While the North Sydney Bears were technically the home side at UOW Jubilee Oval, it was Illawarra who were right at home in defeating the bears 30-12 in Round 23 of the Intrust Super Premiership NSW this afternoon.
Illawarra was boosted by the return of 2016 Grand Final-winning halfback Drew Hutchison, but the NRL hopeful was moved to the bench shortly before kick-off. The likes of Jacob Host, Luciano Leilua and Jake Marketo helped their pack, while David Tyrell, Jason Clark and Anthony Cherrington made up a strong pack for North Sydney.
Some strong defence highlighted the opening exchanges, with back-to-back penalties giving Illawarra some early ball on the Bears' line. Payne made no mistake in putting Rhys Kennedy through a hole, with the prop crashing over for an early 6-0 lead.
Illawarra were looking dangerous with second-phase play, but the Bears' bruising defence was holding strong. It would soon cost them significantly, however, with Cherrington's aggression bringing consecutive penalties - the second of which was a bad-looking high shot. The tackle was not met with a sin bin, but the Bears lock came off second best and was visibly struggling to defend regardless.
The resulting Illawarra set gave them their second try when Adam Clune went short to Leilua, whose offload bounced straight back into the hands of his halfback; Clune crossed untouched to extend the advantage to 12. Cherrington hobbled off to compound the Bears' woes.
North Sydney continued to push for points with Tautalatasi Tasi soon held up, before promising runs from Brad Deitz and Clark also threatened to get the side's first. Sure enough, Tasi would be the man to score for the Bears and it came off a fantasic pass from Eli Levido under pressure; the fullback then converting from out wide for a 12-6 scoreline.
The Bears had all the running and on the back of a penalty, David Tyrell broke through to go within millimetres of scoring, but put it down just short. After a very unlucky knock-on call against Sam Clune, North Sydney got another chance to attack but a lacklustre set came up with no points.
Penalties began to snowball for the Bears with the threat of a sin bin for slowing down the ruck - and the 2016 premiers made the most of their next opportunity. A bomb from Clune fell into the hand of opposition winger Abbas Miski, but was superbly stolen mid-air by Kalifa Faifai Loa to score. Field converted from the sideline once again to take scores to 18-6, which would remain until half-time.
The second half began with the injection of Hutchison, who replaced Adam Clune in the halves. An admittedly scrappy start to the stanza ensued, but Leilua soon continued Illawarra's dominance with a barnstorming run from a Josh Kerr offload. The second-rower's try, along with another conversion to Field, extended the lead to 18.
North Sydney needed to score soon and applied significant pressure to the Illawarra defence over a five-minute period, with repeat sets and penalties giving them a golden opportunity. An error brought them undone eventually and Illawarra made them pay, with a fantastic run from Hind getting his side another.
A short kick-off from the Bears worked in their favour, regaining possession in good position. When the ball was sent wide to Miski, no less than four Illawarra defenders appeared to easily have him covered in driving him into touch, but the winger miraculously got the ball down for the Bears' second. With the conversion, they trailed 30-12 with 16 minutes remaining.
As the clock wound down and with the Bears on last tackle, a movement which spanned the width of the field resulted in Miski getting a double; when Levido threw the final pass, Faifai Loa committed to a tackle but it trailed past him to Miski, who dived over in the corner. Unfortunately for North Sydney, the conversion attempt fell short, ruling out any realistic possibility of a comeback.
In the end, it was a strong defensive display which will most please Illawarra fans and Mat Head's men did not let up for the remainder of the match. They would remain in seventh position after defeating the Bears 30 points to 16.
Illawarra 30 (R Kennedy, A Clune, K Faifai Loa, L Leilua, J Hind tries; J Field 5 goals) def North Sydney Bears 16 (A Miski 2, T Tasi tries; E Levido 2 goals)