As it has in a handful of other games in the first half of the Group 10 premier league season, a slow start cost Orange Hawks dearly at Wade Park on Sunday afternoon against the Oberon Tigers.
Chasing their biggest scalp of 2017, Hawks conceded three tries in the opening 20 minutes and were forced to fight tooth-and-nail just to give themselves a chance of coming back in the round 10, third-versus-sixth clash.
After trailing 22-12 at half-time and then 30-12 late in the game Hawks did come back, but that 18-point deficit proved too big a mountain for the Orange side to climb.
The two blues scored two tries in as many minutes to slash the gap to just six points with nine to play, but a penalty and a subsequent Blake Fitzpatrick goal crushed Hawks’ hope, the Tigers ultimately winning 32-24.
“It’s something we speak about every week. From where we were at the start of the year, we might have chucked it in. Our attitude has changed … we know we have points in us. Hopefully we just start like that from the beginning of games and [learn to] grind them out,” Hawks captain-coach Willie Heta said.
“Oberon had a big pack and sort of mauled us through the middle. It’s a little thing defensively, if we can start competing (more) in those areas our attack will come through for us.
“Oberon seem to kick up a gear playing us too.”
It was a crucial result for the Tigers, considering they’d lost three of their last four games and were without injured skipper Luke Branighan, who will spend another month or more on the sidelines.
Basically, it proved the Tigers can win on the road, something they hadn’t done until Sunday.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Branighan said.
“I thought we were in control for a big part of the game. A few of our decisions probably let Hawks off the hook at times, but they never gave up. Hawks are a good side, but I do think we were the dominant side and deserved the two points.
“We’re well aware we’re a little bit behind the top two sides, (Orange) CYMS and (Bathurst) Panthers, so we need to work hard over the next six weeks to stay in touch.
“We’d been off the pace for four or five weeks, so [Sunday] was an opportunity for us to show what we can do.”
Although Heta forced a drop-out in the second minute, that was about all his side showed in the first quarter of the game.
Tigers hooker Luke Carpenter scored five minutes after that on the back of a rare Heta mistake. Playing fullback, Hawks’ mentor spilled an Anton Wereta bomb and Carpenter went over from the scrum.
A pinpoint Wereta kick found a soaring Matt Ballinger in the 13th minute and Carpenter scored his second in the 20th, on the back of a Jake Dawe bust.
Fitzpatrick kicked two, giving his side a 16-0 buffer.
Wereta’s boot was to play a big role in the game after that too. He was spectacular all game, but his kicking game proved decisive.
The Tigers scored another try from one of his kicks and he constantly put Hawks’ back three under pressure with towering bombs.
Hawks woke up after Carpenter’s second though.
Sione Tongia swooped on a Heta grubber in the 25th minute then the latter, deep in his own half, avoided a shooting Jackson Brien and went 60 metres himself, sending Brett Morgan over with a crisp cut-out two tackles later.
Heta’s battle with Brien was an intriguing side show in the clash.
Clearly familiar with the damage Heta can do, Brien constantly shot up on Hawks’ gun whether he was at fullback or five-eighth, where he shifted to at the half-hour mark.
At times, Brien stifled the two blues star completely and at others, Heta’s fleet-footedness made the Western Rams centre look foolish.
The Tigers struck back just before half-time though, sapping Hawks’ momentum. Tyler Hughes crossed and Fitzpatrick converted to give their side a 22-10 lead.
A 40-metre Heta penalty goal was the only other score of the first-half, which cut Oberon’s lead back to 10.
Hughes scored his second from a Wereta kick in the 43rd minute, which kick-started a string of Oberon raids through Hawks’ left-edge.
Carpenter found some space behind the ruck a few minutes later and linked with Wereta, who picked up his third try assist of the game in gifting Hughes his hat-trick.
It took another 20 minutes for either side to score again. It was Tongia who crossed, busting through several would-be tacklers to score.
He put Jordan Baker in a couple of minutes later and Heta nailed the sideline goal to make it a six-point game but despite a couple of chances, Hawks couldn’t capitalise.
The two blues gave away a penalty with just two minutes to go and Fitzpatrick gleefully kicked the goal, sealing the Tigers’ win.
While Wereta was phenomenal, Carpenter was equally as good for Oberon. Trent Rose was strong too, while in the beaten side, outside Heta, hooker Glen Maxwell and lock Nathan Potts were tireless.
- OBERON TIGERS 32 (Tyler Hughes 3, Luke Carpenter 2, Matt Ballinger tries; Blake Fitzpatrick 3 goals, penalty goal) def ORANGE HAWKS 24 (Sione Tongia 2, Jordan Baker, Brett Morgan tries; Willie Heta 3 goals, penalty goal)