Wallaby-infused Pirates edge thriller over gallant Rebels

Photo: SPA Images

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A wonderful season of club rugby was given a further boost this week, when news filtered through that two Wallabies would be making an appearance down in the Shire on Saturday afternoon.

West Harbour were coming to town, and after five wins on the trot they were more than handy opponents for Southern Districts, even before the names of Lote Tuqiri and Timana Tahu had been added to their ranks.

The Rebels were themselves coming into the game after two back-to-back wins, and with the scent of a memorable victory filling their nostrils. And if the Waratahs stars were hoping for an easy transition back into club rugby, they were rudely mistaken, with monstrous hits from the opposition, cutting barbs from the bleachers, and a right royal soaking from on high, all combining to offer the tiniest of welcome mats.

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The opening 20 minutes saw both sides show plenty of attacking intent, and a surprising shortage of handling errors given the horrendously wet conditions. Eventually, pressure from the Pirates backline brought them a penalty within kicking distance, scrumhalf Steve Massey was successful, and Wests led 3-0.

The game settled into a pattern with West Harbour trying to move the ball wide at every opportunity but being let down by poor execution, whilst the Souths forwards were taking great pleasure from the opportunity to slam some notable scalps face down into the turf.

After nearly half an hour, Tuqiri’s experimental shift at full-back nearly cost him as his attempted clearance was charged down, only for the ball to narrowly escape the despairing clutches of Chris Aho, who saw an uninterrupted charge to the line go begging.

Tuqiri, Lote portrait 300509D-3092.JPG

Timana Tahu and Lote Tuqiri waiting to pounce – Photo: SPA Images

The Rebels started to play their way into the game by gaining the upper hand up front. Their scrum in particular was reaping the benefits of the presence of both Dan Palmer and Nic Henderson. With Guy Shepherdson also on the bench, the Souths tight-five is going to cause more than a few headaches before this competition is through.

Their momentum finally carried sway as Ben Long broke down the touchline and fed inside to his skipper Tim McGann, who crashed over for the lead. Nathan Sievert pulled his attempted conversion wide and it was game on.

As play switched from one end to the other, the Pirates gained some field position after a high-shot gave them a penalty. They managed to build a few phases before the ball was accelerated through the hands out wide to fly-half Jai Ayoub, who crossed in the corner. The extras were superbly added from the angle by Massey, and the visitors led 10-5.

Despite the try, Wests’ ambition was still not being matched by their execution. A backline that had exuded fluidity in the last few weeks was failing to integrate the new boys with any great conviction – with Tahu in particular on the periphery of the game.

Only five minutes had elapsed in the second half before the Rebels doubled their try count. A speculative midfield bomb was caught and returned with interest by fullback Matt Raftery, who ran from just inside his own half, carved a gap through the middle, outpaced a back-pedalling Tuqiri, and touched down. Seivert found his radar to gave Souths a two-point lead.

But Wests’ hit back immediately. Attacking the northern end from where Wallaby coach Robbie Deans was more than a casual observer, the loose ball was grubbered ahead from midfield by Tito Mua, and the prolific winger reached it first to claim the try. Massey’s metronomical boot did the trick again, and the topsy-turvy scoreboard swung back towards the boys from Burwood at 17-12.

Five minutes later, Tuqiri finally found some space to show his talents as he broke down the left and fed Massey on the overlap. He didn’t need a second invitation to run in another five points, but couldn’t convert his own good work afterwards with a rare miss off the boot.

Southern Districts 1st grade -Sievert, Nathan portrait rain 300509D-3569.JPG

The Rebels pack enjoying the deluge – Photo: SPA Images

The driving rain returned as the game entered the last 20 minutes with the Rebels trying to claw their way back into the match. It was a credit to both sides that they continued to play attacking and open rugby in such poor conditions, and it seemed inevitable that the try count would be added to before long.

With Wests’ defence stretched after a period of pressure, the ball was spun from left to right and into the waiting arms of Andrew Barrett, who had enough speed to run around to the posts and provide Sievert with an easier kick. It worked, and the Rebels were back within three points.

The Pirates were now looking to hit on the counter-attack, but it was the home side who once again profited from an excursion into enemy territory. Barrett nearly broke through once more with desperate defence keeping him out, only for a penalty to be awarded for offside. Sievert showed calmness under pressure to strike through the enveloping gloom at Forshaw and level the scores.

Five minutes later and the visitors were at it again. A speculative Garryowen into the opposition 22 was turned into an effective kick by a succession of unpredictable bounces across the slippery surface. As the ball trundled towards the posts, it was finally gathered by the last line of defence, only for a knock-on to be detected by referee James Leckie.

From the resultant scrum Wests pulled one out of the training manual. Everybody went right whilst Massey spread the ball left to Tahu, who arced his way around two defenders and fed Tuqiri, who crossed to an equal amount of cheers and jeers from the parochial crowd. Massey’s miss left the door open for Souths to claim the points with a converted try, but had that extra bit of Wallaby class finally made the difference?

