Wests Tigers have thrown off a week of uncertainty about the future of coach Ivan Cleary to topple Canberra 22-20 and move just one win away from the top eight. After putting an end to speculation he would be leaving the club for Penrith in 2019, Cleary and his men kept their faint finals hopes alive in front of 14,583 at GIO Stadium.
It nearly wasn’t to be for the away side as they watched an early 16-0 lead evaporate as the Raiders stormed back into contention in the second half. However, poor discipline from Canberra at inopportune times combined with less-than-threatening options at the end of their sets saw them run out of time.
A line break by Tigers playmaker Luke Brooks saw him help create the game’s first half-chance, with a Robbie Farah chip-kick sitting up tantalisingly for a flying Kevin Naiqama who could not find the in-goal area. Canberra had been disinclined during the first 10 minutes before a Nick Cotric error and a penalty against Joe Tapine for a high tackle was followed by Joey Leilua being sent to the sin-bin for a professional foul.
It did not take long for the Tigers to make the most of the numbers advantage, shifting the ball to the left to see Malakai Watene-Zelezniak cross.
The away side’s lead jumped out to 10 as Matthew Eisenhuth broke free up the middle before he found Moses Mbye who scored in his 100th NRL game.
The Tigers’ fast start continued as they scored their third of the game off the back of a Shannon Boyd error, with Michael Chee Kam crossing to make it 16-0.
After a disciplined beginning, errors started to creep into the game for the Wests Tigers with sloppy handling coming out of their half give Canberra some vital possession. Eventually Canberra broke through when Tapine showed his strength close to the line to slam the ball down despite several desperate Tigers defenders clinging to him.
Wests did not take long to hit back, with a slick move to the right opening up space for David Nofoaluma to cross in the corner.
A penalty late in the half gave the Raiders the field position they needed to score a vital try, as a surging run from Josh Papalii saw him cross as Canberra cut the lead to 10 at half-time.
The gap was stretched out to two converted tries not long after half-time after Masters slotted a penalty off the back of several line breaks from the Tigers coming out of their own half.
Off the back of a slew of offloads, Canberra scored a vital try through Leilua on a very narrow short-side, before Tapine crossed for his second to cut the lead to two.
An errant pass over the sideline and a Tapine penalty gave the Tigers excellent field position and looked to have scored in the corner through Nofoaluma, but a forward pass was spotted in the lead-up.
Despite having several sojourns deep into the Tigers’ half late in the game, poor execution at the end of Canberra’s sets crippled their chances to score a come-from-behind victory.
Trailing the eighth-placed Brisbane but one win, the Tigers face the out-of-form Dragons at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday before finishing the regular season with Manly at Campbelltown and the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium.
The eighth-placed Broncos host South Sydney on Thursday before facing the Roosters in Sydney and Manly at home in the last two rounds.