The Dragons might have started scoring late, but they came away with a 20-10 win over the Tigers at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday night to make up – or partly make up – for their devastating 40-4 loss to Parramatta the week before. They hadn’t made a single linebreak against the Eels at ANZ Stadium, while the value of Ben Hunt had been called into question more than any point this season, so this win over the Tigers was one of the Red V’s critical moments in the buildup to finals football in 2018.
With the palm trees and goal posts both swaying in a Westerly that had been buffeting the field all day, the movement of the ball in the air was more unpredictable than usual, leading to Matt Dufty coughing up a spiralling bomb from Benji Marshall in the opening minutes of the match. A sequence of events ensued that paved the way for what would be an error-laden first act from the Tigers, despite the fact that they wouldn’t leak their first penalty until ten minutes out from the siren.
First, Luke Brooks saw his chance after the ball left Dufty’s hands, booting it forward and then scooping it up, only to knock it on himself. The Tigers still got the scrum feed, but a botched grubber from Robbie Farah marked another moment of messiness for the home team. Robbie had aimed the footy between Tim Lafai and Jack De Belin right on the line, but didn’t seem prepared for it to ricochet back off Lafai’s leg, fumbling it at the very moment at which the Tigers seemed about to consolidate.
A penalty from Kurt Mann for lifting Moses Mbye above the horizontal initially seemed to give the Tigers a fresh platform to congeal, as Brooks nearly broke through the line up through the ruck, and Russell Packer offloaded to Esan Marsters in a sequence of play that had try written all over it. Yet it all came to nothing when Mahe Fonua lost the footy right on the line, the first in a series of cough-ups at close range, with the Tigers seeming to grow more butter-fingered each time a try drew near.
That’s not to say that the Dragons were much better, since the wind now defied a 40/20 attempt from Hunt, and the home team got possession once again. Down the other end of the park, Brooks mirrored Fonua by coughing up the footy right on the chalk, and yet with Hunt called offside the black and orange army got six again, only for Matt Eisenhuth to mirror Brooks, in turn, and fumble the Steeden at close range.
With that triplicate of errors, the momentum seemed to swing back the Dragons’ way. They were still leaking penalties, the next due to a hand in the ruck from Kurt Mann, but the Tigers somehow seemed unable to make the most of them. Just as Hunt’s 40/20 attempt had fallen short earlier in the game, now Marshall somehow managed to fail to find touch after the penalty was awarded, with the Steeden actually landing a good five metres within the field of the play.
Still, each new opportunity for the Tigers seemed to give Hunt a fresh way to disappoint, as the ex-Bronco lost the footy on the final tackle of the next set, rather than kicking or running it in any convincing way. Sure, it might have tumbled back into the hands of James Graham, but by this point the home team had shut down any further play, in what was quickly becoming a nightmare match for the St. George halfback, especially after last week’s shock loss to a resurgent Parramatta.
For a moment, Hunt seemed to have found some joy after he broke through the defence at the end of a seven tackle set and reached out a hand to steady the Steeden towards the chalk. In an agonising twist for St. George supporters, however, Hunt now caught the Tigers’ curse, and lost the footy right on the line, thanks in part to a tough tackle from Mbye. The errors of Fonua, Brooks and Eisenhuth had crept over into the visiting team, but a fumble in the play-the-ball from Elijah Taylor on the next set once again prevented the Tigers capitalizing upon their possession.
By this stage – about fifteen minutes out from the siren – the game had started to take on a weird rhythm. The Tigers had been messier than the Dragons – they’d lost the ball four times on the line – but they also hadn’t leaked a single penalty. Just as the Dragons had been unable to make the most of the Tigers’ errors, so the Tigers hadn’t been able to make the most of the Dragons’ penalties. An odd kind of stalemate built in which neither team was quite strong enough to score, but not quite weak enough for the other team to decisively take the reins either.
In that kind of situation, the first team to score is often the team that wins. A fifth loss on the line, this time from Chris Lawrence, was the final boost the Dragons needed, especially since it was followed up by some awkward play from Kevin Naqiama, who lost the ball backwards to Mbye following a corner kick from Hunt. For a brief moment, the Tigers still seemed to – slightly – have the upper hand, after a slow peel from Lafai on Farah cost the Dragons their sixth penalty of the night, and Farah got a bit of closure from his Lafai-induced knock-on earlier in the game.
