ROUND 4: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Newcastle Knights (WIN Stadium, 1/4/18)
The Knights had a pretty big task on their hands fronting up at WIN Stadium on Sunday afternoon – a home game for a dominant Dragons outfit that have beaten the Broncos, Sharks and Titans the first three weeks of football this year. That said, Newcastle themselves have had their fair share of impressive wins too, with only their loss to the Roosters last weekend taking the edge off their spectacular victories over the Sea Eagles and then the Raiders. If St. George won, it would put them on a pair with the Warriors as the only team to bring home four straight victories; if the Knights won, it would make the defeat by the Roosters feel more like an anomaly.
Just because Newcastle were the visiting team, however, they had to make that much more of an effort to stamp their signature on the opening minutes of the game, and so they did, with Kalyn Ponga catching the footy right on the Dragons goal line and abruptly changing direction in the same moment, allowing him to slice through the defence and pop the Steeden across to Tautau Moga for the first four points of the afternoon. At first, it looked as if there might have been an obstruction, but it was simply Ponga’s consummate timing that caused the St. George defenders to be taken by surprise, with Ben Hunt, in particular, forced to commit too early.
It goes without saying that the spectacle of Ponga organising the game so efficiently from the opening minutes was a cathartic one for Newcastle, and initially seemed to swing the game in their favour, especially once the young fullback added one of the more elegant conversions of his career – an oblique, sweeping kick that saw the ball head straight towards the post before slicing right behind it. That just made it all the more dispiriting, however, when Moga was taken from the field with what was later confirmed to be an ACL injury after the crushing tackle from Tyson Frizell that had almost prevented him getting the ball to ground in the first place, forcing Nathan Brown to reconfigure his interchange strategy from the very outset of the match.
That just made the Knights hungrier, with each player tackling harder and defending more passionately over the next couple of minutes, only for a sudden change in momentum to start a cascade of points for the Red V. It started with a rapid kick return from Ponga, who skidded and skittered along the Knights line before finding open space, setting up Newcastle for a terrific couple of tackles. A perfectly timed hit from Jack De Belin forced Sione Mata’utia to cough up the ball, however, and with a penalty to boot the Dragons were back attacking the Knights’ goal line, where a flat pass from Ben Hunt sent Tariq Sims through Guerra and Ponga, and over the chalk.
With Gareth Widdop adding the extras as reliably as ever, the Dragons set their sights on consolidating. Shortly after Matt Dufty sent a short ball to Euan Aitken on the right edge, which Aitken offloaded back to his fullback just as quickly, allowing the hosts to pick up some unexpected metres and scramble the Newcastle defence in the process. Taking advantage of that dishevelment, the Dragons wasted no time in sending the footy rapidly to the other side of the field, where Widdop spotted some open space out on the wing and launched a massive cut-out pass to Tim Lafai.
From there, Lafai put in a piece of play that almost rivalled Luke Keary’s sublime flick pass against the Knights the week before, half-fending and half-eluding a tackle from Mata’utia to get the footy across to Nene Macdonald moments before the hitting the turf, and ensuring that it was a sure thing that the big winger would plant down four more points, with Widdop adding the two once again. To make things even worse for the Knights, the Dragons repeated a roughly symmetrical version of the try on the other side of the field a couple of moments later, in what felt more like a remix or mashup of these stunning six points than a new tryscoring opportunity.
This time, it was a short ball from Widdop to Dufty that set up the play, with Dufty now offloading on the ground to Aitken who slammed over, jaw-strap and all, for the third successive Dragons try. While neither of the flick passes might have quite rivalled Keary’s for grace under pressure, their combined import was probably as debilitating for the Knights as that of the Roosters five-eighth, and with Widdop adding the extras that opening Newcastle surge started to feel very distant indeed.
It was clear that the Knights needed to score next to have any chance to remain in the game, so you could almost hear the sigh of relief from the Newcastle supporters in the grandstand when the visitors put in a risky set play, but one that paid off. Finding himself right on the line, James Graham sent a cut-put pass to Mitchell Pearce, who popped the ball back inside to Chris Heighington, who crossed over right beside the posts for his first four points since he last scored against the Knights.
