The stakes were pretty for both teams at the outset of Friday’s match at UOW Jubilee Oval. On the one hand, the Dragons had just dropped out of the eight as a result of their last-minute loss to the Rabbitohs at the SCG the week before, while Gold Coast had lost their last three matches and were facing the 150th loss in team history if they went down to the Red V. St. George-Illawarra came away with the win, though, accumulating an incredible sequence of tries over the first act and only briefly letting Gold Coast back in for the second before stamping their signature on the dying moments of the afternoon.
The Titans started the game carefully and conservatively, working on completing sets, avoiding errors and perhaps waiting for the Dragons to be undone by their own flamboyance. Certainly, they seemed to be banking on their care and caution allowing them to watch and wait for a victory like the Bunnies had the week before, but unfortunately for them this just created more of a platform for the Red V to showcase their playmaking creativity. That resulted in a stunning sequence eight minutes in, bookended by Kurt Mann, who burst through the line and popped the ball over to Gareth Widdop, who sent it back to Mann in turn.
Each of these passes was made in the split-second before the Gold Coast defence came in to clean it up, so it must have been tempting for Mann to send it over to Widdop one more time, but to his credit he chose to take the tackle, compounding his brilliant speed and vision with exactly the kind of level-headedness, and taste for the long game, needed at this point in the match. The Dragons made several heroic dashes at the line over the next set, most notably a hard run from Tyson Frizell that forced a penalty, and a barnstorming hit-up from Paul Vaughan that almost resulted in the first try of the afternoon.
With Nene Macdonald forcing William Zillman to send the ball dead, and gaining St. George-Illawarra the first goal line dropout of the match, it felt almost inevitable that the Dragons would cross over on the subsequent set – and so they did, with Josh Dugan putting in a massive right step and offload to send Mann over early in the tackle count. It was a rousing spectacle for the home crowd, not simply because Dugan had been a bit of an unknown entity after his ankle injury, but because this marked Mann’s fourth consecutive try.
A couple of minutes later, Dugan consolidated further, smashing over the line only for the ball to be raked out of his hand by John Olive – a move that the Bunker somehow deemed hadn’t been an attempted strip. The Dragons were clearly frustrated, yet that sense of injustice can sometimes be an asset earlier in the game, and it certainly seemed to steel the Dragons here, who gelled and refined their play further over the following sets.
Accordingly, they crossed over shortly after, thanks in part to a superb catch-and-pass from Matthew Dufty, whose skill in negotiating the shifting spaces between the opposition has been one of the hallmarks of his largely seamless transition to first grade. Combined with a neat decoy run from Joel Thompson, the Gold Coast defence were sufficiently turned around for Jason Nightingale to cross over in the corner, in a sequence of play so fluid and professional that it barely felt as if a try had been scored, so calmly and simply had it taken place.
The second half of the first stanza was defined by a period of sustained possession and field position from the Dragons and a pretty strong defensive effort from the Titans, who finally got the ball back only for Thompson to crash over the line on the following St. George set. This magnificent series of set pieces from the Dragons started with a line break from Widdop and a quick pass to Macdonald, getting the Red V down the Gold Coast end of the field where Dugan very nearly crashed over once again only for Zillman to slam in with the trysaving tackle of the game.
While Dale Copley did a similarly clinical job of cleaning up the high ball under a huge tackle from Frizell, he inevitably gave away a goal line dropout in the process, forcing the Titans to reform their defensive line once again. During this next set, it was Dufty, rather than Dugan, who was unable to make the pass out to the wing – on the other side of the field – but even Gold Coast’s escalating defensive efforts couldn’t prevent another goal line dropout, on the back of a big kick from Widdop.
In fact, the kick was probably a bit big, at least by Widdop’s immaculate standards, but it was still low enough for Zillman to get a hand to it before it tumbled over the dead ball line. By this stage, it felt as if we were watching a series of St. George set pieces, and as the hosts progressively exhausted the visitors, it seemed as if all they needed was one try in order to cascade into several more before half time. The Titans responded in kind, though, almost dragging Tim Lafai over the sideline on the fourth tackle, wrapping up Frizell on the fifth, and then containing Thompson on the last, silencing the crowd in the space of seconds.
Even the most stalwart Dragons supporter would have to concede that it was one of the most stellar defensive efforts in weeks from the Titans, who got a penalty at the beginning of the next set, and seemed well placed to score at the other end of the film, only for Kane Elgey to boot his grubber just a little too hard, allowing Dufty to put in a terrific display of patience and timing – especially in slow motion – as he simply waited for the Steeden to crash out of the field of play, calculating to the millisecond that Elgey would only just miss out on grounding it himself.
In other words, this Gold Coast field position felt like an anomaly, or a blip, with the Dragons getting up the other end of the field in four tackles on the next set, where a short ball from Widdop set up Thompson to dodge around Don and then carry Kevin Proctor with him over the line. It was Thompson himself who had been cleaned up at the end of the Red V’s previous period of possession, but this was the real conclusion and climax, even if the sheer length and insatiable intensity of the Dragons’ attack semed unsatisfied by one solitary try.
