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A ruthless and disciplined SP PNG Hunters side matched a few club records in Round 8 of the QRL Hostplus Cup, savaging a Townsville Blackhawks outfit on home soil to the tune of 52-16 on Sunday afternoon. 

The crowd at Jack Manski Oval could not have anticipated such a dominant performance from the visitors who came into Round 8’s fixture on the back of three straight losses. 

There is often more to a game than just the final scoreboard though, and that was true of the Hunters start to the 2024 regular season. Losses to some of the genuine QRL competition heavyweights skewed what was an extremely challenging opening draw for the proud Papua New Guinean-based side, but they also served as invaluable lessons for this young Hunters squad. 

To put all those learnings together into a complete 80-minute performance on Sunday afternoon is a big win for Head Coach Paul Aiton and his players, moving forward. 

Many of the positive qualities these Hunters players have exhibited throughout a tough start to the year – resilience under pressure, improved discipline, playing to a plan with the ball – were on display again in QRL Round 8, only this time the Hunters were finally rewarded with the end result. 

The Blackhawks struck first in this one through Jaelen Feeney but as they’ve done all year to date, the Hunters quickly fought to slow their opponent’s momentum and drag the game down into a grind. Townsville halfback Jake Bourke kicked from inside his own 40m line in the Blackhawks next two sets after points as PNG applied pressure with their defence to eventually force an error in yardage from the home side. 

Hunters backrower Whallan Tau-Loi would then cash in on the Hunters first attacking set courtesy of some nice deception from halfback Jamie Mavoko. 

Relishing his role as on-field conductor, Mavoko played to a plan right from the opening set on Sunday to drop his players back against the grain. In yardage, that direct plan promoted fatigue into the Blackhawks middle and in good-ball it punished that fatigue to find little chinks in the line for Tau-Loi in this instance to score. 

The Hunters almost went the length from the ensuing kickoff when five-eighth Joshua Lau capitalised on some ruck speed to slice through himself on the left edge. A heavy grubber back on the inside instead gave Townsville a seven-tackle set and they made the most of it to score next through NRL veteran James Tamou. 

The shoot-out continued when Tau-Loi bagged his second soon afterwards. With the home side bunching up through the middle in response to PNG’s direct approach with the ball, Tau-Loi exposed them on the edge this time with an impressive show of speed to burn multiple defenders on his way to the try line. 

The home side made their own luck to fire back one more response, scoring a questionable try through Kalifa Faifai-Loa despite the Blackhawks winger appearing to bounce the ball in the process of scoring. It would matter little by full time though as the Hunters dominated the final 50 minutes to score seven unanswered tries, equalling the club’s biggest ever win on Australian soil. 

Judah Rimbu kicked off the action in the 35th minute, identifying a quick play-the-ball close to the line and darting over between two exhausted Blackhawks middles to give PNG an 18-16 lead following the successful Mavoko conversion. 

Rimbu’s influence around the ruck then triggered PNG’s next points when rookie centre Alex Max crossed just before halftime. 

Playing to the plan through the middle, Rimbu bamboozled the markers to send Koso Bandi back behind the ruck and fold the Blackhawks line in towards the ball. Having created the space out wide, Rimbu then combined with his five-eighth to pass Max into that space and execute a very well-worked try. 

Another clutch conversion from Mavoko – this time from the left touchline – gave the SP PNG Hunters a deserving 24-16 lead at the break. 

An attacking raid threatened to give Townsville a sniff early in the second half, but PNG’s systems held firm before the visitors quickly mounted a counter attack courtesy of a late offload in yardage. 

With the resulting field position, Rimbu’s class was again the difference as he rolled a delicate grubber into the in-goal to force an error from the home side. Hunters centre Elijah Roltinga was the beneficiary on this occasion, diving on the loose ball to score an opportunistic four pointer. 

Townsville impressed in moments as they tried to kickstart a miracle comeback but PNG’s defensive systems – particularly on the edges – simply refused to give up cheap points. The Hunters efforts without the ball continued to force errors from the home side and subsequently earn more opportunities for PNG to attack themselves.

Hunters fullback Sanny Wabo was next to put himself in the box seat, using a burst of speed to create a space in the defensive line back on the inside. It was no coincidence that Max scored his second of the afternoon by cutting back against the grain and targeting the Blackhawks tiring middle defenders:

Sure enough, Max would complete his first QRL Hostplus Cup hattrick just nine minutes later by playing towards similar principles in attack. 

In what would have been a pleasing sight for Head Coach Aiton, three of the Hunters key spine players – Rimbu, Mavoko and Lau – combined smartly to stretch the Blackhawks middle defence with wide passes before turning the ball back underneath towards the spaces:

Lau’s ability to change the tempo of his run as he shapes to different options around him here is key. The young five-eighth is only 12 games into his Hostplus Cup career but is ballplaying beyond his years to execute some effective and repeatable attacking actions for the Hunters this season. 

With the result well and truly decided, the Hunters defence was impressing even more than their expansive attack. They repelled a desperate Blackhawks attack on multiple occasions in the final quarter, forcing errors and pushed passes with their line speed or movements on the edges. 

Having suffocated the home side with defensive pressure for the best part of 80 minutes, PNG finally celebrated with two late bonus tries through Finley Glare and Wabo. Glare pounced on a late offload close to the line to bag his first of the year before Wabo iced a slick left-edge movement that highlighted all of the Hunters improvements in attack this season.

Getting to the right areas on the field and identifying when to fire a shot, Rimbu and Lau again combined smartly to shift from a midfield quick play-the-ball here:

Falling into that familiar double-unders shape, Lau sat Townsville’s edge defenders on their heels here before dropping Benjamin Kelly back against the grain. The beauty of PNG’s game plan became evident when Blackhawks half Bourke – expecting the change of direction – turned in to check the Kelly tackle and subsequently opened up a space to his outside. 

Punishing Bourke’s movement in the line, Kelly bounced off his right foot and passed back to Lau into the space created. Soft hands from the Hunters five-eighth sent Wabo into the backfield from there, where the elusive fullback had too much speed for the cover defence to handle. 

A spectacular night off the tee for Jamie Mavoko complemented what was one of PNG’s best offensive performances in the Hostplus Cup. The Hunters halfback slotted eight from nine attempts to equal the club’s record for most goals scored in a QRL game and help the Hunters register their fourth biggest winning margin (38) in history. 

The SP PNG Hunters will now look to bring their winning form back to the Santos National Football Stadium this coming Saturday, 11th May when they host the competition leading Northern Pride in Round 9 of the QRL Hostplus Cup. 

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2022 Hostplus Cup