Perfect conditions and a crowd of over 1000 greeted the Stars in Tamworth as they looked to make it 4 from 4 to start the season. Arriving at the ground to find that Qantas had left 4 kit bags, including all the jerseys, in Sydney was an ominous start. However, what was to follow would not disappoint those in attendance and watching at home.
The Stars started the stronger as they dominated early possession and territory, Tom Coolican causing a turnover 30 seconds in off the back of some strong ruck work. A number of attacking opportunities eluded the Stars and with the Eagles defence holding firm, scores remained locked at zero after 20 minutes.
Some strong lineout work by Eagles youngster Ned Hanigan slowly started to shift the momentum in favour of the home team and after 21 minutes the Stars would be made to pay with fly half Jono Lance capitalising on some strong work from the forwards to cross for the first 5 pointer of the match.
The local boys weren’t done there though, attacking right from the kick off, putting the Stars on the back foot and forcing the referee to send Mitchell Whiteley to the sin bin for 10 minutes. A man down, the Stars defended strongly, however the Eagles ball movement and players in motion inside the 22 was too much as Charlie Clifton scored under the posts to take Country out to a 16-0 lead inside half an hour.
Whiteley returned from the sin bin to immediate effect after an errant kick from the Eagles allowed the Stars an attacking lineout. The initial rolling maul was held up over the try line, however from the ensuing scrum Whiteley was able to connect with Jake Gordon who scored the Stars first for the day. This was to become a theme for the match as the Stars dominated the scrum.
After a barnstorming run out wide by youngster Christian Yassmin the visitors were awarded another 5m scrum and after forcing the Eagles into a penalty on the first attempt, they re-packed and the Stars marched over for a push over try, awarded to Whiteley, after the half time siren. Gus Roberts was successful with the conversion to make the scores 16-13 in favour of the home team as they headed to the sheds.
In a frustrating start to the second half the Stars went close to taking the lead with Jake Gordon almost collecting a loose line out throw from the Eagles hooker but he couldn’t gather cleanly to capitalise. To compound the frustration best on ground, Jono Lance, made one of the best individual runs this season, chasing down his own chip kick and exploiting an awkward bounce to score a 50m solo try.
Soon after Eagles lock Sam Lousi made a clean line break and after two quick offloads Clifton was in for his second of the day to really put the pressure on the Stars. A conversion to Lance saw the Eagles lead balloon to 29-13.
Enter Harry Jones. After the Stars struggled to maintain regular possession in the first 20 minutes of the second half, Jones’s solo effort in the corner matched Lance’s from 15 minutes earlier. Another dominating scrum from the Stars forwards against the feed turned the ball over and as the ball spread wide to Jones he was able to leave one defender behind and tip-toe down the sideline to make a spectacular dive for the corner.
Two minutes later Jones was at it again. Tom Robertson was strong at the breakdown and stole possession off the Eagles. The ball spread quickly to Vice-Captain Matt Philip who made a strong run before offloading a bullet pass to Jones. The winger again left a defender in his wake to score in the corner. Roberts was successful on the attempt from the sideline to draw the Stars to within 3 points at 29-26.
This was as close as the Stars would come unfortunately as they struggled to convert on opportunities set up by a dominant scrum. Even as the starting front row was replaced, youngsters Declan Moore and Matt Sandell stepped up, along with Jeremy Tilse, to maintain the pressure on the opposing pack.
An attacking line out to the home team on 73 minutes would prove the pivotal moment in the second half as Eagles number 8 Sam Figg supported the break well to receive a hand off 10 meters out and go on to score under the posts. A successful conversion made the score 37-26.
A gallant Stars outfit would not be kept from fighting the result all the way to the end and on the back of another scrum win Jones went agonisingly close again after a chip and chase. His effort was good enough to force a drop out and from the following passage of play debutant lock Michael Kovacic went over on 80 mins to score the final try of the game and earn the visitors a bonus point.
The final score, 37-31, is the Stars first loss of the season but they still remain well placed heading in to the second half of the season at 3-1. Next up for the Stars is a trip to Canberra and a match against the red hot UC Vikings, under lights and on Fox Sports Thursday night.