No Dragons win this season has been quite so inspiring as their 52-22 victory over the Sea Eagles at Win Stadium on Sunday afternoon – a victory that saw them score an unanswered 30 points in the first stanza, and then respond to Manly’s 22-point streak with another 22 points of their own. With Matt Dufty debuting at fullback, clocking up several try assists, and grounding the final try with a minute on the clock, it was a rousing spectacle of how St. George-Illawarra might manage once Josh Dugan has left for Cronulla. It was also a testament to how consistent fifth-tackle options and conversions can bolster a team, with Gareth Widdop putting in one of his very best displays of leadership for the Red V this year.
Jason Nightingale put down the first points five minutes in at the end of a magnificent Dragons set, in which Matthew Dufty had been a highlight in his debut in the no. 1 jersey, almost finding the line early in the tackle count and then putting in a skittering, skidding run over to the right side of the field that disrupted and disheveled the Manly defence. Over the five tackles, the Dragons got an opportunity to showcase a number of playmaking combinations, and while it may not have initially looked to produce points a well-placed kick from Gareth Widdop somehow managed to find Nightingale on the chest right in the midst of a swarm of Manly defenders, allowing the big centre to catch and ground the Steeden in a single movement before the Sea Eagles had managed to get the sun out of their eyes.
Ten minutes later, Tim Lafai put down four more points, off the back of another chip from Widdop. Both Nightingale and Akuila Uate contested the ball, but neither of them quite managed to get a hand to it, with Lafai and Dylan Walker coming in behind them for the second round. It was exactly the kind of loose ball that Walker so often manages to clean up, but Lafai put in a heroic leap to catch the Steeden, and then an even more heroic leap after having missed it the first time, getting the Steeden to ground before the Manly centre could clean things up. Given how bright the sun was in this particular corner of the field, Lafai’s timing and precision was even more impressive, and with Widdop managing an elegant sideline conversion the Dragons were 12-0 with barely as many minutes on the clock.
It was clear that if the Sea Eagles wanted to reverse the Dragons’ momentum, they needed to find some way to limit Widdop’s presence on the field. At the twenty-fourth minute, they appeared to have done just that, with Jake Trbojevic bringing the Steeden back from deep in the in-goal area and then getting it across to Uate, who put in a massive right foot step to get halfway up the field, following up with a rapid play-the-ball to gain the Sea Eagles a penalty as well.
At the other end of the field, however, Widdop put in the play of the afternoon, moving in close to DCE in order to force an early pass, and then intercepting that pass and running the length of the field to ground the third try of the afternoon, and then convert it a minute later. Only Cameron Cullen came close to bringing him down, but Widdop outran even him, in one of his best moments of the 2017 season. Given that the Dragons had just started to flag a little bit, and that Manly had just started to consolidate a little bit, this was one of the key turning-points in the game, and the moment at which the Red V started to glimpse the massive torrent of points that would cascade in for them over the next hour of football.
It was a mere matter of minutes before the Dragons put down another try – their third off a kick, and their second off an intercept. Once again, it was a pass from DCE that was intercepted – this time by Nightingale – and while it may not have reaped rewards as immediately as Widdop’s intercept, it got St. George-Illawarra some additional momentum, which they consolidated with a superb cut-out pass from Widdop to Lafai down the other end of the field.
So far, Widdop’s kicks had been most remunerative in the left corner, partly because of the strength of the Dragons’ left wing (and the comparative weakness of the Sea Eagles’ corresponding wing) and partly because that was the sunniest and brightest part of the field. This time, however, Widdop booted the ball to the right, where Macdonald mirrored Lafai’s earlier leap to outplay both Brian Kelly and Brad Parker to pop the ball back to Euan Aitken, who collected it and sped around the Manly wing to ground the Steeden right beneath the posts, setting up Widdop for the easiest conversion of the afternoon.
A couple of minutes later, the Sea Eagles seemed to get some small modicum of revenge, with Macdonald crashing over the line only for Kelly to put in a massive tackle to prevent him getting the Steeden to ground. Manly couldn’t breathe easily for long, however, with the Dragons crashing over again at the end of the next set, thanks to another terrific fifth-tackle play from Widdop, who got himself in position to grubber and then sent a short ball over to Jacob Host to slot between DCE and Walker and put down four more points. With Widdop converting seamlessly once again, the Dragons were up 30-0 going into the sheds – their biggest halftime lead since 2001.
The Sea Eagles hit back early in the second half, putting down a try two minutes in, thanks to some nice interplay between Tom Trbojevic and Dylan Walker. Running right up to the line, Turbo sent a superb cut-out pass out to his centre, who stormed forward to ground the ball right on the chalk, with Nightingale hanging onto his waist for dear life. A minute later and DCE had added the extras, and while 30-6 still wasn’t a great scoreline for Manly, it was a hell of a better result than the 30-0 result that had loomed over them as they headed into the sheds.
