ROUND 18: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Wests Tigers (Jubilee Oval, 15/7/18)

The Tigers had lost their last four matches, and eight out of their ten last matches, when they took on the Dragons at Jubilee Oval on Sunday afternoon. With Jack De Belin, Paul Vaughan and Tyson Frizell only just back from Origin, the Red V weren’t operating at full strength, and were chastened by their 52-30 loss to the Storm the week before – and perhaps also a bit chastened by nearly losing to Parramatta the week before that. Taking advantage of that exhaustion, the Tigers came away with a much needed clutch win – three tries apiece, but a slightly more consistent night for conversions from Esan Marsters, plus a valuable penalty kick for the visiting team.

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There were early warning signs for the Dragons, with a slow peel from Tyson Frizell setting the Tigers up for a strong set in the first five minutes. Despite an over-wide pass from Benji Marshall, and a forward pass – uncalled – right on the line, the visitors managed to make their way to the end of the set, where Jason Nightingale only just managed to prevent Kevin Naiqama scoring. In slow motion, you could see that Naiqama had only lost contact with the footy in the second before it made contact with the ground – and perhaps hadn’t even lost it – for what would have certainly been a try if the on-field call had been try.

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Nevertheless, this opening sequence probably worked in the Tigers’ favour, making them a bit hungrier for a win, and mitigating against the second half complacency that has sometimes crept into their games in 2018, as a kind of hangover from their inability to finish over the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Add to that the fact that Luke Brooks’ kick for Naqiama had been pinpoint perfect, and the Tigers had a lot to feel confident about when a second error from Frizell midway through the next St. George set gave them an opportunity to consolidate and attack the line once more.

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Despite a good couple of opening tackles, however, Ben Hunt was more prepared this time, reading Brooks’ kick perfectly and cleaning up the football right beside the posts. In the first part of a sustained halfback-on-halfback contest, Hunt’s next kick almost resulted in points, as Gareth Widdop added a second kick to send the footy into open space, only for Brooks to scramble and come up with it on the Tigers’ right edge. Yet with Jack De Belin losing the football midway through the next set, thanks to a low tackle from Ben Matulino, the Dragons suffered yet another aborted drive, and put the Steeden back in the Tigers’ hands once again.

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All the potential that the black and gold army had suggested in the opening ten minutes now consolidated into their best set of the afternoon so far, culminating with a perfectly structured play that ensured them their first try of the game. Collecting the footy out of dummy half right on the line, Farah made up for a few spotty moments earlier in the match by holding the Steeden low and close to his chest, fooling the opposition into thinking he was going to opt for a last-tackle kick.

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Instead, Robbie sent the ball out to the left, with both Moses Mbye and Kevin Naqiama running dummy lines that initially made Luke Brooks seem like the least likely player to collect it. Nevertheless, the ball found Brooks, who, like Farah, initially seemed set to go for the boot, given the role that his short kicking game had played in the match so far. Certainly, that was what Euan Aitken assumed, who hedged his bets, getting in position to collect the football while also making an attempt to defend the line, and so leaving just enough space for Brooks to storm through and score the first four points of the afternoon – six once Marsters had added the extras.

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This was a worrying moment for the Dragons, who have typically scored earlier in games that they have won throughout the 2018 season. Accordingly, they consolidated, putting in a pummelling set that involved some rapid movement to the left edge a couple of tackles in, and then six again after a slow peel from Farah right on the line as he tried to contain an enormous short-range run from Paul Vaughan. Collecting the ball on the ten metre line a couple of tackles later, Hunt turned sideways to avoid Chris Lawrence, pivoted off the right foot to avoid Elijah Taylor, and brushed off Russell Packer to score on the right side of the posts.

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In regular speed, Hunt had more or less crossed over untouched, so effortlessly did he shrug off the Tigers’ successive layers of defence. With Widdop booting through the extras, the score was locked at 6-6, and yet the Dragons were unable to really build on this sequence, despite some moments of brilliance. A few sets later, Vaughan crossed over the line, only for a call of no try due to a forward pass. Twenty-five minutes in, Widdop made one of the most elegant 40/20 kicks of the season, only for its energy to gradually dissipate as the Tigers set in once again.

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By the last ten minutes, the Tigers seemed to hold all the cards, and yet they now had their own turn to rack up a series of missed opportunities. This period started with a superb kick from Brooks, who turned to face the sideline, and sent the ball laterally off the side of his boot to get a difficult enough angle to wrap the Red V up in goal, and force a much-needed dropout. On the third tackle of the subsequent set, Michael Chee Kam put in a heroic twist-and-spin, but the same couldn’t be said for Farah’s similar effort a tackle later, since Marshall and Brooks were positively screaming for the football on his left side.

