This match was State of Origin III’s little brother. Less at stake, but same elements: desperate players, a fervent crowd, some electric football, a host of blunders, an old-fashioned blue and an upset result. Played on the kind of sunny winter’s Sunday on which old-timers are fond of saying they wouldn’t be dead for quids, it was a game that will linger in the memory of all who saw it.
The Tigers tend to play their best football at good ol’ Leichhardt Oval, and they certainly had their moments this time. But the 20-point winning margin disguised the fact that, for the first quarter of the game, they looked like getting blown away by their more-fancied opponents.
It took all of 44 seconds for the Cowboys’ Matt Bowen to streak away for the season’s fastest try. The visitors’ big men were making easy metres and it looked at times as though the Tigers had resigned themselves to a spectator’s role during the September play-offs.
It was Benji Marshall who finally put them on the board, scoring in the 23rd minute from the sort of scrum-base play that coach Tim Sheens has been devising, reworking and rehashing since the late ’80s. But if it was the dazzling five-eighth who got them moving, it was hooker Robbie Farah who ignited them, not with his usual scheming and darting around the rucks, but with flying fists. After suffering what appeared to be an unprovoked attack in the preceding scrum from his opposite, Anthony Watts, Farah retaliated in the next one with the backing of his team-mates and most of the crowd. More on that later.
After their slow start, the Tigers scored 20 unanswered points to lead by 20-8 after 50 minutes, and might have run away with it from there. Instead, they spent another period in the doldrums and invited the Cowboys back into the match with a spate of errors. Carl Webb crashed over for a converted try that narrowed the gap to six, but that’s as close as the disappointing visitors would get.
For a team with designs on a top-four spot, theirs was, on the whole, a dismal showing. Against a side not renowned for brick-wall defence, the Cowboys managed just three line breaks all afternoon, and their defence at times was lazy. The Tigers scored twice in the last 10 minutes to turn the day into the carnival most Leichhardt Oval games become. Doubtless there are sound financial reasons why the Tigers don’t play all their home matches at the old ground, but it’s a safe bet Sheens’ men wouldn’t right now be outsiders for the top eight if Leichhardt were their permanent home.
The Game Swung When… Seven minutes before the break, with the Cowboys ahead 8-6, replacement Steve Rapira went within centimetres of scoring, only to be denied by some desperate work from Shannon Gallant. In an instant, the Tigers counter-attacked, John Morris sending Beau Ryan away down the right flank, and Chris Lawrence completing a sweeping play in the opposite corner, putting the Tigers ahead for the first time, never to be headed.
Arguably, however, the true turning point occurred a few minutes earlier, when Farah beat Watts to the ground during a scrum eruption. At its core, rugby league is a primitive sport, and this display of physical dominance gave the Tigers an edge they never surrendered.
Who Was Hot… As usual, Benji Marshall was a little erratic, but he was still the player you couldn’t take your eyes off, and set up two tries in addition to the one he scored.
Chris Lawrence looked good, as always, in a little bit of space, as did the barnstorming Tigers winger Taniela Tuiaki, who the Cowboys didn’t mind kicking to, for reasons best known to them. More than once, instead of charging back on the kick-returns, Tuiaki threw long passes inside to Gallant, but the winger still wound up for some damaging bursts.
Gareth Ellis worked tirelessly in the centre, where Robbie Farah had his best game since his Origin setback, sealing the Tigers’ win with a solo try from a grubber three minutes from time.
For the Cowboys, prop Shane Tronc would have slept well on Sunday night after Herculean efforts in attack and defence, and replacement forward Steve Rapira tried to inspire his team-mates with some runs in which every extra inch seemed life-and-death for him.
Who Was Not… Backing up from Origin III, Cowboys champion Jonathan Thurston was below his best and overshadowed by Marshall. Had just the four runs on an afternoon when his team needed more from him.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… Because of Marshall’s wonderful footwork and ball skills, it’s easy to forget just how fast he is. Surprising the Cowboys with a quick tap in the 70th minute, the no.6 took off like Usain Bolt, covering 50 metres in a blink and setting up Corey Payne for the match-sealer.
A few minutes later, the match gone, little Matt Bowen found himself the only man blocking Tuiaki’s path to the try line. Tuiaki was moving at full pelt down the left flank, but Bowen courageously put his shoulder and head into the big man’s tree-trunk of a right leg, felling the big oak.
Bad Boys… Farah and Watts were both sin-binned just before the half-hour for their part in the fight that sent fans on a little journey through time, back to the days when the Tigers’ Benny Elias used to taunt and goad Souths’ Mario Fenech until Fenech could take no more. When the 10 minutes was almost up, Farah and Watts stood by side at the mouth of the tunnel, not so much as glancing at each other, both bearing the cuts and scars of their battle. While this was nothing more nor less than violence and you don’t want to glorify it, there was something compelling about it. Feuds like this used to define rugby league, before it became more about completions, repeat sets and second-man plays. These guys cared.
Nonetheless, the duo will pay for their stoush – both were charged with striking by the match review committee. Should both enter early guilty pleas Watts will be out for a week while Farah will be free to play this weekend.
Refs Watch… Shayne Hayne and Matt Cecchin had sound games, and they handled the Farrar-Watts stink just right. No lectures, just 10 in the bin for the pair of them.
NRL Best & Fairest… 3 points – Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers): The Tigers’ most dazzling and inventive on an afternoon of fun; 2 points – Shane Tronc (Cowboys): The prop made 19 charges for 149 metres, and 27 tackles; 1 point – Taniela Tuiaki (Wests Tigers): His team’s top metre-eater with 193 from 16 runs.
Wests Tigers 34 (B Marshall, C Lawrence, T Tuiaki, S Gallant, C Payne, R Farah tries; Marshall 5 goals) def Cowboys 14 (M Bowen, C Webb tries; J Thurston 3 goals) at Leichhardt Oval. Crowd: 18,804.