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The SP PNG Hunters continue to gather momentum as they build into the 2024 QRL Hostplus Cup season and a Round 9 ambush of the competition leading Northern Pride is the latest evidence. 

The Papua New Guinean faithful in attendance at the Santos National Football Stadium on Saturday were treated to one of the more complete performances of the Hunters 2024 campaign to date. A brace of early tries for the visitors threatened to dull the mood at the spiritual home of rugby league in PNG but this brave young Hunters squad soaked up the scoreboard pressure to respond with 30 unanswered points against the premiership heavyweights. 

NRL veteran Braidon Burns showed his class to score a double inside the first 10 minutes, capitalising on some early field position for the Pride attack. The experienced centre burrowed over from dummy-half down the short side to open the scoring before out-leaping PNG’s kick defence to bag his second on club debut. Thomas Duffy’s accurate boot converted both tries to give the Pride a 12-0 early lead. 

Finding themselves in familiar territory, this improving Hunters squad did what they’ve done all season and embraced the early pressure. You could forgive a team for going into their shell after such a start to the game, but this PNG squad has looked more and more comfortable in the grind with every outing this season. 

It didn’t take long for the Hunters to earn a shot in response. Pouring into attacking field position, Judah Rimbu marshalled his forwards from behind the ruck to play direct and chip away at Pride’s middle defence. Folding the line in towards the posts on play five, the Hunters rolled the dice and ran the ball on the last through fullback Sanny Wabo:

The electric footwork from ‘The Whizz Kid’ is pleasant viewing on the highlight reel but this try is a product of the Hunters improving systems in attack. Even with first-choice halfback Jamie Mavoko sidelined under the concussion protocols, the Hunters were still able to play to a plan with the ball; Rimbu’s efforts throughout this set to promote fatigue into Pride’s middle eventually paid dividends on tackle five when Wabo cut back against the grain to target those tired forwards. 

Fill-in halfback Finley Glare also deserves credit for his work on the ball here. Playing with a good understanding of his role, Glare engages the right defenders in the line while backrower Whallan Tau-Loi runs a convincing decoy off his hip. With every player doing their job within the system, Wabo got his chance against some tired and over chasing forwards to convert PNG’s first shot at the scoreboard.

It would be another 10 minutes before the Hunters scored again and this time it was their improving defensive systems that produced points. 

Faced with an expansive Pride attack down the far tram line, PNG’s defensive spacing and decision making in the lead up to Alex Max’s intercept try was inch-perfect:

With six defenders holding shape on the edge and both markers working hard to pressure from the inside, the Hunters force Pride into an error here. Five-eighth Joshua Lau is perfectly positioned at three-man to read what’s unfolding and shoot smartly on the jockey to win possession for his team. 

Once again, Max’s length of the field effort will be replayed on the highlight reel but most encouraging was seeing the Hunters trust their systems under pressure. Lau’s jamming effort looked like an individual play but it was PNG’s defensive systems that put Lau in position to make the tackle. 

In attack, those same improving systems set up Finley Glare for success while filling in for Mavoko at halfback. Given a simple role on the right edge, Glare did all the lead up work for Wabo’s try before stealing the limelight in the shadows of halftime:

Having spent plenty of time at dummy-half for the Hunters already this season, Glare’s ruck recognition is superb here to punish a lazy defender left on the ground and sneak down the blind side to score while the Pride loaded up their middle instead. 

With Glare successfully converting his own try, the Hunters took a well deserved six-point lead into the sheds and would strike again quickly after the break. 

Keen eyed Hunters fans will have noticed an effective and repeatable attacking action through Lau that has featured heavily down PNG’s left edge this year. The nippy five-eighth is a genuine running threat and when he shapes towards the sideline the defence reacts. On occasion, Lau has burst through the line himself but most of the time he is creating space back on the inside for his centre or backrower:

As with most of the Hunters scoring actions in QRL Round 9, the system helped to produce the highlight reel moment; in this case Max’s brilliant one-handed offload to a runaway Benji Kot. 

The Hunters are at their best when playing direct to promote fatigue in the defence and create positive matchups in the line; here it’s Lau getting Max one-on-one with a smaller defender. At worst, that plan promotes a quick play-the-ball and at best it generates some second phase play for a teammate to score – as Kot does here. 

Another superb sideline conversion from Glare gave PNG a 24-12 lead just after half-time but the points quickly dried up from there. Indeed, it would be another 35 minutes before the scoreboard ticked over again as Aiton’s Hunters played patient and trusted the process.  

A key element of the Hunters gameplan this season has been ‘setting it up early to win it late’. 

It’s no coincidence that PNG have scored most of their points this year in the back end of either half, once fatigue has set in. Their direct approach with the ball doesn’t always produce points early, but it does create chinks in the armour for the Hunters to target late in the piece. 

That’s exactly what happened in QRL Round 9 as the SP PNG Hunters scored an opportunistic try right on full time through their star five-eighth:

Once again, it’s Lau producing a special individual moment that plays on familiar principles in attack; targeting an exhausted Pride middle defence. 

With nothing on down the left edge and seconds remaining on the clock, Lau bounces back infield to skip across a passive defensive line. Spotting some space in the far right corner, Lau rolls a kick into the backfield and is rewarded for working hard on the kick chase. Just as he did for Max in the first half, Lau’s defensive effort wins a result for his team when he knocks the ball loose for Elijah Roltinga to fall on in the in-goal. 

A perfect five from five off the tee from Glare ensured the SP PNG Hunters made the most of their attacking chances in a grinding contest, kicking his team to a 30-12 win over the first-placed Northern Pride as the siren sounded. 

Saturday’s result catapulted PNG into eighth position on the QRL Hostplus Cup ladder, despite a difficult opening draw which featured five of the current top eight sides. 

The Hunters get a great chance to better position themselves in the top half of the competition ladder when they host the 15th placed Ipswich Jets next Saturday, 18th May at the Santos National Football Stadium.

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2022 Hostplus Cup