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A barnstorming run from David Nofoaluma five minutes out from the siren gave the Tigers one last gasp, resulting in a sequence of play that saw Marshall send Chee Kam through the Dragons’ defensive line, giving the young second rower an opportunity to make up for not having completed his twist-and-spin a couple of sets before. If it had come off, this would easily have been Benji’s best pass of the night – pure deception and strategic brilliance – but it was called as marginally forward, leaving the scoreline levelled at 6-6 as both teams headed into the sheds.

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It was an unexpected outcome, since both teams had struggled hard to take control of the game, and both teams had often seemed close to gaining that competitive edge. In effect, they both had to reset when they returned from the sheds, but an unforced error from Naiqama, and then a pair of messy last-tackle options from St. George, suggested that the second stanza would be even more mixed than the first.

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While that was probably true, the high points were even higher – and one of those high points came shortly after, marking the start of a barnstorming forty minutes of football from Robbie Farah, as a pair of extreme passes got the Tigers on the scoreboard once again. The first came from Robbie, who ran so deep into the line, out of acting half, that he had to pass the ball directly behind him to get it back to Mbye. From there, Mbye went to the opposite extreme, accelerated through the line before sending out an enormous cut-out pass from the middle of the field.

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It found Corey Thompson on the left edge, who proceeded to showcase the best footwork of the night so far, dodging around Aitken before scooting back in and eluding a tackle from Matt Dufty. The second time he encountered Aitken he was wrapped up by the tackle, but he still managed to reach out an arm to ground the footy right on the line, recalling his prodigious and unexpected start to the 2018 season. With Marsters booting through the conversion once again, the onus was now on the Tigers to get beyond a six point lead, as the Dragons ground in for their second challenging back half of football in two weeks.

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Moments later, Tariq Sims, who had been pretty quiet over the night, lost the football during a tackle from Marshall. To add insult to injury, the hit was on the verge of being too high, but the advantage didn’t come to much, as the game quickly settled back into the mediocrity that had marked so much of the last fifty minutes. With the black and gold army only making their way halfway up the field, Farah booted through a desperation kick that Dufty only just managed to clean up at the other end of the park, due to a surprisingly difficult bounce at the tail end.

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Two massive gestures of showmanship now ensued, both of which had the potential to break the game wide open. The first was an Origin-worthy run from Vaughan, who broke through the line and sent an extraordinary offload – a one-handed flick – to Hunt just before crashing to ground. In some ways, the pass was too good, taking even Hunt by surprise, who fumbled it at the critical moment – a horrible outcome given the extent to which St. George had been backing their offload game across the night, as well as Vaughan’s declining form due to a niggling Origin foot injury.

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The next big gesture came from Marshall, who booted through his best kick of the season – a sublime torpedo bomb that landed about fifteen metres from where both sides seemed to be expecting it. By all accounts, the Tigers should have scored immediately after, so it was a testament to how the game, as a whole, had struggled to accelerate, that it took them another five minutes to make the most of Benji’s incredible display of skill and strength.

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When it did come, however, it was easily their best try of the night, and arguably their best try of the last four weeks, enabled by a lost ball from De Belin midway up the field. A couple of tackles later, Farah fulled flexed his muscles for the first time of the afternoon, sending the footy across to Matulino out of dummy half, before recovering it from Matulino, and then collecting an offload from Chee Kam moments later, finally beating Tim Lafai to grubber to the right corner, where Nofolauma scooted forward to score a try that was called on the spot.

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It was a perfect moment in what would become Farah’s first win since transferring from the Rabbitohs, and Mbye’s first win since joining from the Bulldogs. It was also nostalgic to see Farah and Nofoaluma linking up for a spectacular try, and as Marsters sent through the conversion front of a gorgeous sunset – pink laced with purple – it suddenly felt as if finals footy might just be a propect for a Tigers outfit that have struggled so valiantly to recover some form after the depletion of so many of their key playmakers from 2018.

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Two line dropouts and then a penalty on Widdop gave Marsters his last kick of the night, putting the Tigers four point ahead, in what was starting to feel like an unassailable lead. Yet the Dragons now scored two more tries in closer succession than any of their efforts so far, finally discovering the acceleration that both sides had been yearning for the entire match. The first was clinical and simple, as Widdop timed the bounce on a Hunt kick perfectly to scoop up the Steeden and storm forward to slam down beside the posts.

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Few players have the ability to make their own lack quite like Widdop, so this play felt like a second life for the Red V, despite Nightingale making the inexplicable decision to kick on the fourth tackle of a promising St. George set a couple of minutes later. This was probably the death knell for the Dragons, turning Dufty’s try five minutes out from the end into a consolation effort, rather than match-winner it might just have been if Nightingale had allowed his team a few more shots. The Red V will be looking for a decisive win, then, when they take on the Cowboys in Townsville next week, while Farah will be keen to continue this superb gesture of leadership when he faces the Bunnies for the first time since transferring at Leichhardt Oval.

About Billy Stevenson (506 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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