No surprise, then, that Nightingale crashed over two minutes out from the break, thanks to a superb cut-out pass from Widdop to Lafai, and then a flick offload from Lafai to the big winger. That said, this also felt like Widdop’s flick pass as well, since it was one of many moments in the game that testified to his ability to think two or three plays ahead, along with the extraordinary organisational impact that he has on his team.
Full credit to Nightingale, too, who almost fell on the ball rather than placed it to ground, and who was forced to slam it down with his lower arm, but who for those very reasons offered a consummate vision of grace under pressure – an affirmation that the Dragons could take anything the Titans threw at them in the way of defence. With the score set at 22-0 heading into the sheds, it almost felt as if the Red V were disadvantaged by the half time siren, and that they could easily have clocked up a couple more tries if they’d even had five more minutes on the park.
As it was, it only took St. George eight minutes to continue their cascade of tries after they returned from half time, with what was probably the closest they’d come to a genuine team try all afternoon. It started with some deft movement and rapid play-the-balls to funnel the Steeden over to the left side of the field, where Frizell momentarily appeared to have coughed it up only for Macdonald to get the play going again and send it back inside.
A pass later, Sims got a handle on it, putting in a big hit-up and then sending the ball across to Thompson, who after his spectacular try was understandably set upon by a swathe of Titans defenders, forcing him to put in something of a speculative pass back inside. To his credit, Cameron McInnes had been waiting and watching the play for just this eventuality, collecting the Steeden and planting it over the line as if this were just another tool in the Dragons’ arsenal.
With the score now at 28-0, the Titans had to get back in the game to avoid repeating their enormous loss to the Broncos the week before, and to their credit they did consolidate somewhat after this try, putting in a great set piece of their own that started with some vision out of dummy half from Nathan Peats, and saw the Steeden rapidly shifted over to the right side of the field. Along the way, Proctor turned in the tackle, drawing Nightingale off his line and disorienting the Dragons defence for the first time in the game. Some good timing from Tyrone Roberts contributed to send Copley over the line a minute later, and with the Titans adding the extras they were – however modestly – back on the scoreboard.
That said, Gold Coast made their position a little more defined, and built a little more momentum, with another try four minutes later. It wasn’t just the rapid succession of this four-pointer but the simplicity and elegance with which it occurred that suddenly silenced the home crowd, with Ash Taylor sending a perfectly placed bomb over to the right corner, and Nightingale seeming in two minds about whether to contest Anthony Don for it or tackle him once he’d reached the ground.
In the kind of split-second decision that can make or break games, Nightingale wrapped himself around Don’s waist and opted for the latter, but that just allowed the big Titans backliner to demonstrate his extraordinary strength, as he almost appeared to take advantage of Nightingale’s added weight to slam the Steeden to ground, as if a tackle on the wing had been a part of his game plan all along.
A penalty goal for the Dragons at the hour mark went some way to breaking the Titans’ momentum, and that was all the Red V needed to reclaim the venue as their own, with a try that felt like a renewed statement of purpose for two key reasons. First, it involved some deft play from Dugan, who bobbled the ball right on the sideline only to regather it and get it back into play. Dugan had been a bit of an unknown at the beginning of the game and had momentarily looked as if he might be set off earlier in the second half after his ankle was caught under a tackle, so it was especially rousing to see him self-correcting like this at such a crucial moment.
The second key factor was McInnes, who put down a double after charging at the line straight out of dummy half, brushing Jarryd Hayne out of the way to get the ball to ground as simply, cleanly and clinically as Don had scored shortly before. Over the course of the game, Hayne had been something of a nonentity – you’d barely know that he was a member of the team – and McInnes exposed that eloquently here, with Widdop adding the extras to resume the Dragons’ sense of ownership and control.
It was something of an upset, then, when Paterika Vaivai simply stormed over the line, beneath the posts, from short range, for the third Titans try and his first NRL try. It was the epitome of a surprise try, or perhaps a try built on complacency, since the Dragons had focused their own strengths so brilliantly over the course of the game that they seemed to neglect the possibility of a Gold Coast player simply slamming through their line.
They didn’t learn the lesson, either, with Ryan James crossing over in exactly the same place and in exactly the same way a couple of minutes later, and while McInnes may have made a sterling effort in getting a hand beneath the Steeden – the replay really showed how hard he’d worked for it – it was a bit troubling to see yet another player breach the Dragons defence from close range, for what would have been the softest try of the game if James had managed to get it to ground.
The Dragons might have been twenty points ahead, but they really needed one more try to put their stamp on this second stanza, and to really fulfil the promise they’d shown in the opening forty minutes. They got it, too, three minutes out from the end, thanks to a cut-out pass from Widdop to Mann, a massive dummy from Mann that caught Peats by surprise, a decoy run from Jack De Belin for good measure, and some mistiming from James, all of which combined to send Mann over the line, for a try that looked as good as it was momentous – stretching his arm out under a desperate Gold Coast tackle to slam the Steeden to earth.
The fact that Mann had scored the opening points just made this feel even more like a continuation of the stunning first half, and with the Dragons now having beaten the Titans in both halves this has to go down as one of the most inspiring moments of their pre-finals push – and a rallying-point when they take on the Broncos at Suncorp next week.