselves, this Hunters squad will be a genuine force in the Hostplus Cup competition. 

The SP PNG Hunters return to the Santos National Football Stadium next Saturday, 23rd March to host the Sunshine Coast Falcons in QRL Hostplus Cup Round 3. Kickoff is at 3:00pm. 

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