Round 5 of the Telstra NRL premiership saw the Wests Tigers travel to north Queensland to take on 2005 rival Grand Finalists the North Queensland Cowboys. Both sides were coming off impressive last start wins however the Tigers endured plenty of turmoil during the week with several injury concerns. Early in the week the Tigers would supposedly be without centre Blake Ayshford who suffered a knee injury in the final minute against the Canberra Raiders, while they lost Keith Galloway later in the week through a combination of injuries, and then it was revealed on Friday that Gareth Ellis would also miss the match due to injury. This would have caused a major reshuffle of the Tigers side however it was revealed that both Ayshford and Ellis would play, with Daniel Fitzhenry to start in place of Mitch Brown, Todd Payten moved up to the front row, Liam Fulton into the second row and Junior Moors was added to the Tigers bench.
Just how would the Tigers mentally handle this game given the less than ideal short turnaround and injury concerns?
The Tigers received from the kick off and came up with a disastrous start with the ball going touch in goal gifting the Cowboys a line drop out and great field position to start the match. The Tigers defence held but the Tigers were forced to take the ball dead, resulting in back to back sets for the Cowboys. A great early shot from Gareth Ellis saw Jonathon Thurston go down clutching his groin and in considerable pain from the look of it. Most males watching the game winced at watching the replay. Thurston eventually regained his feet and again forced the Tigers to play at the ball in goal with a well weighted grubber kick. Marshall’s line drop out went 55 metres and this time the Tigers did well to hold and finally come away with possession.
Some good rushing defence from the Tigers in the 5th minute resulted in Thurston losing the ball, giving the Tigers their best field position for the match so far. A great set play from the Tigers resulted in Chris Lawrence scoring as he ran onto a perfectly placed grubber kick behind the line from Benji Marshall. The try was a great shot in the arm for the Tigers as they had been largely made to defend up to this point. Marshall’s conversion attempt just hooked to the left of the posts giving the Tigers a 4-0 lead after 8 minutes. The Tigers made great ground off the re-start through some good passing and running however a dropped ball from Daniel Fitzhenry inside the Cowboys half brought a halt to the Tigers play.
Some good defence from both sides saw the game develop into a bit of an arm wrestle over the next few minutes. Tigers forward Chris Heighington was shook up while getting his head in the wrong position making a tackle in the 13th minute. Tragedy struck in the 15th minute as the Tigers lost half Tim Moltzen for the season as he went down in a screaming heap in the 15th minute with an ACL left knee injury while chasing a Tigers bomb. It was a massive blow for the Tigers and terrible news for Moltzen as he did not even make contact with anyone when the injury occurred. Moltzen was replaced by Mitch Brown which resulted in a backline shuffle for the Tigers with Daniel Fitzhenry moving into the halves. The Tigers gave away their first penalty for the match through Bryce Gibbs lying in the play the ball. The Cowboys went close to scoring before a dropped ball saw the Tigers swoop on the ball through Marshall who raced 80 metres downfield while being harassed by Thurston before he found support in Tuqiri who carried one defender under the posts with him. Marshall made no mistake with the kick in front to give the Tigers a very handy 10-0 lead with the run of play in general going against them.
A penalty from the re-start saw the Tigers lose the ball on the first tackle through Andrew Fifita who was hit in a good tackle. This time the Tigers gave away a penalty right in front of the posts. The Cowboys took the tap and some great Tigers defence held them out and forced a mistake. A great kick from Farah from the next set saw the Cowboys having to work the ball deep out of their own half. An unintentional high shot from Andrew Fifita saw a Cowboys player go down while Fifita was placed on report and the Cowboys given a penalty. Another Cowboys penalty saw the Tigers under real pressure with Gareth Ellis clashing heads with Bryce Gibbs. The replay saw Ellis lose what looked to be a tooth. The Cowboys took the shot at goal this time due to the good Tigers defence. Thurston made no mistake with the kick to close the gap to 10-2 after 25 minutes.
