Tuqiri’s return not enough to save Wests against Rats

Photo: SPA Images

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With seventh playing eighth for a spot in the top six, and the return of Lote Tuqiri to a rugby field after a controversially enforced hiatus, the stage was set for an absorbing afternoon up on the peninsula at the weekend as the Warringah Rats hosted the Pirates of West Harbour.

With three rounds remaining, both teams could ill afford another loss if they hoped to take their season on into September and a shot at the Shute Shield title. Would the Rats exact revenge for their televised loss to the Pirates back in Round 9, or could the presence of the ‘Dark Shark’ lift the visitors to a crucial victory?

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It was a glorious day for footy at Rat Park, with sunshine streaming across the grandstand and onto the healthy crowd parked on the hill opposite. The locals had come out in force to cheer on their boys, and also to get a look at Australian rugby’s newest pariah. Whether they’d come to cheer or jeer was not yet certain, but there’s no denying the ‘bums on seats’ factor that Tuqiri brings to the table.

He was tested from the off when he competently fielded a bomb in the first minute to a round of sarcastic applause. But it was the Pirates as a whole who were under the pump for the opening period, as the Rats looked to establish an early lead and take control of the match. And after five minutes a penalty in front of the posts gave Brett Sheehan the opportunity to set them on their way.

The game was being played at a frenetic pace, and with no quarter given amongst the forwards. Warringah were piling men into the tackle and gaining good metres through their aggressive approach, enough for Wests’ coach Stu Woodhouse to bark out instructions to ‘Slow down the breakdown!’ from his position behind one set of posts.

Tuqiri’s first significant action in attack was to outstrip a defender and fend off another, before offloading to Henry Seavula for a run down the line. The Pirates didn’t get enough numbers in to support and possession was lost, but it was an encouraging sign from the big no.11. Moments later, fellow winger John Sinisa showed a clean pair of heels as he made a terrific 40-metre burst, carving a hole through the Rats midfield and leaving green and white shirts in his wake before offloading to the former Wallaby, who couldn’t quite hold onto the pill as he was tackled.

With 15 minutes gone the Rats increased their advantage. After some enterprising work through their backs – some very neat hands shown by Sam Harris in particular – a grubber nearly put Haig Sare across in the corner, only for the ball to be taken over the sideline under pressure. Attacking the resultant lineout, lock Hugh Pyle found himself with both hands on the ball and the freedom of Pittwater as he twisted and fell over the chalk virtually unchallenged. The angle was too acute for Sheehan’s conversion, but the home side were in the ascendancy at 8-0.

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Nick Reily made an impressive return at fullback for Wests – Photo: SPA Images

The Pirates needed to get on the scoreboard, and after a tidy place kick from talented young flyhalf Jai Ayoub had created some much-needed field position, a period of sustained pressure brought it’s reward in the form of a penalty – easily converted by Steve Massey. But the reprieve didn’t last long as the Rats mirrored their opponents strategy and earned themselves a similar result, Sheehan kicking his second of the day for 11-3.

A contrast of styles began to emerge. The Rats were definitely the more structured in their approach, while the Pirates appeared to be playing very much ‘off the cuff’. It’s fly by the seat of your pants rugby at times, which is terrific to watch and great when it comes off. But it can leave you vulnerable to a side like Warringah that bides it’s time in defence, waits for the mistake, and punishes accordingly, and most of their good work was limited to their own half as the opposition defence moved up and repeatedly choked them of ball before they could breach the 22.

Recently returned fullback Nick Reily was showing why he’s been missed all season by the boys from Concord, with his pace and kicking options causing the Rats plenty of concern. And it was his ‘garryowen’ on the half hour that caused a mix-up in the home defence, and helped earn a subsequent penalty for illegally preventing the regather. Massey duly stepped up to keep the Pirates in touch by a score at the break.

The hosts had definitely had the better of it so far, but were yet to convert that supremacy into points. And if they were looking for a more disciplined and clinical start to the second half, they would have been disappointed with what transpired.

Sloppy play from the kick-off allowed Wests to apply pressure and force a lineout 10 metres from the Rats line. Maintaining possession they drove forward in numbers to get within inches of a score, but referee James Leckie had already called play back for an infringement, and Massey made it a two-point ball game.

The Pirates had come back out to play, and with their season on the line they threw everything but the kitchen sink at Warringah in a superb display of attacking rugby. They thought they had the lead when lock Andrew Clyne broke through a gap and pinned back his ears, only to be called back by the touch-judge for a forward pass.

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Tuqiri tried his best to get the Pirates off the hook         Photo: SPA Images

Tuqiri began to come into his own as he repeatedly broke the first tackle and tried to set up his fellow backs, linking particularly well with Seavula. When I asked him about their impressive interplay afterwards, I should have anticipated his answer – “He’s family mate!” Yet another name to add to a long list of Fijian-bred sporting cousins.

