The Wests Tigers have kicked off their 2014 VB NSW Cup season in fine fashion, defeating the Illawarra Cutters 34-14 at WIN Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Playing his first game in Wests Tigers colours since making a move from Penrith over the off-season, Blake Austin was the star of the show — finishing with three tries for the match in the 20-point win.
Coach Paul Fletcher was forced to make some late changes before kick-off, with fullback Kurtis Rowe ruled out. That prompted a number of positional swaps, with Ben Murdoch-Masila coming into the starting side at second row as Aspeli Fine moved from second-row to the centres.
It was the home team who got on the board first through winger Kiti Glymin, who was first to react to a grubber trickled through into the right corner.
Sam Williams nailed the sideline conversion to give the Cutters a 6-0 lead.
The hosts extended their lead in the 10th minute when fullback Peter Mata’utia went through a big gap on the right wing. Jy Hitchcox almost managed to knock him into touch coming across in cover defence but he was just moments too late, with the unconverted try giving Illawarra a 10-0 lead.
Wests Tigers started to find their groove soon after that when winger Taqele Naiyaravoro crossed in the corner off a great cut-out pass from Murdoch-Masila on the Cutters' 20.
Austin’s sideline conversion was just wide and the score remained 10-4.
After a strong set following points, it appeared that the Cutters were going to be forced to work it out of their own end, but Glymin pulled off a brilliant solo try down the right wing — grubbering through for himself and then beating Hitchcox — to score his second try of the afternoon.
That would give the Cutters a 14-4 lead in the 22nd minute, but it would be all Wests Tigers after that — courtesy of Austin’s brilliant performance.
Austin crossed for his first of the day after throwing a huge dummy close to the posts, and waltzed through a yawning gap to score under the posts. He converted his own try to reduce the margin to four points.
It appeared that the score would remain 14-10 to the hosts heading into the half-time interval, but Austin’s 40/20 with just two minutes remaining gave the visitors a chance for points.
The visitors would do just that in the following set.
Austin put Hitchcox through a gap on halfway with a great short ball, and then followed up in support to beat the fullback and score under the posts.
He converted as the siren sounded to give the Wests Tigers their first lead of the match as they went into the sheds — leading 16-14 at the break.
Austin would start the second half just as he left off, with his third try in 25 minutes.
The five-eighth stepped well off his right foot close to the line and wrestled his way over the line to extend the Wests Tigers’ lead to 20-14.
After converting, the lead was extended to eight points.
The Cutters threatened to hit back after that but some strong defense close to our line saw them come up short, and it was to prove costly soon after.
Austin turned provider in the 62nd minute to threat Corey Brown into a hole on the right wing, and after rounding the fullback, the former rugby union player crossed under the posts for another converted try.
Murdoch-Masila crossed four minutes later in the 66th minute after some nice mis-direction from Joel Luani close to the posts. The strong forward proved too hard to handle close to the line and planted the ball next to the left upright to make it 28 unanswered points from the visitors.
Austin converted from under the posts and blew the lead out to 34-14.
The scoreline would remain the same until the final whistle.
Illawarra pressed late for a consolation try but the Wests Tigers were simply too strong in defence — forcing a number of errors from the hosts close to their own line to preserve their second-half clean sheet and the 20-point lead, giving plenty of confidence for the season ahead.