The Tigers cut loose in the 28th minute as rising prop Andrew Fifita swat away defenders including Jonathon Thurston who went down injured. From the next play Benji Marshall threw a great face ball to find Blake Ayshford in open space who drew the cover defence before offloading to Chris Heighington who crossed. Marshall added the extra to take the Tigers lead out to 16-2 in what was a very gutsy performance so far. The Tigers targeted Thurston from the restart which including Heighington running over the top of him and Thurston leaving the field injured. The Cowboys then lost the ball on the first tackle deep inside their own half which gave the Tigers great attacking field position. A terrible pass from Marshall which went to no one was knocked on cold by Cowboys centre Willie Tonga, giving the Tigers another shot at the Cowboys line. A great run from Marshall saw him throw a trademark flick pass for Beau Ryan however Ryan was unable to take the pass.
Daniel Fitzhenry was the next Tiger to give away a penalty with the Cowboys pinned inside their own half. Some more great defence from the Tigers resulted in the Cowboys losing the ball again inside the Tigers half as their play looked rushed and disjointed. An error from Beau Ryan on the first tackle in the 37th minute gave the Cowboys a great attacking chance close to halftime. A messy play the ball from Luke O’Donnell let the Tigers off the hook and he was then marched for backchat. The Tigers were then awarded another penalty as O’Donnell’s discipline went out the window. O’Donnell then went high on Beau Ryan which resulted in several Tiger players rushing in to lend support. O’Donnell copped 10 in the bin for his trouble while Marshall took a shot at goal after the halftime siren. Benji’s kick was successful to give the Tigers a very handy 18-2 halftime lead.
It wasn’t the greatest half of football, however the Tigers were far hungrier in defence and made better use of the football than the Cowboys who looked rattled in comparison.
The Tigers started the second half kicking off to the Cowboys who were reduced to 12 men for the first 10 minutes. The Tigers got away to a safe and sound start while they continued to toil well against the larger Cowboys pack. The Tigers had a half chance in the 45th minute as Farah and Marshall combined however Benji’s flick pass was unable to be handled by Ellis looming up in support. The Cowboys crossed for their first try in the 46th minute as a bomb on the last tackle was spilt by Mitch Brown. The conversion was successful which narrowed the Tigers lead to 18-8 after 48 minutes.
A Cowboys penalty in the 50th minute saw them go on attack in the Tigers half. The Tigers defence held this time thankfully as the Cowboys were trying to lift. A poor pass from Fitzhenry in the 56th minute saw the Tigers give away decent field position and situation was compounded by the Tigers giving away another penalty which gave the Cowboys great field position. Shannon Gallant went oh so close to scoring in the 57th minute however he lost the ball trying to force it over the tryline. This resulted in a Tigers scrum 10 out from their own line and under the pump. They came away from their own end safely though.
Benji Marshall tried to lift his side with a kamikaze run in the 61st minute which showed great courage. The Tigers continued to defend well with their compressed defence. Yet another penalty to the Cowboys in the 63rd minute saw them go on the attack at the Tigers line again. The Tigers defence again held solid as they forced a mistake as Marshall and Tuqiri went on the counter-attack. The Tigers lost the ball though again giving it back to the Cowboys in good field position. The pressure was too much for the Tigers to handle as Willie Tonga crashed over in the corner beating Blake Ayshford and Daniel Fitzhenry. Luckily the conversion was wide giving the Tigers a slender 18-12 lead with 14 minutes remaining. The Tigers had to make an extra 70 tackles by this stage of the game.
The Tigers were awarded a rare penalty in the 70th minute as they were pinned deep in their own half. Cowboys hooker Aaron Payne went down injured at this time too with an ankle injuryand left the field. Benji Marshall attempted a field goal in the 71st minute however it was just wide of the posts. The Tigers gave away yet another penalty allowing the Cowboys out of their own half. A Cowboys break in the 72nd minute saw them lose the ball with Beau Ryan cleaning up. The Tigers were then given a penalty of their own, much to their relief. The Tigers landed a field goal this time through Robbie Farah in the 74th minute giving the Tigers a 19-12 lead. The Cowboys attempted an intercept in the 75th minute as Marshall threw a speculator which would have put Tuqiri away however the Cowboys could not handle it giving the Tigers another set of 6. A great run and pass from Chris Heighington saw him put Chris Lawrence in the corner for his second try of the night. Marshall’s conversion was waved away to give the Tigers an unassailable 23-12 lead with 2 minutes remaining. The Cowboys regathered from the kick off and scored on the last tackle through Watts. It was too little too late as the Tigers ran our deserved 23-16.