For a moment, before half time, it looked as if the Knights might sustain the momentum of those four points – six, once Ponga had added the extras – as they gained a penalty on the fifth tackle of a promising set, get another penalty a couple of minutes later, and then saw Guerra almost cross over on the back of a deft flat pass from Pearce. Things went south, though, when Lamb’s grubber bounced comfortably over the dead ball line, and with the Dragons adding a penalty goal shortly after, and Ponga making his first error under a sublime spiral bomb from Hunt two minutes out from the break, the Dragons headed into the sheds on top.
With Nathan Ross taken off for an HIA a minute before the break – and Herman Ese’ese brought on for yet another reconfiguration – it was even more important for the Knights to show some improvisation and spontenaity with the footy when they returned for the second stanza. While they may have been let off by a knock-on from Hunt just before the first siren, they had to contend with a Dragons outfit that was just as determined after the break, and motivated by their impressive half-time lead.
It was perhaps no surprise, then, that St. George were the next to score, although it came later in the second stanza than might have been expected, with both teams failing to make the most of a couple of promising opportunities in the first fifteen minutes. In one of the most unusual, a crossfield kick from Widdop had seemed to guarantee a goal line dropout for the Red V, only for the replay to belatedly show that Frizell had punched the footy into touch just before the Knights got to it, resulting in a cancelled dropout just as Newcastle were setting up to defend again.
Still, Newcastle didn’t manage to make the most of this reversal, and as the minutes passed it became clearer and clearer that St. George were still the dominant team on the park, even if the cascade of tries had momentarily halted. The wait was worth it, though, since when they did score next it was with their two most spectacular putdowns of the night – a quintessence of strength from Leeson Ah Mau and of dexterity from Nene Macdonald that summarised everything that has made the Dragons so resurgent this year, and helped so much to cancel out the traumatic memory of their loss to the Dogs on the cusp of finals footy at the end of last year.
Ah Mau’s try came as the culmination of some sustained field position and possession from the hosts, and some stunning attacking work from the big forward himself, who started a repeat set after a goal line dropout with a barnstorming run and hit-up, and then crossed over two tackles later with the same move. I can’t think of a recent try by a forward that has showcased the skills as emphatically as this one, with Ah Mau plunging into a tackle from about ten metres out from the line, in what initially seemed like the platform for an offload at best, but went from a try-assisting to tryscoring opportunity as Ah Mau slammed through every defender in his path.
It was hard, in the replay, to see just how many players Ah Mau monstered, but he broke through about two or three tackles, starting by running, and ending by simply walking, footy in hand, over the line. Only Jason Taumalolo can show that kind of effortless distance after contact right on the line consistently, and there was something Taumaolo-like in Ah Mau’s move – his first try in 83 games, and a powerful rejoinder to Heighington’s courageous four points in the opening stanza.
If the tackle was impressive, the putdown was even more impressive, with Ah Mau coming to ground right on the line and reaching around to plant the Steeden behind his head before the Knights knew what had hit them. For a moment, there, however, it looked as if the Dragons were going to choke on the restart, with the kick finding the edge of the park, only for Macdonald to put in a miracle move to catch the footy and pop it back into the field of play miliseconds before heading into touch himself.
It was the precursor to a four-pointer from Macdonald himself that spoke for the Dragons’ dexterity much as Ah Mau’s try had spoken for their strength and courage right on the line. Full credit has to go to Hunt, though, who put in one of the best grubbers of his career towards the end of a convulsive Dragons set in which the Knights’ defence had clustered right up in the left corner of the field. Faced with one of them densest defensive packs he’d ever had to boot the ball through, Hunt timed it perfectly, actually sending the Steeden between Ponga’s legs to find his winger in the corner, despite the fact that a sea of Newcastle jerseys was blocking the way.
If Hunt’s intuition for Macdonald’s positional play was outstanding, then Macdonald read the grubber just as brilliantly, chasing it forward into the in-goal area and grounding it right in the corner, before tumbling into touch. Between this and his earlier catch, it was a passage of play that beautifully encapsulated the St. George winger’s dexterity with the football, in the game that had probably been more defined by his deftness on the wing than any other so far during the 2018 season.
As the game wound down, the Knights started to falter more – from Ross failing to make the most of a grubber from Ponga in the in-goal area to Heighington feeding the play-the-ball to nobody, resulting in a series of repeat sets and two successive goal line dropouts for the Dragons. For a moment, Widdop looked set to crash over, but it turned out to be a penalty for the Knights, albeit a penalty that they were unable to take advantage of in any way with barely a minute left on the clock, in what may well be the most decisive of St. George’s string of decisive wins in 2018.
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