Tensions flared a couple of minutes later when Jack De Belin flung DCE to the ground in the midst of a tackle. DCE seemed to laugh it off, only for Darcy Lussick to run in and throw some punches, resulting in ten minutes in the bin. In another context, that might have quelled the momentum, especially since Lussick’s younger brother Joey was making his NRL debut, but with this kind of scoreline it seemed to fuel the Manly players further, resulting in their best set immediately after, replete with a massive tackle from Walker on Dufty and then a heroic move from DCE and Shaun Lane to prevent Packer charging over the line.
From there, Manly enjoyed a sustained period of possession on the Dragons’ line, and while they may have been temporarily halted by what initially appeared to be a severe neck injury for Cullen, they ended by putting down points in the most poetic way possible – by Joel Lussick storming through Packer and Jacob Host out of dummy half to make up for his big brother being sent off the field.
A couple of minutes later, Manly went over again, thanks to a rapid play-the-ball from Jake Trbojevic right out from the line, paired with a sharp diagonal run from Walker and an offload just as he was hitting the turf to send the ball over to Jake Trbojevic, who crashed over for the Sea Eagles’ second successive try with only twelve men on the field. As if that weren’t extraordinary enough, Akuila Uate went over a minute later, outleaping Nightingale after a beautifully placed high ball from DCE, and then crashing over Nightingale once he hit the turf to reach out and slam the Steeden over the chalk.
Both Widdop and Lafai sped in, but neither were able to prevent Uate putting down points, in the third try from the Sea Eagles with twelve men on the field. In the space of fourteen minutes, they’d almost managed to rival what the Dragons had achieved in the entire opening act, and the fact that they had done so in such a compressed space of time – and with a depleted team – made their achievement feel all the more remarkable, to the point where it almost felt as if the Dragons were struggling from below when Lussick rejoined the field a moment after.
As it turned out, however, these were the last points put down by the Sea Eagles over the course of the afternoon, with the Dragons investing their own game with the emotion that had made Manly so powerful, and proceeding to put down 22 straight points to mirror those clocked up by the visitors. The resurgence started a couple of minutes later, with a terrific offload from Lafai in impossible circumstances setting Dufty up for a short ball to Paul Vaughan, allowing the ex-Raider to crash over the line with all the heft, bulk and spectacle that the Dragons needed to remind themselves that they’d notched up thirty straight points in the opening half, and could do the same again now.
Just as rapidly as the Sea Eagles had scored, so the Dragons scored that rapidly again, with Nightingale crossing over for his second try minutes later on the back of a superb cut-out pass from Dufty that Uate was powerless to stop. It was the decisive momentum-shifter for the Dragons, partly because it marked Dufty’s second successive try assist in his debut at fullback, partly because of the way it invoked Nightingale’s opening try, and partly because it proved to the Sea Eagles – and the Dragons themselves – that the hosts could rival the visitors in terms of the rapidity with which points were put down. If the Sea Eagles comeback had been remarkable, then this was more remarkable still, to the extent that a reprise of the Red V’s opening landslide almost seemed inevitable as they dug in to defend WIN Stadium.
Sure enough, Aitken went over for his own double a minute or two later, thanks to a deft early pass from Lafai down the other end of the field that sent Macdonald into open space on the right wing. To his credit, Parker boxed the St. George winger in, and got close enough to smash him into touch, only for Macdonald to boot the ball forward at just the right moment, sending it skittering ahead of DCE where Aitken picked it up and grounded it all in one epic movement.
So epic was it, however, that Aitken appeared to have injured his wrist in the process of grounding it, with Kurt Mann interchanged immediately after, but even that fact spoke to the determination with which the Dragons were prepared to get Steeden to turf in these closing minutes, with Manly’s massive resurgence prompting arguably their greatest sequence of football of the 2017 season – and all without Josh Dugan to boot, forcing Dufty to acclimatise himself to the no. 1 jersey in the most impressive and emphatic way.
It felt right, then, that Dufty managed to bring home the final try – and bring the Dragons to 50 points – one minute out from the end. The prelude was a terrific set about four minutes out that started with a line break from Dufty and then featured a tackle bust from Frizell, a skittering run along the line from Lafai and a charge from Packer that almost saw the big prop crash over. A few minutes later, a short ball from Lafai got Dufty away again, but this time he did all the work, fending off Marty Taupau, slipping out of an ankle tap from Lloyd Perrett and thne outrunning Tom Trbojevic to put down the final try of the afternoon.
There couldn’t be a better way for Dufty to have made his NRL debut, a more rousing vision of a St. George-Illawarra future without Dugan at the helm, and a better home game at WIN Stadium, as the Red V managed to force Manly to concede fifty points for the first time in over a decade, and the crowd went wild. No doubt, either, that this will come to be seen as the major push towards finals football from the Dragons, since if they can conjure this spirit after Round 26 they’ll be very promising indeed.