Emus dig deep to see off sorry Pirates

Photo: SPA Images

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Penrith have continued their season of surprises by ousting West Harbour 14-10 in a tight, tense war of attrition at Nepean Rugby Park. A game that on paper promised to be a high-scoring affair between two potent attacking sides was the complete opposite, as defence ruled the day and chances were at a premium.

But both sides should be commended for eschewing penalty shots in favour of running the ball from their own half throughout the match. It could have swung either way, but the Emus’ goal line defence and their refusal to buckle under extreme pressure deserved it’s reward, in what is a savage blow to the Pirates final’s hopes.

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The first 10 minutes set the tone for the match, with the Pirates throwing down a physical gauntlet to their hosts that was not only met, but returned with interest. The Emus, with two home wins already under their belt, were not about to be cowed into submission, and the result was a succession of explosive hits in midfield and in and around the rucks.

There were plenty of penalties within kicking range awarded to both sides. But neither took up the option, happy instead to run the ball from their own 22 or – particularly in the Pirates case – kick to touch and try to apply pressure through the forwards at the lineout.

One period of territory saw flyhalf Jai Ayoub kick for prime field position three times before referee Andrew Lees tired of the repeat infringements and sent Penrith prop Toa Asa to the bin. Cue two more lineouts before a rolling maul was pinged by Lees for obstruction, much to the Pirates dismay. It was a lot of possession to have had to come away with nothing.

The status quo remained with Wests putting the ball through their hands and putting up the odd bomb from skipper Nick Reily, while Penrith seemed intent on running everything, no matter where they were on the field. As refreshing as this was, it did create problems for them at times when Wests moved up in their defensive line and pinned them back, and their refusal to kick clear left them with plenty of phases but not enough go-forward ball.

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Penrith skipper Luke Cross felt his side played to their strengths – Photo: SPA Images

This reluctance to apply any kind of kicking game was possibly explained when flyhalf Stan Tuionuku put foot to ball. Built like a no.8, he’s probably the biggest no.10 in the Shute Shield and with plenty of raw potential to be tapped into. But his distance and accuracy off the boot is definitely a work in progress.

As Emus captain Luke Cross explained afterwards I don’t think we have a traditional 10 or a traditional fullback in place to give us those really safe kicking options, so I think we’re limited in a sense. But in saying that, running the ball was a bit of a tactic as well so we’re playing to what we’ve got.”

Reily eventually broke the deadlock with a kick for the posts to put the visitor’s in front. But even then, the message coming across from the sideline was that they should have packed another scrum whilst in such a good attacking position.

Some bulwarking work by Emus’ no. 8 Vili Napa’a and Tuionuku soon bought them a penalty and a chance to hit back. But unfortunately scrumhalf Aaron Mattin fluffed his lines with a poor connection. However, it was the briefest of respites for the Pirates as the Emus made the breakthrough just before half-time.

Ref Lees was struggling to maintain control over both packs as the scrums descended into a mess of resets. And having earned the crowd’s disapproval for continually talking to Pirates offenders but not producing a card, lock Tom Hikila finally got 10 minutes to cool off. The Emus passed up the kicking opportunity once more, but it paid off when Dave Coventry smashed through the line and offloaded for Winnie Paulo to gleefully cross over, giving Mattin a formality and his team a four-point lead to take to the sheds.

After a dressing down from coach Stu Woodhouse, the Pirates almost scored straight from the restart when the receivers switched off and allowed former Emu Jeremy Su’a to catch and carry to within five metres of the line. Steve Mafi scooped up the pill and bobbed and weaved his way forward but couldn’t find a hole in a determined rearguard, before play was swung across field to the waiting backline, only for a massive hit from Sione Tonga to turn the ball over and avert danger for the home side.

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Henry Seavula scored the Pirates only try – Photo: SPA Images

A rare line break by Lester Salanoa led to a succession of phases as the Pirates recycled well and tested their hosts. But time and again the Emus defence was up to the job, frustrating their opponents with their refusal to buckle. The team spirit was there for all to see as skipper Cross brought his troops into a huddle at every opportunity, imploring his team mates to greater efforts with a rallying call of “Don’t give this up!”

The Pirates had plenty of ball but the well marshalled Emus just kept sliding up and across, snuffing out every attack. Coach Woodhouse was clearly frustrated, yelling at his side from behind the posts to tell them not to panic near the try-line, while instructing Ayoub to go forward instead of laterally as there was nothing on.

