Wests Tigers coach Ivan Cleary believes the side’s first-half performance ranked as their best of the season and was the catalyst for the side’s 33-12 victory over the Knights on Sunday.
It has been a long time coming for the Tigers who were languishing in 16th position on the Telstra Premiership ladder at the start of the round and suffered a heartbreaking defeat at the death a fortnight ago against reigning premiers Cronulla.
The Knights were no match for Cleary’s side on Sunday, with the visitors racking up nine line breaks to three while controlling possession with an 85 per cent completion rate.
“The first half was really strong and we’ve been building for a while,” Cleary said post-game.
“We knew it was going to be a fine day and the breaks early gave us some confidence. We bombed a few tries but set up a lead.”
The Tigers targeted Newcastle’s edges in defence but Cleary put it down to game management and awareness rather than a pre-game tactical ploy.
Newcastle’s Queensland representative Dane Gagai switched to the left side with back-rower Joe Wardle shifting to right centre – a move that backfired with Wests Tigers centre Moses Suli busting through on two occasions.
“I was surprised Dane Gagai went on the left side, but not necessarily… it was just how the game went [as to how we targeted them],” Cleary said.
“The boys were smart enough as the game was progressing to work out where they were getting success.
“It wasn’t a tactic before the game. We came here with a plan and it was paying off early.”
Tui Lolohea was one of the stars for the Wests Tigers, following a week of speculation the club was close to signing Sydney Roosters utility Connor Watson for 2018 which would present some competition for a starting berth.
“[Tui’s] best positions are in the six and fullback so the plan was always for him to come over and play five-eighth for us this year, and then we will see,” Cleary said.
“He’s played 50-odd games and is still only young. He is obviously very talented and still hasn’t found his best footy.”
Wests Tigers skipper Aaron Woods again stood tall for the visitors with 159 metres and provided two offloads that led to line-breaks during the game.
Woods is set to head into NSW camp to join Blues teammates on Monday for the Origin decider but Cleary said his preparation towards the club fixtures in recent weeks have been second to none.
“With such a big game coming up in Queensland, I’m sure there are other coaches around that would agree that it is hard for players to stay focused,” Cleary said.
“But Woodsy all week showed today’s game was really important and that was a huge lift for us.”