ROUND 14: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (ANZ Stadium, 11/6/18)
The weeks before Origin were a bit of a mixed bag for the Dragons, since while they may have racked up wins over the Storm and the Raiders, they suffered the most humiliating defeat of their 2018 season against the Panthers in Round 12, only coming away with two points to show for their troubles. With a loss to the Bunnies the round before, the Red V had been win-for-loss when they turned up to face the Bulldogs at ANZ on Monday afternoon, and needed to lock down a pretty emphatic victory to recover some of the momentum they’d showcased earlier in the season.
Meanwhile, only a fairly predictable win over the Eels has punctured a seemingly endless run of losses for Canterbury-Bankstown, whose last win before smashing Parramatta came in Round 6, when they managed to get a seventeen point lead over the Cowboys at 1300SMILES Stadium. With David Klemmer roused by a Blues victory in Melbourne, they were just as keen to start getting their 2018 season back on track, and to make the most of a St. George outfit held tryless by the Panthers.
Depsite this being a Canterbury home fixture, however, the Dragons held all the cards in the opening ten minutes, with Euan Aitken getting things going with an early try, thanks to a superb series of passes from Paul Vaughan, Jack De Belin and Ben Hunt that allowed him to cross over untouched, for what felt more like a training run than a high-stakes game for the Bulldogs. While Gareth Widdop might not have added the extras, Aitken’s putdown was so effortless that it didn’t especially matter.
No surprise, then, that the Red V put down another four points shortly after, but not before collecting a penalty kick from Moses Mbye that didn’t make it over the sideline. This time, both Hunt and Widdop went into the line, isolating Will Hopoate and setting up Tariq Sims to put in a kind of slow-motion twist-and-spin, in which he caught the ball about eight metres out from the line and barged his way through the Bulldogs backliner, who couldn’t hold him up quite enough to prevent him scoring.
Neither of these two tries had involved any fancy stuff, but that was what made them feel so emphatic, as the Dragons demonstrated that good passing and timing was all they really needed to make a dent in the Canterbury home advantage. Still, an error from Kurt Mann decelerated things a bit, especially since he was replacing Jason Nightingale for the first reconfiguration of the St. George starting side so far this year. He made up for it, though, with a great take under a subsequent Canterbury fifth-tackle kick, putting in a gutsy run to get the footy back in the field of play, only for De Belin and Aitken to botch it with a penalty and error respectively.
That sudden shift in rhythm gave the Dogs the opportunity they needed to replicate the Dragons’ passing game, as the Steeden now moved through Josh Jackson, Aaron Woods and Matt Frawley, before Adam Elliott burst through the line to score their first try, speeding around Hunt for good measure. Special mention has to go to Woods for a well-timed offload, but the try itself was the real statement, combining the speed of Aitken’s opening four points with the strength of Sims’ burst, for about as decisive a response to the Dragons as could be expected, especially once Mbye put in the first successful conversion of the afternoon to bring the scoreline to 6-8.
As the clock wound down to half time, Widdop seemed to have spotted a bit of space, coming to ground just in front of the chalk but wisely choosing not to risk the rest of the set by offloading, even if it felt as if he could almost have reached out a hand to plant the footy down then and there. It didn’t take long for the Dragons to score, though, as another superb string of passes culminated with a catch-and-pass from Matt Dufty to send Nene Macdonald over in the left corner for a characteristically dexterous putdown that utterly defied Hopoate to clean it all up.
To make things even better for the Dragons, Widdop now booted through his first conversion of the evening from his most challenging sideline angle, contributing to a wave of St. George energy that almost saw Macdonald cross over again a couple of sets later off the same combination, only for Mbye to come in and slam him to ground when Hopoate once again found himself unable to contain the burly winger.
The Bulldogs had to be the next to score, then, when they returned from the sheds. They did so, too, notching up a pair of tries that made the next ten minutes every bit as impressive as St. George’s command over the first ten minutes of the opening stanza. Both four-pointers revolved around Brett Morris, who got the first one going by slipping away from Vaughan and breaking through the line before sending the footy back in to Mbye, who made it all the way to the ten metre line, and very nearly crashed over himself, before a desperate grab from Widdop brought him to earth.
The Dogs had all the momentum, though, and took advantage of a disheveled St. George line to quickly shift the Steeden to the right edge, where a nice grubber from Jackson found Montoya and Hopoate in the wing with only Tim Lafai to defend them. Both backliners could have grounded the football, but it was Hoppa who got there, cementing the general sense of comeback after his spotty defence earlier on.
While Mbye might not have managed the subsequent conversion, the Dogs weren’t done, with Jackson now taking his cues from Morris to almost break through the line on the next set, establishing the platform for a perfectly weighted kick from Matt Frawley that Mann initially appeared to have caught in the in goal area, only to drop and recover it several times over before it finally broke loose, tumbling into open space and defying John Olive before Morris and Aitken simultaneously got it down.
When seen in slow motion, this battle between the Bulldogs and Dragons backliners may have been the most visceral moment of the match so far, putting Canterbury-Bankstown ahead for the first time of the evening once Mbye slotted through the extras a minute later. The Dragons didn’t take long to regroup, however, with De Belin proving why he’s one of the best low tacklers in the competition with a big hit that got Jackson to cough up the footy just as the Dogs were starting to build again.
A penalty for Clay Priest shortly after gave the Dragons the opportunity to take a kick and level the scoreline, bringing things to 16-all as the last quarter of the match drew near. Yet a series of twists and turns delayed further scorung, until it felt as if the next try would be the match-winner. First, it was Cameron McInnes being held to have deliberately thrown the Steeden into Jackson, despite the big second-rower making no effort to clear the ruck. Then it was Frawley and Eliott dragging Dufty back after he collected the ball, forcing him to lose it only to be penalised for not having heard the call to conclude the tackle from the other end of the football field.
A late tackle from Woods on Graham gave Widdop a shot at penalty kick, but that only put the Dragons two points ahead. As the final ten minutes arrived, then, it became even more critical for both teams to score a try, since the St. George advantage was nowhere near as secure as might have been expected from the opening minutes of the game. With six minutes on the clock, Jeremy Marshall-King lobbed a forward pass that was intercepted by the Dragons, who looked set to score, only for another forward pass to quash Macdonald as he was setting up on the wing.
Things just got more intense as the siren loomed, with Montoya glimpsing some space on the right edge on the third tackle, only for Dufty to drag him into touch. The Dragons got the scrum feed, but botched the last-tackle option, setting up the Dogs for a terrific set of six, and then a goal line dropout thanks to some more heroic play from Jackson, with a minute on the clock. A knock-on from De Belin saw Canterbury desperately reform the scrum with five seconds to go, but the Dragons managed to contain them, for one of their gutiest wins of the entire 2018 season.
That said, the Bulldogs only went down by two points, and should build upon their consolidation in the second stanza when they take on Gold Coast for a home fixture at Belmore on Saturday night. Meanwhile, this was a much closer win for the Red V than they could have expected from the opening ten minutes, and they’ll looking to put a much more decisive victory behind them against Manly at WIN on Saturday.
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