The fourth NRL State Championship kicks off this Sunday as a curtain-raiser to the NRL grand final, and is becoming a game of growing interest and importance.
There will be more interest than usual for this year’s showdown between the grand final winners of the Intrust Super competitions from Queensland and NSW, as one team are bringing the hopes of an entire nation with them to Sydney.
That team is the PNG Hunters, who snatched victory from the Sunshine Coast Falcons at Suncorp Stadium infront of an 11,000-strong crowd full of voice. The rugby league-mad nation celebrated heartily after winning 12-10, and now they have national recognition on their minds. They have even been offered special deals for a PNG supporter zone on grand final day, so may well have plenty of support again.
Their opponents are the Penrith Panthers, who beat the Wyong Roos 20-12 in the Intrust Super Premiership grand final at Leichhardt Oval Sunday evening. Penrith’s premiership came after finishing third in the regular season, but they had a points difference of 307, almost double the second highest (Wyong +185).
The Panthers played in the very first NRL State Championship in 2014, losing to the Northern Pride. The Panthers that day had plenty of NRL talent against the Pride, who struggled to get a team of 17 for the game.
The Panthers have some NRL experience this time around, led by former NSW Country Origin Player and NSW Cup hooker of the year Mitch Rein. They also have some very promising players who could make a decent impact in the NRL if they get an extended chance in Jed Cartwright, Darren Nicholls and Viliame Kikau. PNG Hunters have no such luxury of NRL talent, but they were equally under-resourced against the Falcons.
There are some links between the two sides heading into the NRL State Championship; the Albert brothers (Stanton and Wellington) were a part of the Penrith youth system and both played NYC for the club before moving to the Hunters in 2017. Penrith were the first team to play at the refurbished National Football Stadium in 2016 in a pre-season clash. That clash ended up in the visitors’ favour, but there could be some PNG fans with long memories waiting to take revenge.
Either way the result goes it’s great to have this fixture on NRL grand final day, and having the PNG Hunters involved gives it that little bit of extra magic.
LAST TIME OUT
PNG Hunters waited until late as cult hero Willie Minoga pounced onto a grubber kick with 90 second remaining to set up scenes of emotional celebrations and pure joy for the mostly PNG-supporting crowd.
It looked like it would never happen as the Sunshine Coast side, boasting plenty of NRL experience, took advantage of early PNG nerves to race out to a 10-0 lead after just seven minutes. PNG and Sunshine Coast then wasted chances to score with a lot of dropped ball in the first half, and the score remained 10-0 until half time.
The Hunters scored just after the break to reduce the gap to 10-6 via the Boas brothers. That set up a second half where both sides tried hard but consistent errors meant that neither side could take advantage. The Falcons did a particularly good job with a dwindling bench to rely on.
But the magic moment came for the PNG Hunters and their nation of rugby league-loving fans in the nick of time. It brought tough man Willie Minoga to tears before the end of the game, showing just how much the grand final win meant.
Penrith got past the Sydney Roosters-backed Wyong Roos 20-12, and it was a burst of three tries in six minutes just before and after half time that proved crucial as halfback Darren Nicholls put on a class display for the Panthers.
By the time Penrith had scored their fourth they led 20-6 with 20 minutes remaining, scoring 20 unanswered points after trailing 6-0 in the 31st minute. Wyong scored once more with 10 minutes to go, but were unable to crack Penrith in the final stages to hand the mountain men the Intrust Super Premiership crown as NSW’s best.
The key moments in both the Intrust Super grand finals came down to their star halves and grand final heroes: Hunters five eighth Ase Boas and Panthers halfback Darren Nicholls.
With the forward battle likely to be tough, and the Hunters defending very well on their line, it may come down to a moment of individual brilliance from either side, and who better to deliver that their respective grand final stars?
Ase Boas really kicked on in 2017 for the PNG Hunters. He won the Intrust Super Cup Player of the Year, Fan Choice Player of the Year, Player of the ISC grand final and has been their best and most reliable all year.
Darren Nicholls actually played in the 2016 Intrust Super Cup grand final for the losing Redcliffe Dolphins, and headed to Penrith for an NRL chance in 2017. Whilst he hasn’t had the NRL chances (stuck behind Nathan Cleary), he has produced another outstanding season for the Panthers and maybe a star performance on Sunday could lead to more. Hopefully he doesn’t become another ISC player who moves to a Sydney club and never gets an NRL chance.
After watching his effort in last Sunday’s grand final, the Hunters will do well to keep him quiet. If they do it could be match winning.
HOW DO THEY WIN
Penrith need to do what they did against Wyong and they will have very strong claims on the NRL State Championship. Another stellar performance from Darren Nicholls won’t hurt, either will having the NRL experience of Mitch Rein given how badly the Hunters were affected by nerves on Sunday.
The Hunters’ defence under pressure was sensational, as it has been for most of 2017, but they really defied the statistics with their dropped ball in the grand final. With a completion rate of 59% (including 19 errors), it leaves a lot of room for improvement in attack. Even halving those errors will see another 10 sets in attack, and with their big weapons like fullback Stargroth Amean, Bland Abavu, and – as ever – Willie Minoga, they have plenty of firepower.
In saying that, the Hunters’ two finals games for 2017 have been low-scoring grinding affairs, with just five tries. It wouldn’t surprise to see another low-scoring encounter this Sunday.
The Hunters defied about every statistic in winning the grand final on Sunday, and since they still did, I say luck (and an entire nation of millions of people) will be on their side this Sunday.
I’m predicting a low-scoring event with another late try to the Hunters to make the difference, converting many new fans nationwide with many more to know the name Willie Minoga by the end of the match.
PNG Hunters by four
1. Stargroth Amean 22. Wawa Paul 3. Bland Abavu 4. Adex Wera 5. Butler Morris 6. Ase Boas (c) 7. Watson Boas 8. Wellington Albert 9. Wartovo Puara 10. Stanton Albert 11. David Loko 12. Nixon Putt 13. Moses Meninga 14. Rahdly Brawa 15. Willie Minoga 16. Enock Maki 17. Brandy Peter 18. Esau Siune
Coach: Michael Marum
1. Mason Cerruto 2. Maika Sivo 3. Jed Cartwright 4. Tony Satini 5. Christian Crichton 6. Jarome Luai 7. Darren Nicholls (c) 8. Moses Leota 9. Mitch Rein 10. Sitaleki Akauola 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Kaide Ellis 13. Sione Katoa 14. Tom Eisenhuth 15. Corey Waddell 16. Nick Lui-Toso 17. Jack Hetherington 18. Lachlan Stein 19. Oliver Clark
Coach: Garth Brennan