ROUND 24: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (Jubilee Oval, 26/8/18)
The Dragons suffered their most traumatic loss of the last couple of years against the Dogs at the end of last season, when a shock win to Canterbury denied the Red V a shot at finals footy. It was paramount, then, they they come away with a home victory against the Berries on Sunday afternoon at Jubilee Oval, especially given how resurgent the blue and white army have been over the last couple of weeks. While Canterbury have won the most opening tries this year after the Roosters, the Dragons have won every game where they’ve scored the opening try, setting the stage for a galvanising opening act.
At first, the Dogs won the possession battle, but Tyson Frizell quickly got the Dragons back into gear with a massive run and tackle that made it clear he was every bit as willing to step up and compensate for Paul Vaughan’s absence in the front row as he did against the Wests Tigers last weekend. Josh Jackson was the casualty, leaving the field five minutes in for an HIA after smashing into the big St. George forward, as the Dragons seemed to have regained momentum after a dominant couple of minutes for Canterbury-Bankstown.
Nevertheless, a couple of St. George errors – most notably a forward pass from Tim Lafai – meant that the hosts couldn’t quite make good on this shift in fortune, leaving room for Lachlan Lewis to start to put some serious pressure on their defence. It started with a great kick from the young five-eighth to trap Nene Macdonald in the in goal area, and lef to a sustained period of field position and possession that saw the Dragons scrambling to defend their line.
It ended with a Lewis grubber off the left boot – a short ball that only went about two metres, but just enough to get on the inside of the St. George defence, setting up perfectly for Brett Morris to scoot in, scoop it up and curve round to ground it beneath the posts. For the first time of the afternoon, Jason Nightingale felt exposed at fullback, although he shifted position anyway shortly afterwards when Euan Aitken was taken off with a hamstring issue, leaving the Dragons with an even more depleted team.
The Dogs now proved that their early lead was no coincidence, as Reimis Smith proceeded to put in a prodigious pair of tries – one from long range, one from short range – that will surely come to be seen as a pivotal moment in his evolution as a player, as well as a key point of reference when it comes to his contention for international representation.
The first came after Will Hopoate worked his way through a tackle from Ben Hunt after gathering up the high ball, busting through a couple of other incipient hit-ups before getting the footy across to Kerrod Holland, who offladed it to Smith a moment later. Reading the ruck perfectly, the young winger dodged his way around a couple of defenders before breaking into open space, with Jack De Belin sensing the play but slipping over as he dashed across to attempt a tackle.
The last line of defence was Matt Dufty, who burned up the field but was unable to prevent Smith from getting on his outside, finally aiming for a desperate ankle tap that did manage to get his target around the legs, but just gave the Canterbury backliner an opportunity to show how dexterously he could dispose of him, and then regain his balance at high speed. Eighty metres from start to finish, it was one of the best runs of the year, and with Rhyse Martin taken off for an injury shortly before, Holland bookended the play with his first conversion of 2018.
Smith wasn’t done yet, however, since a couple of sets later the Dogs executed a deft right sweep, with Holland once again playing the role of try assister with a catch-and-pass that saw his winger beat Lafai in the corner with a left-handed putdown. Watching the grounding in slow motion, you could have almost believe that Smith was also thinking in slow motion, so deliberately did he organise his legs and torso at speed to stay in the air before he got the Steeden to earth.
Shortly before the break Holland put down the football for what looked like yet another Canterbury try, only for a strip from Fualalo on Pereira earlier in the play to result in a ruling of no try. It was a potential turning-point for the Dragons, since it would have been hard from them to come back from four straight tries from the Dogs, but they didn’t take advantage of it, with Leilua losing the footy after Kurt Mann threw the ball too hard just when they should have been consolidating their attack.
A forward pass from Hunt right on the siren said it all, and with Jason Nightingale dislocating his elbow several minutes into the second stanza it was clear the the Red V were going to have to produce something pretty special to regain control of the game, especially since their biggest comeback in 2018 has been from 14 points behind. Yet this was just when Hoppa and Lewis chose to consolidate further – Hoppa with some great work under the high ball and some big metres up the middle of the field, Lewis by forcing a handling error with a tackle on Tariq Sims.
A crossfield bomb from Lewis then forced a knock-on from the Dragons, leading to a penalty on Cameron McInnes for a slow peel immediately after. With Holland opting to take the two, the visitors were now twenty ahead as the rain really started to set in and a sombre wintry atmosphere settled over the field. Nevertheless, an error from Josh Morris and then a penalty for some verbal dissent gave the hosts another platform, and to their credit they managed some big runs and hit-ups, but the Dogs contained everything. On the last tackle, Hunt found himself short of options and left the kick too late, eventually sending it off his knee for Morris to scoop up and carry ten metres.
Frustration now started to dictate the Dragons game. At the end of the next set, Hunt kicked too hard, gifting the Bulldogs a seven tackle set after Hoppa allowed the footy to bounce into touch. Shortly after, Graham was penalised for working Holland on the ground, part of a feisty night from the ex-Bulldog that had seen him take umbrage with a camera operator trying to get too close after Nightingale after he had been led from the field earlier in the game.
As if things couldn’t get any worse for the Dragons, McInnes’ head now made contact with Danny Fualalo’s knee during a heroic trysaving effort right on the line, leading to yet another St. George player being led from the field. Lewis responded with the best kick of the night – a stunning long ball from within the Dogs’ forty that came to ground right on the try line, trapping Macdonald in the goal. The Dragons opted for a short dropout, but Holland cleared it up brilliantly, setting the scene for a set of six that saw Canterbury get their fifth dropout a minute later.
This time, St. George opted for a mid-range kick. Once again, Holland was in position, but he lost it to Pereira, only for De Belin to be caught with it at the end of the final tackle of the next set. No tries had been scored this stanza, and yet so much was working in the Bulldogs’ favour that it seemed almost inevitable that the visitors would effect something special in this back quarter of the match.
Still, it was one of the most incredible moments of the 2018 NRL season when Reimis Smith came up with his third try, and his second off a kick return, let alone that these four points bore such a resemblance to his magnificent opening effort. This time, Hoppa removed Holland from the equation, sending the footy straight across to his winger, who sped up through the line, leaving Leilua scrambling behind him, and once again found himself in a one-on-one contest with Dufty as last line of defence.
Whereas Smith had got on the outside of Dufty last time, he now showcased some deft footwork to get back in on the inside, getting the Steeden down beneath the posts for a try that will surely sustain Canterbury-Bankstown as they work on their team spirit over the 2019 pre-season. Even then, though, the Dogs weren’t done, with Adam Elliott putting in a massive tackle to force a handling error from Jeremy Latimore a few sets later, setting up Jeremy Marshall-King for a huge run down the middle of the field.
From there, Holland sent a long ball out to Josh Morris, who took it far enough to get it across to brother Brett to score in the left corner – and perhaps even a little too far, since the pass was possibly a little forward. Nevertheless, the try was awarded, as the crowd really started to pour out of Jubilee, which now looked about half as full as it had been when the match started.
The Dogs weren’t done, however, with Ofahiki Ogden adding insult to injury to both Dufty and Latimore by slamming through them from short range to score the first try of his NRL career beneath the posts. For the first time since Round 18 2013, the Dogs had kept a team scoreless, while the Dragons had been reminded of their finals-crushing loss to Canterbury-Bankstown last year in the most painful way. This time, they’re still guaranteed a berth, but they’ll need a very convincing performance against the Knights next week to regain some pride for the first week of finals.
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