It took them until the 65th minute to concoct a riposte, and having done all the hard work, Penrith would have been very disappointed with the manner in which they conceded. Play again went from wing to wing before Henry Seavula came in off an angle, straightened his run and was held, but somehow wriggled free, span and found himself with an open path to the line.

Reily converted to make it 10-7, and at that point it seemed like Wests would go on to win with a couple more scores. But underestimate the new found resolve of this Emus outfit at your peril. Five minutes later, they applied pressure at the other end of the field to force a short clearing kick to touch. They duly set up a maul, which they drove forward to the cheers of a baying crowd until lock Johnny Smith scooped up to pile over from a metre.

The crowd clearly smelled Wests’ blood when Mattin then brilliantly converted from out wide to make it 14-10 with 10 minutes to go. But what a long 10 minutes it must have felt for them and their team.

The Pirates looked suitably shocked, as if the horror of possible defeat had just been revealed. And when the normally reliable Mafi overthrew a pass into touch when they had an overlap on the left flank, heads visibly dropped. They continued to batter the enemy lines but there was no real guile to their play, it was all a bit flat, and the Emus steely determination saw them through to the final whistle to claim another scalp at Nepean Rugby Park.

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PENRITH 14 (Winney Paulo, Johnny Smith tries; Aaron Mattin 2 cons) defeated WEST HARBOUR 10 (Henry Seavula try; Nick Reily con, pen) at Nepean Rugby Park. HT 7-3

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Penrith head coach Matt Briggs:

“As a club, Penrith Emus have been starved of success for quite some time, and I think they’re really relishing and reaping the rewards of three nights training and a four month off-season where they were out on a Saturday morning in 42oC heat. They’re certainly fit enough. We can kick out of trouble if need be, but we back ourselves to win our own ball and recycle well, and that’s a fitness aspect as well. You’ve got to be fit enough to be at the ball and again, I think we did that with a fair level of skill, fitness and a desperation to get there.

“I think our game is about multiple phases and running sides off their feet. When we keep the phases going and we play with continuity, our ball in hand is definitely our weapon, and I think that was best represented when we put six tries on Easts. Whilst we lost the game, they were good signs for me that we have the potency to attack. Today was a different type of game given the physicality, it was very, very brutal in the middle. But yes, we wanted to run their big fellas around, and I thought that if we could hang in there for the last 20 minutes we would come over the top, and I think that played out to be true.

“I think we handled their physicality quite well, and in fact for the greater part of the game we dominated that area. Our defence across the park was fantastic and I think that’s a sign of desperation. We were prepared to get off the ground and make that second and third effort, and I think that’s a sign that they’re playing for each other, which as a coach is very satisfying.”

Penrith captain Luke Cross:

“It was a very hard fought victory. We knew it was going to be tough between two clubs that were close geographically, so we knew we were going to be in for a tough contest. I thought the game could have swayed either way at various points but I think we held strong. We were one man down at one stage and only conceded a few points, so I think in comparison to last year, we’ve definitely got a little bit more of a steely determination and a bit more character.

“I think we can go very far. We are building and we’ve said from the outset that we want to change the culture and the perception of the club, and I think it’s about changing the guy’s mindsets. We have had a whole new playing roster, and it’s important to change that mindset from not just being competitive, but that we’re actually going to win games. I think that was the thing last year, that if we got close but lost, that was ok. So we’ve scrapped that idea and we’re working really hard, and with a few wins now it is building.

“The difficult thing will be when the Super 14 finishes and the guys start filtering back through club rugby. Obviously, some clubs are flushed and some aren’t, and we’re one that isn’t and it will show. There’s some class players coming back into the competition that will lift the standard but in saying that, we’ve got guys that have got points to prove and want to get to that level themselves.”

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Penrith: 1. Dave Coventry; 2. Elvis Levi; 3. Toa Asa; 4. Johnny Smith; 5. Sione Tonga; 6. Junior To’o; 7. Winney Paulo; 8. Vili Napa’a; 9. Aaron Mattin; 10. Stan Tuionuku; 11. Dave Alo; 12. Luke Cross (c), 13. Albert Hopoate; 14. Filipo Toala; 15. Leon Bott

West Harbour: 1. Campese Ma’afu; 2. Todd Pearce; 3. Vaughan Lomax; 4. Tom Hikila; 5. Steve Mafi; 6. James King; 7. Mark Porpiglia; 8. Pelea Afu; 9. Jeremy Su’a; 10. Jai Ayoub; 11. Tito Mua; 12. Lester Salanoa; 13. Henry Seavula; 14. Damien Fakafanua; 15. Nick Reily (c)

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First published by clubrugby.com.au on May 25th, 2010

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