Sunday afternoon’s match in Mudgee was an absolutely critical one for the Dragons. To lose to the Warriors in Round 7 was one thing, given that both teams had been undefeated for the first part of the season, but to lose to the Bunnies – and to lose so decisively to the Bunnies – was another; a glitch in their outstanding form that St. George had to put behind them as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the Raiders were still coming back from their own decimating loss to the Rabbitohs, despite wins over the Cowboys and Titans in the interim, and were just as desperate to dominate here.
The game started with an immediate surge for the Dragons, thanks to a linebreak from Matt Dufty, a flick pass to Gareth Widdop, and then a hard run from Widdop, all in the first sixty seconds. To their credit, however, Canberra managed to scramble their defence together, and with Dufty losing the footy at the other end of the field the Red V’s opening burst was over as quickly as it had begun, with the St. George fullback’s error granting the Raiders the platform they needed for Aidan Sezer to move the ball across through Jack Wighton for Nick Cotric to score in the left corner.
From Wighton’s superb catch-and-pass to Cotric’s burly putdown this first try was all class, as the 2017 Rookie of the Year simply pivoted off both Euan Aitken and Nightingale to claim the left edge as his own. For a moment, it looked as the Raiders would be carried along on this opening high to a second successive try, after they forced their ninth dropout of the season. A massive seventy-five metre kick from Widdop got the Dragons back in the game though, commencing a sequence that would conclude with Jack De Belin scoring right beneath the posts a set or two later.
Before that, however, the Raiders had the ball, and while Joey Leilua may have lost it a couple of tackles after the dropout, a penalty on Widdop for not being square at marker gave Canberra another chance at the line. Once again, though, the hosts’ advantage allowed the Dragons to steel their competitive edge, with Ben Hunt now making a resounding comeback from his cork against the Bunnies to put in a sterling effort to collect the Raiders’ fifth tackle kick and bring it back into the field of play.
From there, an offside penalty for Iosia Soliola saw the Dragons piggybacked towards their own end of the field, where some quick thinking saw De Belin crash over right beneath the posts for his third try of the 2018 season so far – a pretty impressive achievement, by May, for a player who had never scored more than two four-pointers in a single season. With Widdop adding the extras, the Red V were now two points ahead, since Jarrod Croker hadn’t made good on Cotric’s opening four points.
It was a rousing moment for the Dragons, and yet that just made the Raiders’ next try all the more dispiriting. On the face of it, it was a fairly simple play – Sezer got the footy across to Blake Austin, who dummied and then sent it across to Leilua, who made his way through the St. George defensive line to score four more points. Yet whereas BJ normally has to barge his way over the chalk, here he was able to simply stroll through, with both Widdop and Dufty actually slowing down and parting as he approached, as if checking with each other whether he was even worth defending.
It was one of the worst examples in ages of players not playing to the whistle, since it appeared that St. George had assumed that an obstruction had occurred on Tariq Sims that would render the play irrelevant, only for the replay to show that it had been a defensive error from Widdop, and a lack of general defensive communication, that had been responsible for the try. There couldn’t be a direr sequel to the Dragons’ heartbreaking performance against the Bunnies last week, and it seemed to decelerate and demotivate them over the next couple of sets too.
Still, the Dragons started to glimpse some tentative improvement as the half time siren approached – not from a try, but from a pair of penalty goals that brought them level with the Raiders, in keeping with a round in which two-pointers have played a big role, especially in the Rabbitohs-Cowboys clash in Townsville the night before. The first came after Papalii landed a high shot on Croker, while the second came right on the siren, after Joseph Tapine was put on report for a shoulder charge.
This last kick was a good way for St. George to head into the break, since only a player of Widdop’s kicking prowess would have managed to boot the football through the uprights from the sideline halfway down the field. While the Raiders might have responded with two points of their own early in the second half after Jeremy Lattimore was called offside, the Red V coasted forward to the next try of the afternoon on the momentum of this final pair of kicks before the half time bell.
Depending on how you saw it, these next four points came on the back of a fairly controversial play-the-ball from Jason Nightingale, but the Dragons quickly put it behind them as they surged up through the ruck, thanks to a brilliant right foot pivot and right hand offload from Cameron McInnes to De Belin, who broke through the line and then got the ball across to Dufty to run forward and boot the footy forward.
It bounced as good as any other St. George kick this season, sitting up beautifully for Widdop to slam it to the grass, for a resounding team try that had seen the Dragons move up the field in the space of two tackles, putting them six ahead once Widdop added the extras. To get back in the game, the Raiders had to show that they could move up through the ruck every bit as seamlessly as the Dragons, and they did so spectacularly a couple of sets later, for their second stealth try of the afternoon following Leilua’s sneaky effort, and Widdop’s defensive error, in the opening forty.
This time it started with a great run and linebreak from Croker, followed by a penalty on Nightingale for flopping on top of the tackle. Ninety-nine times out a hundred, a quick tap either isn’t allowed or doesn’t pay dividends, but this was the one percent, as Rapana picked up the footy, sliced through the defence and ran to score beside the posts with most of the St. George jerseys turned away from him, as only McInnes got close to tackling him, but even there was forced to concede that he was too late.
If Leilua’s try had made the Dragons look vulnerable, then this was even worse, and yet with Jordan Rapana sent off for a professional foul at the sixtieth minute, and Tapine penalised for a strip thirty seconds later, the Red V were able to level the score to 18-18 while Canberra were forced to defend with only twelve men on the field. For the next ten minutes, the Raiders made a valiant effort, most notably with a terrific clean-up of a Widdop grubber from Sezer, but it ended with Dufty putting in one of the speediest and slipperiest linebreaks this season, and possibly his best single moment since taking on the full-time fullback jersey at St. George-Illawarra.
Starting halfway up the field, Dufty initially looked as if he was planning to go up the left side, only to straighten and head for the uprights, leaving one Raider after another in his wake until he seemed to have exhausted the entire team, scoring the most triumphant try of the afternoon thirty seconds before Rapana returned from the win. Reliable as ever, Widdop shot through the extras, and then added a final field goal with three minutes left on the clock to give St. George the winning margin.
While the Raiders might have given the Red V more of a run for their money than they had been expecting, that just made their victory all the more cathartic after their shock loss to the Bunnies last week. They’ll be looking to consolidate, then, when they take on the Panthers at Penrith next week, while the Raiders will face a challenging task in making up for this loss when they face a Manly outfit fresh from their resounding win over the Storm on Friday night, in itself one of the most volatile, visceral and momentum-building victories of the 2018 NRL season so far.