With barely two minutes left on the clock, the home support were sent into a frenzy as Josh Tatupu scored after good work across the field from a lineout win. That left Sievert to seal the deal, but he couldn’t repeat his previous heroics, and the ball sailed wide of the uprights to the sound of a synchronised groan from the home gallery.

A high-scoring draw would have been a fair result all round, and a just reward for both teams endeavours. However, fate had other ideas, and with barely half a minute left on the clock, the Pirates broke Rebel hearts with the decisive score.

Tuqiri picked up the ball on halfway, put on the afterburners and outpaced three defenders before feeding partner in crime Tahu. The centre sped across to the right, where two passes down the line found John Sinisa with a clean run to the corner and not enough cover defence to stop him. Massey couldn’t put the icing on the cake but it was purely academical, as Wests made it six wins in a row and moved to second on the ladder.

Ayoub, Jai kicking 300509D-3449.JPG

Jai Ayoub has some impressive game management skills – Photo: SPA Images

A great advert for Sydney club rugby and certainly the most exciting game I’ve witnessed this season. The Pirates march on and who knows how far this side could go? There’s plenty of points in their backline, they can mix it up front and in Jai Ayoub, they have a rapidly maturing and effective playmaker.

As for the Rebels, they were unlucky today but they should take heart from the fact they went 80 minutes with a quality opponent that is in with a very good chance of a finals place. The improvement this year has been immeasurable, and with the cattle in their front row, the shrewd additions of McGann and Sievert, and hopefully the talents of Rob Horne still to come back, expect a big second half of the season from the Candy Stripes.

Credit to both Tuqiri and Tahu for approaching the game in the right spirit and not showing any signs of tall poppy syndrome. Credit too must go to Wallaby coach Robbie Deans for promoting the reintegration of Wallaby stars into the club scene. Let’s hope we see plenty more of it.

WEST HARBOUR 32 (Jai Ayoub, Tito Mua, Steve Massey, Lote Tuqiri, John Sinisa tries; Steve Massey 2 cons, pen) defeated SOUTHERN DISTRICTS 27 (Tim McGann, Matt Raftery, Andrew Barrett, Josh Tatupu tries; Nathan Sievert 2 cons, pen) at Forshaw Rugby Park. HT 10-5

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Southern Districts: 1. Nic Henderson; 2. Joe Lynch; 3. Dan Palmer; 4. Daniel Bray; 5. Mick Kauter; 6. Ben Long; 7. Tim McGann [c] 8. Chris Aho; 9. Nathan Sievert; 10. Greg Robson; 11. Joe Tatapu; 12. Chris Kerr; 13. Andrew Barrett; 14. Jackson Mullane; 15. Matt Raftery

West Harbour: 1.Campese Ma’afu; 2. Reg de Jager; 3. Salesi Ma’afu; 4. Tom Hikila; 5. Andrew Clyne; 6. Isaiah Pine [c]; 7. Mark Porpiglia; 8. Pelea Afu; 9. Steve Massey; 10. Jai Ayoub; 11. Tito Mua; 12. Metui Maile; 13. Timana Tahu; 14. John Sinisa; 15. Lote Tuqiri

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 Final Thoughts:

 West Harbour coach Stu Woodhouse:

“It’s never easy when boys come back into the group as we’ve had success without them, but they made major contributions at crucial times. Full credit to them, they’ve come in, they’ve given their all, and they’ve committed to the cause and to the team, so I’m really wrapped.

 “We had to be patient. With guys like Lote and Timana, they’re instinctive so you need to give them quality ball on phase play, more so the set-piece. We isolated and tried to get one-on-ones with individuals, and I think later in the match they came to the fore. They had to blow out the cobwebs in the first 20 minutes as they hadn’t done much for two weeks. But in the end class showed, and it was just a fantastic club match. I haven’t seen club rugby that strong for many a year.”

Southern Districts coach Tim Rapp:

“We’ve progressed, and that’s the big thing for us. Although we didn’t get the points on the board, at the end of the day, we’re down to the last 30 seconds of the game. We have progressed as a team and that’s a big positive to come out of it. We showed today that when we’re in a game we can actually play, and be confident in our game plan and have the patience to get over the line in the 79th minute or 80th minute to win it.

 “The good thing is, we’ve given an opportunity to guys to come to our club who may not have been playing 1st grade. When you’ve got blokes that are playing like that who want to be 1st graders and prove that to people, then we’re going to go forward.

 “We’re a team that have been last on the ladder for the last two years and it’s not exactly been the most enticing place to come to. I think that we’ve proved over the last ten rounds that things have turned around.”

Lote Tuqiri:

“We’ve come into this team and the boys probably expect a fair amount of good play, and I didn’t want to come here and take over and I don’t think we did that. We applied ourselves when we had to, and luckily we came away with the win.

“They played well. I couldn’t get a few kicks away and they were charging them down, and I kept saying to the ref ‘Are they onside here!’

“It brings back the passion in you, club footy. You hear everything in the crowd as well, it’s all around you. I said a few things to the crowd over there but I gave them a clap afterwards, and it was all in good fun.”

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First published clubrugby.com.au on June 3rd, 2009

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