One such move should have resulted in a try with the two relatives breaking down the left before the forwards powered in to straighten the attack. Massey had plenty of options from the back of the ruck, maybe too many, and the overlap they had created on the right flank was ignored. They were awarded a penalty but the 3pt option was usurped in favour of an attacking lineout, and with the backline lying in wait and an expectant Tuqiri waiting to strike, surely this was their chance.

However, the Warringah pack executed some impressive stalling tackles, denying Massey the quick ball he favoured to release his ball runners, and momentum was lost. And when they did finally manoeuvre the play wide, they didn’t end up with the result they were expecting.

Seavula cut inside a couple of tackles but was left isolated, and the alert Josh Holmes, relatively quiet thus far, took a quick tap and fed Jordan Macey. The Rats winger weighed up his options and the sight of Tuqiri in front of him, and decided on a kick into the space behind. It initially appeared to have too much on it, but as he ran around to collect, it sat up perfectly to give him a free run to the line.

It was a hammer blow to the Pirates’ chances. As Tuqiri bemoaned afterwards, “He put the kick through and I thought ‘The ball’s gone out’, but it stayed in and they scored. That’s what happens when you don’t switch on, and we got punished.”

As the match entered the final quarter the visitor’s were punished for their profligacy once more, switching off in defence again to concede a soft try. On what was a rare foray into opposition territory in the second half, the Rats worked the ball across the edge of the 22 before a cute reverse pass gave the predatory Dylan Smouha too much room to ignore, and he promptly crossed for his 17th try of an impressive season. Sheehan did the rest, and the Pirates had 15 minutes left to recover from 23-9 down and save their season.

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Warringah’s green and white wall stood firm across the park – Photo: SPA Images

They did hold sway up until the bell, an all-out assault to desperately try and break down the stubborn and well-marshalled home defence. With the frustrated backs running out of patience and pushing passes, and the departure of Ayoub down the tunnel, coach Woodhouse effected a tactical change. Tuqiri came into the centres, and the point of attack narrowed to a show of aggression from the forwards, who attempted to rumble their way through the defensive wall.

With five minutes left they got their reward. A succession of pick and drives close to the line saw Brumby powerhouse Salesi Ma’afu use his brute strength to force the ball home. Reily converted, and we were in for a climactic finale.

The Pirates continued to chip away at the Rats’ 22, and a couple of half-chances nearly broke their way. But the experience of the home side’s rep players under pressure made all the difference, as they simply refused to buckle. Time eventually ran out, and West Harbour’s interest in this year’s competition was ended.

Another five minutes of play may have been interesting. But it was too little, too late for the boys from Concord, and they have to go away in the summer and regroup and refocus for next year. It’s been a genuine pleasure to watch them play rugby at times this season. Yes, there’s work to do. Yes, they make some mistakes. Yes, their set-piece needs some improvement. But on their day, when they’re throwing that ball around with such vim and vigour they offer up some of the most exhilarating rugby to be seen in this competition.

Warringah’s finals fate now awaits in a fortnight against Eastern Suburbs. The loser of that game may well be the one to miss out on a top six place, although the Highlanders of Gordon will have their say in the outcome as well. While still not the final article, the Rats’ defensive strengths will prove vital if they do play on past Round 22. And as we all know, the higher the stakes, invariably it’s the better defences that win competitions.

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WARRINGAH 23 (Hugh Pyle, Dylan Smouha, Jordon Macey tries; Brett Sheehan con, 2 pens) defeated WEST HARBOUR 16 (Salesi Ma’afu try; Nick Riely con, 3 pens) at Pittwater Rugby Park HT 11-6

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FINAL THOUGHTS:

Warringah head coach John McKee:

“With our position on the table and to qualify for play-offs we had to win today, so it’s obviously very pleasing. They were behind us and playing for their season as well, so it was always going to be very, very hard. I felt at times we didn’t play with enough patience and we tried to force the play a bit, particularly in the first half where I thought we turned some ball over by playing risky rugby, whereas if we’d just built pressure we could have converted points that way.

“At half-time we thought they were tiring a bit and we’d get some pay out of the work we’d done. We talked about making sure we started well, which we probably didn’t, and the fact that they were going to come back into the game, so it was really to just go out there and start again. There were a couple of turnovers from the kick-off, and then that lineout got them down that end and it cost us some points on the scoreboard. But overall, I’m very pleased with the way the guys played.  

“In attack we’ve got to be a little bit more patient, but I thought our defence was good today. They’re a very dangerous team and they have a lot of speed – particularly in their back three – and we really shut that down. In the end they had to resort to running their forwards off the edge of the ruck and using pick and go’s, because they were getting no joy out wide. So I definitely thought we were very good in that department. It’s all about grinding out the hard, physical side of the game as well as scoring tries. You’ve got to be able to do the hard yards and the dirty work to lay a platform for your attack to be successful.

