Wests Tigers Intrust Super Premiership side have battled bravely but gone 32-22 to the Illawarra Cutters in their Qualifying Final on Saturday at UOW Jubilee Oval.
Missing a number of players due to injury and first-grade commitments, Wests Tigers found themselves on the wrong end of a lopsided possession count, and with several injuries picked up during the game, Illawarra eventually ran out 10-point winners.
It was the home side who began the better of the two sides, dominating possession and field position in the opening stages to quickly post first points through Drew Hutchinson after the halfback found space back against the grain to crash over after five minutes.
Shaun Nona converted from next to the posts to give the Cutters an early 6-0 lead.
Despite some desperate goal-line defence, Illawarra would continue to maintain all the possession and quickly extended their lead through winger Kalifa FaiFai Loa, who bagged a double in the space of 10 minutes to give the home side a dominant 14-0 lead.
Tough conditions meant Nona was unable to convert either try from out wide, keeping Wests Tigers in the match despite a 14-point deficit after 25 minutes of play.
Stringer’s addition of bench forwards JJ Felise and Wesley Lolo would prove crucial for the visitors as Wests Tigers began to wrestle back possession and stay in the match.
It was Lolo who combined with hooker Jacob Liddle to post Wests Tigers’ first points — breaking free through the middle of the field before offloading for Matthew Eisenhuth, who showed tremendous skill to juggle the ball under pressure and ground it cleanly.
Justin Hunt converted to cut Illawarra’s lead to 14-6 after 30 minutes.
Wests Tigers would again produce a spectacular try just before the half-time break, with Jackson Williams refusing to give up on a Hunt grubber, planting it down just in time.
Hunt’s conversion would remarkably cut the scoreline to 14-12 at the break — a superb effort given the weight of possession and chances the home side had enjoyed.
As Wests Tigers continue to come up with errors inside their own end to gift Illawarra possession, Nona would put the home side further in front when he found Chris Lewis on a good short ball close to the line — taking the score to 18-12 after 50 minutes.
The halfback then converted the try to push the hosts’ lead out to 20-12.
Goal-line scrambling defence would continue to be the order of the day for Wests Tigers as the home side tried to kill the match off, but they were undone by interchange hooker Manaia Cherrington, who came up with a great intercept on his own line to save the day.
However, the visitors were unable to take advantage of the field position provided by Cherrington’s big run up field as the Cutters’ survived to preserve their 20-12 lead.
With Wests Tigers down to two men on the bench following injuries to Chance Peni and Eisenhuth, Illawarra would seal victory with 10 minutes remaining as tries to Shannon Wakeman and Levi Dodd in back-to-back sets took the home side’s lead out to 32-12.
Cherrington and JJ Felise would pull consolation tries back for Wests Tigers in the final five minutes as they crashed their way through the Cutters' defence but it would be too little too late for the visitors as Illawarra ran out comfortable winners, leaving Wests Tigers to play an Elimination Final next weekend, with final details of that match to be confirmed later.
Illawarra Cutters 32 (Faifai Loa 2, Hutchinson, Lewis, Wajeman, Dodd tries; Nona 4/6 goals) def. Wests Tigers 22 (Eisenhuth, Williams, Cherrington, Felise tries; Hunt 3/4 goals)