It was a bit sobering to see the Tigers return to Campbelltown after the promise of their first match of the season against the Warriors, especially in the light of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s Golden Point try the following afternoon. After starting with such a bang, the Tigers have consistently failed to bring home points where it counts, even as James Tedesco’s star continues to rise as Blues halfback of choice. It was particularly bitter, then, to see Teddy taken off thirty seconds into Saturday night’s game after an inadvertent kick to the head from Luke Lewis, especially since Lewis managed to take advantage of the star fullback’s absence one minute later with a try that provided Cronulla-Sutherland with the momentum that carried them to a Gleason victory.
It was a horrible start for Tigers fans, a flashback to the early part of Tedesco’s career when it seemed as if a neverending string of injuries – or defection to Canberra – would preclude him coming of age with his childhood team. There was something especially cathartic, then, about seeing Teddy return in the 16th minute for one of his most powerhouse performances of the season so far. Even though Lewis’ boot to the head was unintentional, it felt calculated, and there was something rousing for Tigers fans to see Teddy return and respond in such an emphatic manner. If nothing else, it felt like definitive proof that his injury-prone days were well and truly behind him.
Nevertheless, Tedesco’s absence in the opening fifteen minutes set the tone for a bit of a frustrating match for the Tigers. Neck and neck with the Sharks for long stretches of the game, the try tally was virtually equal, with Cronulla relying on three well-placed penalty goals from James Maloney to bring home the win. As 2016 has made so clear, the Tigers don’t have much of a problem building leads, but they find it difficult to maintain them. While last week’s match against the Eels was something of a defensive tour de force for the boys in orange and black – and for Tedesco in particular – it wasn’t characteristic of their game as a whole, something particularly clear last night, as they suffered wave after wave of attack from some of Cronulla’s biggest playmakers.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t a frustrating game for the Sharks as well. With two bunker controversies around the fifty-minute mark, both involving obstructions and both revolving around Paul Gallen, Cronulla were raring to go over a second half that at times looked set to be dominated by the Tigers. Nevertheless, Cronulla’s big men combined for a barnstorming effort, with Andrew Fifita, in particular, putting in one of his toughest performances for a long time, running 172 metres – 22 more than Aaron Woods – and pulling thirty tackles out of his belt, although the battle of the tackles arguably came down to Michael Ennis (40) and Robbie Farah (36) who brought some of their own personal rivalry to play in order to make this feel a bit more like a local barny than it actually was. Backing them up was Gallen, who made the most of his comeback appearance to put down a try in the 57th minute.
As has occurred throughout the Cronulla season, Ben Barba also continued to show signs that he’s gearing up for a pretty good year. While the former Bulldogs hasn’t been consistently brilliant for an entire game, his flashes of brilliance get longer and longer. On Saturday, he was gold for nearly the entire game, bringing a panache that recalled his performance in the Indigenous v. All Stars clash, culminating with his crowd-raising try in the 70th minute. Let’s not forget Luke Lewis’ try in the second minute too, which set the Sharks in motion and was no match for Luke Brooks, who seems to have slipped a bit behind James Tedesco and Mitchell Moses this season.
For all the Cronulla heroics, however, the best duo on the field were undoubtedly Tedesco and Moses who both came up with a hattrick of sorts. Tedesco scored two tries in the 22nd and 54th minute, while Moses put down a beautiful try in the 80th minute, only to convert it himself, but both the fullback and five-eighth played a role in setting up David Nofualuma’s try in the 16th minute and the first points scored by the Tigers in the game. After taking custody of the Steeden from Moses, Tedesco passed to Nofualuma a split second before Sosiau Feki rammed into him, in the single most dexterous moment in the game, and one of the most beautiful offloads I’ve seen this season.
In other words, Tedesco and Moses set up the first try and were responsible for every point scored by the Tigers in the second half. If the Sharks were the dominant team, then Teddy and Moses were the dominant players – in fact, they’re getting so much better than the Tigers that it’s a bit scary to think how easily they might be lured elsewhere, especially if Tedesco isn’t given a shot at Origin. Sure, Moses’ kicking game wasn’t completely on point – he only managed three out of five conversions – but the real problem was that the team failed to back the duo up, with Tim Simona placed on report for a crushed tackle and twelve penalties conceded to Cronulla’s seven. In a game dominated by the future New South Wales fullback, it was frustrating to see his team vanquished by so many silly errors and sloppy decisions.
Nevertheless, the game somehow felt like a victory for the Tigers as well. At the moment, Tedesco, Moses and Brooks – but especially Tedesco – are the Tigers. When Tedesco shines, the team wins in spirit. While Cronulla may have achieved their first win at Campbelltown since 2002, and their first back-to-back victory this season, Saturday’s match was dominated by the sense that here, at last, was the definitive case for Tedesco’s Origin contention. It takes a great fullback to dominate a winning game, but an even greater fullback to dominate a losing game, and it may be that the Tigers’ storied history – and his own storied history – has provided Tedesco with the grit he needs to put on the No. 1 for New South Wales. In the short term, it’ll be interesting to see how these two teams face off against the Titans and Knights next weekend. If Saturday was desperate, then this foursome of potential cellar-dwellers is going to be a fight to the death, and I can’t wait to watch it.