Tonights win was by no means spectacular, however it was a full team effort built off the back of a great defensive platform set early on by the Tigers. Both sides had to weather injuries and decimated benches however it was the Tigers who showed more determination and composure to come away with a very important win.
Onto the players (stats from NRL stats):
Beau Ryan - Another solid game at fullback and heavily involved all game. Came up with 1 error in the first half but otherwise very good once again I thought. Got in and did plenty of dummyhalf running with the Tigers forwards burning up a lot of energy in defence and positioned himself well at the back for the most part. 180 metres in attack, 2 errors and 1 offload, 5 tackles.
Lote Tuqiri - Another strong game and forced to do a lot of hard yards from dummyhalf tonight as the Tigers were starved of ball throughout the match. Scored his 5th try of the season in backing up Benji’s great break in the first half and generally safe all night. Proving a more than adequate replacement on the left wing and well in contention for Origin the way he’s going. 133 metres in attack, 1 try, 1 offload, 7 tackle breaks and 2 errors.
Blake Ayshford - Wasn’t expected to play but took the field with no strapping on his knee at all and generally went well. Missed one tackle on Tonga in the second half which resulted in a try but did well in scooting downfield in the first half and putting Heighington in ad otherwise his defence was solid. Generally quiet in attack as the Tigers centres did not receive great ball tonight. Still a reasonably solid game though. 103 metres in attack, 5 tackle breaks, 1 linebreak, 1 try assist and 22 tackles, 3 missed tackles.
Chris Lawrence - Good game tonight. Limited opportunities in attack, but made the most of what he got with 2 tries scored off very good pieces of play from Marshall and Heighno. Defended well all night with his up and in defence and well in calculations for rep football. 71 metres in attack, 2 tries, 1 linebreak, 4 tackle breaks, 15 tackles.
Mitch Brown - Came on in the 15th minute after Moltzen was injured and was very quiet in attack and had one bad moment where he spilt a bomb which resulted in a Cowboys try. Defended ok but otherwise quiet. 29 metres in attack, 1 error, 10 tackles.
Benji Marshall - Once again the Tigers lynchpin in attack and awarded MOM on ABC Grandstand. Set up Lawrence’s first try and threw the cut out pass to send Ayshford away for the Heighington try, also made a massive break to put Tuqiri in and generally the Tigers best and most dangerous tonight. Also defended well while his goalkicking was average. 112 metres in attack, 4 tackle breaks, 2 offloads, 2 try assists, 10 tackles.
Tim Moltzen - Had a good start to the game but it came to a shuddering halt in the 15th minute as his left knee buckled and he tore his ACL. A terrible injury for Moltzen and it has ended his season unfortunately.
Bryce Gibbs - The Tigers best forward tonight I reckon. Played big minutes, ran hard and defended well all game. Rep football is not beyond him the way he is currently playing. 139 metres in attack, 24 tackles, 2 missed tackles, 2 offloads.
Robbie Farah - Busy tonight and generally solid although he was unable to get good penetration through the ruck with the Cowboys big pack generally making it tough going for the Tigers forwards on the back of winning the possession. Kicked a very important field goal to put the Tigers 7 points clear late in the game and defended well all match. 73 metres in attack, 47 tackles and 1 error.
Todd Payten - Was going ok until he suffered an injury. Age isn’t on Todd’s side anymore so hopefully he returns quickly because the Tigers forwards depth is now being tested early in the season. Only made 1 hitup for 5 metres but came up with 28 tackles.
Gareth Ellis - Played injured and copped an injury, possibly a broken nose and a lost tooth from the look of it when he clashed heads with Gibbs but battled on strongly. Well down on attack tonight as the Tigers tackled their hearts out but I can’t fault his effort and he came up with some very good tackles once again. 68 metres in attack, 26 tackles, 1 offload, 1 error.
15. Liam Fulton - Played the full 80 minutes and defended brilliantly tonight. Really put in and while he didn’t shine in attack, his defence was a highlight. 66 metres in attack, 3 offloads, 47 tackles and 6 missed tackles.
