Report by Benny Giles
Clark, Philippines -Saturday 11 October 2014
There was an excited anticipation in Tiger camp in the leadup to the 2014 Asian Championships, and it wasn’t simply because we knew we would be staying in a city that MoneySense Magazine rated as the 15th best place to live in the Philippines. Rather, our emphatic performance at the Indochina Cup in August gave us the belief that on our day we could match it with the best in Asia.
The majority of the 28 person touring party eventually arrived at the team hotel sober at 2am Saturday – arguably our best Asian Champs eve preparation for quite some time. Not since Don ÁngelPantaleón de Miranda and his followers first settled in Angeles in 1796 had a more respectably swarthy group of travellers descended upon this region. The hot breakfast kindly arranged by Ralph and coffees served by Angeles sweetest barista made the 7am start bearable, and the focus shifted to what lay ahead – ten teams placed in two groups, with each to play four qualifying games of 20 minutes each.
GAME 1 MALAYSIA
Just like the 1979 classic, the Warriors did come out to play and had winners all over the park. By the time we’d gone into attack for the first time they’d already scored 1.3, and we probably should’ve been further behind. Jesse was already exerting his influence at centre half back and Sammy was laying some big tackles, but despite our best endeavours, more needed to be done. When Aggots marked and kicked long for our first, we went into the main break only three points down and somehow back in the game. An accidental knock that caused the sort of shiner over Joel’s eye that would’ve impressed Mike Tyson, typified the intensity of the game and highlighted what was needed from all the players.
We were much tighter in the second half and the midfield was starting to get on top. The Warriors continued to be inaccurate in front of goal, and Joel’s long kick-ins to Jesse set up a number of attacking plays. Aggots scored early to put us in front but Malaysia continued to push. Big Chris went onto the half back flank and marked his debut by showing all that a family refrigerator rolling downhill would be an easier object to tackle. His telling moves not only thwarted a last ditch attack by the Warriors, but set up Aggot’s third goal and seal one of our best wins for the year.
Final scores – Thailand3.1 (19) Malaysia1.7 (13)
GAME 2 MACAU
With only a 20 minute break the boys had to switch fairly quickly for our game against Macau Lightning. The same team started as Game 1 but our six on the bench were going to get plenty of game time.
From the early stages it was clear that the Tigers would win, however the Lightning made the boys earn the result through good pressure and strong tackles. G-Mac was putting on a ruck work clinic allowing Paddy and Sammy multiple runs and kicks into attack to Stew and Aggots. Gator was working hard in the midfield and was starting to see more of the ball as was Twoey in his last Champs playing out wide – his trademark long goal on the left was as slick as his hair, and it followed on from Aggot’s opener to give us a comfortable lead at half time.
Plenty of changes were made at the break, allowing Waz to come on for the hard running Chippie, and a veteran swap of Jazza for Saul. The second half continued in the same manner as the first, with Tiger winners all over the ground. Rut and Sugar were ever reliable across the half back line, while Samo was getting plenty of shots at goal. Aggots, Paddy and Samo kicked the three goals for the half to set up a comfortable win, but the game will likely be remembered for the wrong reasons. Club stalwart Jesus, who will be long hailed for his boundary umpiring performance at last year’s Asian Champs Grand Final, was going to be a handy back-up tall for us in the tournament. However, shortly after coming on for Jesse at centre half back, he went down with what turned out to be a serious knee injury. Ever the clubman, he was soon drinking beers and having a laugh with us while his iced up knee was slowly swelling up, and we hope to see him back out on the field again someday. With question marks over Aggot’s back, Samo’s hamstring and Jazza’s calf, our thinning team was going to need to dig deep for the remaining games.
Final scores – Thailand 5.9 (39) Macau 0.1 (1)
GAME 3 HONG KONG
Whichever way this game went, we knew that it would define our season. The 2013 champions rested players in their narrow loss to Malaysia, and with only a 20 minute break until the Tigers match, they were under pressure to avoid elimination.
The Dragons started better and took early control of the game, but slowly the Tigers came back into the match. Jesse was everywhere and his countless tackles and run back into packs was an inspiration to all. The defence was standing up to every challenge as a unit and Paddy’s long kicks off the half back line was putting pressure on the Dragons manning up on Aggots, Stew and Samo. When Aggot’s scored our first, we went into the break with scores level (1.2 each) and our tails up.
For the first six minutes of the second half we dominated and Hong Kong appeared to be on the cusp of elimination. Aggots fantastic falling mark and seventh goal then put us up by eight points and we were quietly starting to believe something special was about to happen.
And then it did happen, but it wasn’t very special. ‘Boundarygate’ will undoubtedly form a part of Tigers folklore and its tale will become embellished over the years. In essence, a wayward Dragon kick out on the full near the Tigers’ bench gave us another chance to go back into attack. In the ensuing confusion, the umpire deemed us to be wasting time and reversed the free. The Dragons went straight into attack and scored a goal, leaving us just two points up with 90 seconds to play. After the bounce, a final Tiger foray into attack was thwarted by a now resurgent Dragons defence, and they quickly moved the ball into attack. Our defence held tight and fought bravely, yet the final kick of the day turned out to be a successful Dragons snap with just two seconds remaining. Hong Kong proved why they were the champions and deserved to be winners in a cracking yet heartbreaking game worthy of a final.
Final scores – Thailand 2.4 (16) Hong Kong 3.2 (20)
GAME 4 SINGAPORE
The 90 minute break helped the sore and tired Tigers rest up and prepare for the final qualifying game against the Wombats. Aggots’ back had finally told him to stop after a fantastic tournament that saw him kick seven goals in about 50 minutes. Dog moved Dr Hook Joel into full forward and shifted Jake back to full back.
This was only Singapore’s third game and with a large squad they did appear fresher. One would excuse the Tigers for being flat after the disappointment against Hong Kong, however that didn’t appear the case from the opening bounce. Some of the tackling by Saul, Sammy, Jesse and Chippie was probably the strongest at any stage of the tournament, and truly embodied the on-field Tiger spirit of 2014.
We went into the break only two goals down and still in with a chance. But with barely anyone left on the bench it was always going to be a tough ask and the Wombats booted another four goals in the second half. Samo’s goal was a deserved consolation, but the opposition was too strong and far better drilled. No one could begrudge them their eventual title of 2014 Asian Champions.
Final scores – Thailand 1.1 (7) Singapore 6.1 (37)
As the Tigers slowly trudged off the ground, partied together that night, and returned to Bangkok the next day, there was a strong sense of pride in how the team performed at Clark. However, the overriding emotion was disappointment and a feeling that something was missing – while we only lost to the eventual finalists and were just three seconds away from making the semis for the first time, we still finished fourth in our group and seventh overall. That sobering statistic will be a reminder to the Tigers as we look forward to further development in 2015.
In closing, special mention should go to Jesse Anton for his All-Asian selection, and Alan ‘Twoey’ Borchardt and Jake Samson for their last games as Tigers – congratulations guys.