Nevertheless, this penalty ended up working for the visiting team in a bit of an unusual way. As Cameron McInnes was being given a formal warning on behalf of his team, the ref noticed that he was bleeding from the back of his head. The game now halted for a couple of minutes as the St. George hooker was bandaged, providing the Red V with some much-needed rest and recuperation as the Leichhardt crowd grew more agitated and frustrated with each minute that passed.
As soon as play resumed, it was clear that the Dragons had managed to steady themselves and refocus. A minute later, a deft grubber from Farah looked as if it might lead to the first dropout of the night, only for Euan Aitken to show the best judgement of the game so far and shephered it into touch, setting up a seven tackle set for the Dragons.
The visitors finally breathed fire now, as Luciano Leilua fended off Marshall and set up Mann for a linebreak down the left sideline. A quick pass to Jordan Pereira was all it took for the ex-Cutter to slam down the edge of the field, pivoting off his left foot as David Nofoaluma tried to drag him into touch, to score on the second tackle. A superb sideline conversion from Lafai saw the Dragons make it six, while the Tigers now leaked their first penalty of the match following a strip from Fonua on Macdonald a couple of minutes later.
Surprisingly, despite their recent momentum, the Dragons chose to take the two in response, so it was agonising when Lafai’s kick bounced off the uprights to keep them to a converted try lead. Nevertheless, they had kept the Tigers scoreless for forty minutes for the first time at Leichhardt since 2014, meaning that the black and orange needed to bring something particularly special to the start of the second stanza – or had to bank on the Dragons making a particularly egregious error.
What happened was more disheartening than anyone could have expected, as Benji booted the ball down the other end of the field for the kickoff, only for Hunt to lose it. The resemblances to the 2015 grand final were painfully obvious, and became even more so when Lawrence smashed to ground on the next set under a heroic tackle from Tyson Frizell, making up for his lost ball in the first stanza with his fifth try of the season for the Tigers.
From the blank look on Hunt’s face you could tell that he was reliving the grand final, or at least shocked by the similarity between the two matches, since in both cases a dropped ball had resulted immediately in points. It wasn’t just Hunt that had enabled the try, though, but some good timing from Farah and Brooks, who both came up right into the line to help Lawrence cross over – a much-needed display of professionalism and organisation after the messy opening half for the home team.
Things now went from bad to worse for Hunt, who was sinbinned after being called offside at the back end of a string of St. George penalties at the fifty-second minute. Yet the Dragons managed to hold their own with a twelve man outfit, actually keeping the score level by responding to the penalty kick from Marsters with a penalty kick of their own, thanks to an early tackle from Eisenhuth.
Sometimes adversity can serve a team well, and it may have been that Hunt’s sinbinning was actually a blessing in disguise for the Dragons, given that they managed to keep the score level during his absence. Moreover, they were the next to score, in what was probably the key turning-point of the match as a whole. The prologue was a huge tackle from Tariq Sims that forced an error from Luke Garner – a foreboding sign for the Tigers, given how effectively the big second-rower can rouse the Red V at these kind of clutch moments.
For a second, it looked as if the Tigers had got their own back, as a huge tackle from Brooks on Macdonald knocked the footy free, sending it back a metre where Farah appeared to have cleaned it up, only for the refs to discern that the ex-Rabbitoh had bobbled it ever so slightly as he gathered it on the ground. So drastic was the change in fortune for the Tigers here that it provided the Dragons with the momentum they needed, and on the next tackle Leilua went from try assister to try scorer, slamming through Marshall and Michael Chee Kam to barnstorm his way over the chalk.
After only three tries on the scoreboard, two more were scored in the last five minutes of the match. The first came from the Dragons, and was preceded by a pretty telling buildup – a bad last tackle option from Garner, an enormous floating bomb from Sims, a pair of big runs from Frizell and Mann, and finally a lost ball from Chee Kam to Leilua as the Tigers’ second-rower was getting ready to offload. From there, all it took was a short ball from McInnes for Frizell to bust through Matulino and Mbye to slam down a rousing four points from about five metres out.
The second try came from Naiqama two minutes out from the end, and while it might have bought the Tigers a bit of consolation, it couldn’t stem the river of Leichhardt supporters leaving the ground. The Dragons might have been looking for an even bigger win margin than ten points, but this still felt like a turning-point after last week’s game against the Eels, and so they’ll be looking for an even more emphatic victory when they take on the Bulldogs at home next week.