Chris Heighington - He was actually replaced in the first half for a change as he copped a couple of heavy knocks but he still played strongly with several strong runs and some good defence once again. One of the Tigers better players tonight behind Marshall and Gibbs. 112 metres in attack, 1 try, 1 try assist, 6 tackle breaks, 25 tackles, 2 missed tackles.
Andrew Fifita - Made a mistake on his first hit up and also placed on report for an unintentional high shot which will hopefully see him cleared. Otherwise though, he was good, again proving difficult to contain with a couple of powerful runs and a couple of great offloads. Definitely one of the Tigers next generation who is rising to the challenge so far. 73 metres in attack, 4 tackle breaks, 2 offloads, 8 tackles and 1 error.
Mark Flanagan - Called upon to do a heavy defensive load and didn’t disappoint with a solid performance and a mistake free game. 53 metres in attack, 29 tackles.
Daniel Fitzhenry - Looked to be in slow motion a couple of times and it was far from his best game as he made a couple of poor errors. Forced to play in the halves once Moltzen left the field and it’s safe to say he won’t be in the halves next week. 65 metres in attack, 20 tackles and 2 errors.
Junior Moors - Didn’t come on until the second half and didn’t have much of an impact, although to be fair the Tigers spent most of their time tackling instead of running the ball. I don’t think he’s a front rower though and should be used wider of the ruck. Not much choice tonight though with Galloway, Cayless and Payten now injured. 32 metres in attack, 14 tackles.
Not the best attacking game from the Tigers tonight. They still scored some enterprising tries though, although the Cowboys dominated possession and field position which made it tough for the Tigers all night. They counter-attacked well once again though and while the forwards battled hard, they did not dominate the Cowboys pack which made it a bit harder for the backline. The forwards were led well by Bryce Gibbs who really dug deep and was ably supported by Chris Heighington, Gareth Ellis and Liam Fulton.
The backline was once again led well again by Marshall, Ryan and Tuqiri who were all heavily involved and Lawrence and Ayshford were generally solid and safe. Brown and Fitzhenry I have to say were quiet overall and did not impress.
The main reason behind the win. The Tigers were forced to make almost 300 tackles, almost 50 more than the Cowboys and they really defended the line well all night bar for one late try to Watts on fulltime and another to Tonga who was too strong for Ayshford and Fitzhenry. The Tigers got a lot of numbers in tackles and did a good job of slowing down the big Cowboys pack who were solid, but never truly dominated the smaller Tigers who used their compressed defence to good effect. Fulton and Farah were tackling machines and were well backed up by Flanagan, Gibbs and Heighno.
It was good early with Tim Moltzen finding open space a couple of times before he was injured. Afterwards, it was ok but far from great. Benji employed a combination of long kicks and high kicks which were all defused well by Gallant. Farah also chimed in ok with his boot, findin open space a couple of times as well as kicking for touch. The goalkicking still needs work with Benji kicking 3/5 with the 2 missed kicks wide out.
Overall team stats (Cowboys in brackets):
Try assists: 4 (2)
Offloads: 13 (6)
Linebreaks 2 (2)
Tackles made: 333 (269)
1 on 1 tackles: 21 (24)
Missed tackles: 24 (36)
Tackle breaks: 41 (26)
Total metres made: 1315 (1289)
Possession 47% (53%)
Errors: 11 (14)
Penalties conceded: 10 (6)
Overall wrap up:
A great team effort built on defence won this match for the Tigers. It was always going to be a tough ask with two tough away trips and several injury concerns to key players. Last year I reckon the Tigers would have folded. This year they are showing resilience and a solid backbone and are proving to be cool under pressure.
Some nice tries were once again scored but it was the defence which impressed me the most, especially on the Tigers try line. They forced numerous mistakes from the Cowboys and while both team lost their respective halfbacks for the match, it was the Tigers who coped better despite copping a caning in the penalties and being on the wrong end in possession. Not the flashiest win, but certainly a tough and gritty one that showed real character I thought, and that’s what a the majority of Tigers fans would want to see out of tonight.
The Tigers are back in Sydney next week to take on the Bulldogs who narrowly lost to the Warriors and will be looking for revenge. It will be a big ask for the Tigers to come up with the points once again as they suffered a couple of injuries tonight and will now be without halfback Tim Moltzen for the rest of the year.
Next week looms as an interesting one once again, but for now congrats to the Tigers on a very tough and important win. :sign: