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Dog days aren't over as Wests Tigers ensure losing start to Potter reign

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20th May, 2022
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It isn’t the fault of the Wests Tigers that a significant portion of those tuning in for this Friday 6pm fixture were interested in watching their opponents.

The bulk of the 15,124 who packed into Leichhardt Oval were only interested in the black and amber hosts, and they went home happy after a 36-22 win that was perhaps a lot harder fought than it needed to be.

The Tigers won’t worry about what is just their third win of the year, achieved through their rarest of qualities in 2022 – efficiency – and a little help from their cellar-dwelling opponents.

At their best, the Tigers are a team that can complete and make life hard for an opponent. Against this Canterbury team, that was all that they had to do.

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They starved the Dogs of possession and could play with relative conservatism with the confidence that it would eventually reap rewards.

Bar a 15-minute period at the start of the second half where their opponents made life very difficult indeed, this was as close to a routine win as the Tigers get. It was the most points that they have scored all year.

The Bulldogs have been at the centre of the NRL narrative all week and their opening match under the interim tutelage of Mick Potter showed much of the problems but perhaps some of the solutions. This, too, was the most points that they have scored in 2022.

Potter was unhappy with the way his team let the Tigers get away from them early.

“Our discipline needs to change,:” he said. “We made a few errors that I thought we need to rectify. If we fix up the discipline and we need to be able to defend our line.

“It was going to be one of those games with a few points. Our defence let us down in the first half and then a little in the second half. We can do better than that for sure.”

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“We need to rectify our defence. We can’t have 36 points against. We had two barge-overs and that’s not to standard. It’s an attention to detail thing. The first point of call is the dummy half and you’ve allowed him to score the try.”

The disastrous policy of making Josh Jackson a playmaker was the first casualty of the Trent Barrett bloodletting – maybe even quicker than Brent Naden, who left within 24 hours of the old coach and started the game for the Tigers.

Jacob Kiraz and Aaron Schoupp on their left edge showed plenty, with both scoring, and Kiraz in particular involved far more often than a winger has any right to be. His 19 touches were second only to Matt Burton and more than Kyle Flanagan, the halfback.

“There were only a couple of subtle changes,” said Potter of the Bulldogs’ attack. “I thought our players supported really well and and had traffic beside the ball to create space.

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“He (Kiraz) is a quality player, I really like how he plays. I’ve seen him in reserves and I’m a fan.

“There’s some positive points out of the game. In the end, you look at the win/loss, but there are some positive points. But we want to win. We take those positive points but we need to rectify a lot of other things.”

For the first 40 minutes, it was about as bad as the Dogs have looked all year – really saying something – but in the second, they showed much more, at least for a quarter of an hour before running out of steam.

The manner in which the Tigers built pressure early, then came back late having conceded three tries back to back was the most pleasing aspect, according to Michael Maguire.

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“We went away from a few things that were there in the first half but it was really pleasing to see that they found their way back again. That’s the game,” he said.

“We had a lot of possession in the first half and we you know you’re going to get rewarded with that later in the game, but I always felt that if the boys could get back in control we’d be able to get the game.”

Jock Madden was perhaps the best on ground for the Tigers, managing a solo try, a try assist and two line break assists, though as ever with Wests, Hasting was close by until he departed late on.

Hastings was later confirmed to have aggravated a foot injury, though is not in doubt for next week’s game with South Sydney. Alex Twal, in game 100, also left late with a head knock, as did Junior Tupou late on.

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“We had Jacko go off and a couple of guys go off with concussion, so it was a bit disjointed but we’ll have a look at that period and be better,” said Maguire.

“There’s moments in the games where that is hurting us, because we played some good footy in the first half.

“Our attack is really coming along and even though we didn’t have (Luke) Brooksy there, Jock (Madden) came in and did what he needed to. He did a really good job there for us.

“We know what we’re capable of and just need to tidy up those moments in the game that are hurting us.”

It was a strong start for the Tigers, albeit against charitable opposition. The Bulldogs didn’t help themselves – they rarely do – and dutifully coughed the ball up on the occasions that they got it within any reach of the Tigers line in the first half.

Whatever the Bulldogs wanted to do with the ball, they weren’t going to be able to do it unless they got the football in the first place. In the first half hour, they managed just 32% of possession and, concurrently, found themselves three tries behind.

The first came via a tried and tested route this season, Luke Garner, who crashed onto a pass from Joe Ofahengaue and reached out for the line.

Flanagan was getting all the traffic on the Bulldogs’ right defensive edge, but standing up to it: he denied Garner with a superb tackle, only for Jackson Hastings to make it irrelevant on the next play with an excellent disguised pass for Starford To’a.

Flanagan would deny Garner again with an excellent tackle, but unable to build anything in attack, the ball just kept coming back into the Dogs’ right corner. The next try took more scoring, but a fluid backline move saw Brent Naden – in blue and white as recently as Monday – put Ken Maumolo in.

Canterbury were flailing wildly to get anything together in attack. Only Kiraz, in his second game of top grade, seemed likely to break a tackle.

When Burton kicked for him on the third tackle on their own 40m line, there was more than a whiff of desperation about the play. Moments later, when the Dogs made their first line break, Burton dropped the ball in contact and the moment disappeared.

The half ended appropriately with another Wests Tigers try along the right edge. This was as simple a scrum play as one can imagine: Hastings to the line, out the back to To’a and Maumolo in at the corner post.

It was 18-0, and only not more because the Tigers had rolled through Hastings, Madden and Hastings again in vain attempts to find someone to kick goals. The Dogs came out for the second half with the acute knowledge that something had to change, and fast.

For the first time, they played with an element of desperation: Burton kicked and caught To’a close to the line, with Kiraz chasing hard enough to force the dropout.

From the first piece of field position came their first points, with Tevita Pangai jnr causing havoc while running laterally before offloading to Burton.

It continued: Jeremy Marshall-King caught the markers napping and burst through the centre, before the onrushing Matt Dufty – busting the gut to get up in support – appeared on the inside. He was caught, but the Tigers were forced to hold down and Jackson Hastings found himself in the bin.

Marshall-King would get rewarded for the smart play that had created the situation, pushing over from dummy half for another Bulldogs try. Within seven minutes of the second half, the deficit had gone from 18 to just six.

This wasn’t rugby league rocket science. Canterbury completed their first six sets, ran hard and built pressure. On the seventh, they scored again: Burton caught the Tigers’ line flat-footed with a long pass to Aaron Schoupp, who released Kiraz for a highly deserved first try in the NRL.

The Tigers needed a spark, and the Dogs provided it for them. Aaron Schoupp got a little too enthusiastic in his tackling technique and tipped To’a, earning himself ten minutes on the sidelines.

Off the resulting penalty, Garner again crashed into the Canterbury right edge and was stopped, but recent Tigers acquisition Fa’amanu Brown burrowed in for his first NRL try since 2018. Madden was returned to the kicking and put the margin out to beyond a converted try.

Madden’s boot would seal the deal. With the Bulldogs line speed failing them, the young five eight chipped in behind to end the contest.

There was time for the Schoupp, returned from the bin, to get another in the northwest corner – the seventh of the night in the same section of the ground – to raise the highest score of the year for the Bulldogs. It didn’t matter, but it might show some hope for the near future in Belmore.

Nu Brown added another with second to go, putting more gloss on the scoreline, sending the soggy fans on the hill home happy.

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