“It’s a tough competition and there’s a lot of good teams in it, but I think on our day we can certainly be one of the best. We’re not there yet, and we’re working on things each week leading up to the finals. Hopefully we can get the results in the next two rounds and make the play-offs, where I think we can be quite a serious contender. We play Easts next and that’s what we’ve got to focus on. Hopefully we get another chance to play Uni at some stage later but we need to beat Easts to give us any opportunity to make the play-offs so that’s where we’re at.”

West Harbour head coach Stu Woodhouse:

“I didn’t think our intensity was crash-hot today, and I thought we needed to show a little bit more urgency. We were playing for a semi-final and we needed to win today to stay in the hunt, and I’m a little disappointed that we lacked that urgency and that desperation. It was definitely a great game with two forward packs belting the living daylights out of each other. But I think we just lost a little bit of shape at crucial times and didn’t show enough patience when we had the ball. It was definitely crucial that we scored in the first 10 minutes after half-time when we were on top, and we had an opportunity along the line or a couple where we just had to stick the ball or get a quicker recycle and we get a try, so that’s disappointing.

“We had limited ball and our lineout was ineffective today, but it’s the fact that we got a little bit flustered under pressure which is the disappointing thing. Players who are inexperienced think that they’ve got to push a pass to make a try, when in actual fact it’s just a case of using their instincts, which are quick recycle, quick ball, quick footwork with power, and they’ll score. Against the so-called lesser sides we do it pretty easy, but as soon as there’s a bit of line-speed and a bit of pressure that’s when they struggle. The bottom line is we’re not good enough, even if we get to the semis we’re not good enough to even have a chance, so we’ve got to be realistic. There wasn’t much in that game, they just dominated the breakdown. But we’ve got to learn how to close games out.

“We’ve beaten Warringah in the last three outings but they’re a different side from when we played them first round. They’ve obviously got ‘x’ amount of Super 14 players back and those guys can absorb that pressure, they’re used to it week-in, week-out. But it has always been a plan to get this club up to a certain level, and I think what we’re doing is getting some of our younger members to experience the sort of intense pressure that some of these rep players are used to all the time. We’re sitting quite well with all the boys we’ve got and I think we will be better for it going forward.”

Warringah scrumhalf Brett Sheehan:

“We knew they were going to come out here all guns blazing. If they win, they’re still in the hunt, if they lose they get knocked out. Unfortunately we didn’t stick to our gameplan for the first 50 minutes of the game but when we did, we showed what we could do.

“We made a silly mistake straight after the restart where we just weren’t urgent enough, diving on loose balls and they got down into our half and got a penalty. It’s just little things like that that are costing us, but earlier in the year we would have lost games like that with a lack of discipline and a bit of non-commitment. But to the boys credit, we’re hanging in there and keeping in the hunt for the finals.

“We had a spate of playing the top teams over about five weeks and we did really well, and we’re probably in a bit of a hangover from that at the moment. But I think with a couple of weeks to go we’ll come good, and we’ve just got to focus on the week-in, week-out and not worry about the table. If we focus on our game then I’m sure we’ll get there in the end.

“We’ve got some experienced players, but then we’ve also got some inexperienced players in certain positions. They’re doing really well, but sometimes we’re just losing a bit of discipline and a bit of focus and not hanging in there for the 80 minutes. We’ve proved against the Uni’s and Manly’s that when we do focus, we go pretty well.

“It’s going to be a close-fought ending to the season and there’s no easy games, especially Gordon or Manly. So we’re just going to take it week-in, week-out and worry about ourselves. We’ll back ourselves against all the teams, we’re pretty confident but it’s maintaining that confidence for the whole 80 minutes. If we do that then we’re in with a fighting chance.”

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Warringah: 1. Dan Raymond; 2. Luke Holmes; 3. Dan Barnard; 4. Hugh Pyle; 5. Chris Thomson; 6. Brent Murphy; 7. Beau Robinson (c), 8. Trevor Richardson; 9. Brett Sheehan; 10. Sam Harris; 11. Dylan Smouha; 12. Josh Holmes; 13. Haig Sare; 14. Jordon Macey; 15. Pat McCabe

West Harbour: 1.Campese Ma’afu; 2. Todd Pearce; 3. Salesi Ma’afu; 4. Tom Hikila; 5. Andrew Clyne; 6. Ben Lonsdale; 7. Mark Porpiglia; 8. Isaiah Pine; 9. Steve Massey; 10. Jai Ayoub; 11. Lote Tuqiri; 12. Henry Seavula; 13. Metui Maile; 14. John Sinisa; 15. Nick Reily

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Original version published by clubrugby.com.au on August 17th, 2009

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