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The SP PNG Hunters finished on the wrong side of a 36-28 scoreboard in Round 4 of the QRL Hostplus Cup but they certainly put up a fight against a desperate and experienced Tweed Seagulls outfit on Saturday night. 

Full of confidence following a big win over the Sunshine Coast Falcons before the Easter break, the Hunters travelled to Piggabeen Sports Complex with everything to play for and ambushed the home side early.

It took just four minutes for Papua New Guinea’s key players to make their presence felt as five-eighth Sakias Komati and hooker Judah Rimbu marshalled their troops in yardage to pour into good field position inside the opening sets. The Hunters strength has always been through the middle of the field and Head Coach Paul Aiton’s men played towards that principle to dominate the opening sets. 

From there, Rimbu’s class and the sheer power of veteran Hunters prop Junior Rop proved too much for the Seagulls to handle.

A little shimmy from behind the ruck allowed Rimbu to hold up the markers and pass Rop into a one-on-one situation close to the line. The big front-rower won the tackle from there to get his arm free and find Rimbu back on the inside for the Hunters first points. 

Playing with all the momentum, PNG went very close to scoring again in their very next good-ball set. 

Komati was displaying ominous signs early on, drifting across-field with subtle tempo changes to engage the defence as he shaped to pick up different options along the backline. He triggered a promising left-edge movement that almost put Hunters fullback Sanny Wabo into the backfield but the try was called back for an obstruction.

With the early pressure released, the home side responded with some expansive and skilful attacking football to quickly answer back. Boasting a spine stacked with QRL experience, Tweed fullback Lindon McGrady and halves Tom Steadman and Tom Weaver combined to shift the ball smoothly from edge-to-edge as they searched for points. 

As the Hunters have done throughout all four games to start the year though, their improving defensive systems refused to make it easy for their opposition. 

Two first-half tries to Seagulls winger Kaleb Ngamanu came only after PNG repelled the Tweed attack on both edges with some disciplined sliding defence. It took a few miracle offloads for Ngamanu to bag his first before he crossed again on the back of an apparent knock-on that was overlooked by the referee. A third try to Tweed hooker Oskar Bryant saw the Seagulls further capitalise on a glut of possession and field position during this period. 

Far from going into their shells though, this resilient Hunters outfit displayed great signs to claw their way back into the contest. 

On the back of a competitive forward pack and some resolute goal-line defence, PNG embraced the grind to work through their sets and in positive positions for a fifth tackle kick. Those efforts eventually paid off when Komati sent one skyward and chased through himself to force an error from the Seagulls back three.

A few tackles later and Komati helped the Hunters convert field position into points, combining smartly with Wabo and Clent Lama down the left edge to put Brandon Nima over for his first of the afternoon. 

As the clock counted down towards half-time, it was the Hunters who were enjoying all the momentum. 

Komati almost scored himself off a well-weighted grubber kick before setting up his fullback with one of the better-constructed tries of the season so far:

Again playing to a plan to target the middle, Komati bamboozled no less than four Tweed defenders as he skipped across the line before dropping Wabo back against the grain into a tiring Tweed middle defence to level things up at 16-16 at the break. 

The Hunters started the second half like they ended the first, dominating in yardage and moving the ball with confidence in attack. The contributions of Finley Glare at dummy-half ensured PNG lost none of their spark through the middle while Rimbu went to the bench and allowed the Hunters to commit to their direct approach with the ball. 

With the Hunters asking so many questions of the Seagulls middle defence, fatigue began to set in and Komati finally split them with a trademark show-and-go in the 43rd minute:

Suddenly behind on the scoreboard, the home side roared to life.

It took some enterprising play from the Seagulls to finally disrupt what was a well-presented and hard-working Hunters defensive line. Pushed passes and speculator offloads eventually found their mark to get Tweed into the backfield but PNG’s cover defence refused to give up cheap points.

A desperate try saving tackle from rookie centre Elijah Roltinga in the 49th minute typified the Hunters performance in Round 4; rather than being rewarded for his efforts, Roltinga was unlucky to concede a penalty in the tackle and the home side went on to score one set later through Brayden McGrady.

As fatigue set in during the final quarter it was the Seagulls who made their own luck to enjoy all the momentum. Another questionable call went the home side’s way when Hunters utility Glare was penalised for an obstruction deep inside his own half, gifting Tweed a cheap two points to extend their lead at a crucial moment in the contest.

A late injury to backrower Whallan Tau-Loi came at the wrong time for a Hunters outfit who were simply refusing to give up despite the weight of possession going against them.

Tweed would score again through Steadman and Lindon McGrady to finally put the result out of reach, but it was the Hunters who would get the last laugh when Nima bagged his second of the evening in the shadows of fulltime.

While it wasn’t enough to flip the scoreboard in PNG’s favour, Nima’s last-minute try is a relevant and recent example of the Hunters ongoing improvements this season. Rather than getting frustrated or capitulating on the back of an error or tough call, this Hunters squad is learning how to absorb pressure with their defence and earn their moments in attack. 

Despite the result being out of reach, the Hunters stuck to their processes to ensure they finished QRL Round 4 on top. 

Playing to their strengths in yardage, PNG crashed through the middle of the field to generate some second-phase play and get Tweed retreating towards their own line. With the momentum generated earlier in the set, veteran Hunters winger Nima was afforded the chance to pounce on a quick play-the-ball and barge through four Seagulls defenders on his way to the line. 

To claw this result back to within eight points was an encouraging effort from an improving PNG side who are still figuring out what works for them at QRL level. 

SP PNG Hunters Head Coach Paul Aiton was disappointed with the end result but stressed that his team’s development is a work in progress. 

“I thought there were moments out there where we played how we wanted to play and that showed,” said Aiton. 

“We had a plan with the ball and when we stuck to it we were earning results. The boys started really well but we just need to stay patient and have a little more faith in what we’re doing. Once we went away from our plan, that’s when things came undone.”

“It’s a great lesson for the boys – they know where they need to improve and I cannot fault their effort,” Aiton stressed. 

“We’re learning every week. The boys are working hard for each other, they’re hungry to learn and that effort is showing in our defence. We want to make our tackles and they’re all covering each other well, we just need to stick to our systems a little longer.”

Saturday’s result leaves the Hunters sitting in equal sixth position on the ladder and just outside the Top Eight on points differential. With a bye scheduled for QRL Round 5 this weekend, the SP PNG Hunters have plenty of time to recover and reset for their next match against the Redcliffe Dolphins on Saturday, 20th April at the Santos National Football Stadium, Port Moresby. 

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2022 Hostplus Cup