ROUND 5: St. George Illawarra Dragons v. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, 14/4/19)

Both Canterbury and St. George were coming off close games in Round 4 when they met in Kogarah on Saturday night. The Bulldogs had lost by only two points to Melbourne after an agonising missed kick from Rhyse Martin, while the Dragons had won by a single point over the Knights in Newcastle. Despite a slow start, there would be a much more dramatic scoreline here, as the Dogs suffered their worst game of the 2019 season so far with a 40-4 loss that finally allowed the Dragons to put their 0-38 capitulation to Canterbury in Round 24 last year behind them.

James Graham made the first hit-up of the game, and was followed by big efforts by Paul Vaughan and Tyson Frizell, before Corey Norman took the first kick of the game with the breeze behind him. Nick Meaney proved equal to it, and the Bulldogs were almost as good on their first set, which ended with Jack Cogger making the first bomb of the afternoon. Both teams went set for set for about four minutes, suggesting we might be in for an evenly paced game, with Corey Norman and Lachlan Lewis taking on most of the kicking duties, and Euan Aitken making the first offload.

The first mistake came about six minutes in, when Norman kicked too far and gifted the Dogs a second tackle set, but Canterbury responded with an error of their own, as Kerrod Holland knocked on a Lachlan Lewis kick just before Matt Dufty was forced to ground the footy in goal to prevent Jayden Okunbor from getting to it. Seeing a dropout turn into a turnover seemed to galvanise the Dragons, who got their first penalty moments later, for a crusher tackle from Aiden Tolman, before Ben Hunt came close to scoring on the right wing midway through the tackle count.

The Dragons now headed left, where Will Hopoate got pinged for an escort on Tim Lafai, giving them another shot at the line, and the first sustained bout of possession in the game. They chose to tap and go instead of taking the two, repeating the rhythm of the previous set by initially concentrating their energy on the right edge before opting for a rapid left sweep that saw Lafai come up with the football once again. This time, however, Hoppa made up for his escort penalty by spearheading a massive pack effort that dragged Lafai across the sideline from about seven metres in field.

While the Dragons still had the upper hand – just – there was no real sense of the torrent of points that would come later, especially since the Bulldogs seemed close to consolidating. Okunbor came close to breaking through the sideline on the next Canterbury set, before Lewis fumbled the pass on the last tackle, giving the Dragons an unexpectedly easy handover as the sun started to set over Kogarah. Lewis compounded his error with a ball strip a moment later, and St. George ferried the footy rapidly from side to side, before Hunt made good on all their right edge rhythm to send Aitken over for the first four points of the match.

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Full credit has to go to Hunt for choosing to run the ball on the last play, perfectly timing the cut-out pass that sailed across Frizell’s chest, and finding Aitken just as he was storming onto the line. Lafai now added the extras, and the Dragons clicked into gear on the next set, which ended with Hunt’s best kick so far. Nevertheless, the Dogs appeared to have scored effortlessly at the end of their next set, when Jordan Pereira leapt up to gather the footy and fumbled it, leaving it open for Corey Harawira-Naera, who stormed down the sideline to put it down in the corner.

Unfortunately for the away crowd, Hoppa had also got a hand to the football, in the second big letoff of the night for St George following their near-dropout in the opening minutes. This was probably a key turning-point in the game, since if the Dogs had scored here they might have been able to disrupt some of the Dragons’ tryscoring momentum later on, and even assure a scoreline closer to their match against Melbourne the week before. However, with Martin cleaned up on the restart before he could get to a kick, the Dragons were back on the front foot immediately, while a flowpfrom Kerrod Holland got Lafai a penalty kick a minute later.

The Dogs now ramped up their game, forcing a series of errors and a dropout from St. George over the next ten minutes, but this doldrums periods just provided a platform for Hunt to step up and showcase the leadership he’d intermittently demonstrated over the first quarter of the match. Thirty minutes in, Hunt made one of the best strips of the season, wrenching the ball out of Martin’s grasp, and making his way down the right sideline, where he was eventually brought down by a desperate combined effort from Meaney and Okunbur, but not without getting away a rapid play-the-ball in the process.

The Dragons now went went side to side, thanks to three sublime plays – a pass from Ravalawa, a pass from Norman, and a putdown from Lafai in the left corner. Ravalawa set the stage with a superb cut-out effort that sailed across the chest of  several defenders, before Norman took the footy right into the line, dummying while still managing to pass early enough to give Lafai space to slice through Hopoate and Reimis Smith for the second St. George try of the afternoon. While Lafai missed the conversion, the previous penalty kick ensured that the Red V were still a converted try ahead.

A couple of sets later, they scored off another spectacular string of passes, this time on the right edge, where McInnes and Norman set up Hunt for one of the best try assists of the game – a soaring harbor bridge pass that found Ravalawa right on the chest. The putdown was no sure thing, though, since Ravalawa seemed to trip and then tumble into the defence, in an inchoate kind of movement that he somehow used to his advantage, burrowing through a wall of Bulldogs jerseys to reach out a right hand and slam down the next four points for St. George-Illawarra. This time Lafai added the extras, bring the Dragons to 18-0 as they headed for the sheds.

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Paul Vaughan started the second stanza by skittling Meaney after he’d collected the high ball, and the Dogs lost possession on the next tackle. For a moment, it looked like the Dragons had capitalised quickly, when Dufty sent a harbor bridge pass across to Ravalawa on the first tackle, but it was called forward immediately. The wingers got the Dogs going again, with Okunbor taking the first tackle and Reimis Smith the second, before Dufty collected Lewis’ kick cleanly and started to make up for his error on the previous set. Frizell now made a big searching run on the right side of the park, but Okunbor came up with the footy, before Jacob Host conceded a penalty for crowding.

After a couple of rapid changes in possession, Canterbury had the upper hand, and got the first dropout of the second half after Pereira was forced to tap a Jack Cogger grubber into touch. Sausao Sue brought the footy ten metres forward on the first carry, before receiving a deft offload from Martin a tackle later, while a knock-on from Lafai got the Bulldogs another bout of field position. This was the best attacking sequence so far for the visitors, so it was a big momentum-killer when Okunbor handed the Steeden over to Ravalawa a tackle later, getting the Red V their third big letoff of the match.

Ravalawa followed up with the first tackle out of the scrum, before Tariq Sims made a bullocking run on the third. Host built on his second-rower’s rhythm, and came close to breaking through the line on the fourth, but Aiden Tolman collected the kick cleanly on the last, as the Bulldogs set in to try and regain the attacking advantage they’d started to glimpse on the last few sets. Meaney now looked more restless than ever, probing at the line on the fourth tackle, before Cogger booted the ball over the sideline to give his men some time to breathe as they prepared for St. George to execute their next assault on the Canterbury line.

Sims’ enthusiasm got the better of him on the next set, when he was penalised for a dangerous push under the high ball, and Meaney grew even more restless on the right side of the park, before Harawira-Naera and Jackson straightened up the play with a big run down the middle on the fourth. For a moment, the Dogs seemed to have regained their mojo from a couple of sets ago, but things now started to get messy for both sides, as the Dragons surged again on the next set, culminating with a high ball that Okunbor fumbled – but not without Ravalawa being penalised for tackling the Canterbury winger in the air.

Between Okunbor’s error and Ravalawa’s penalty, the game had now settled into a grind that belied the Dragons’ advantage on the board, as well as their acceleration at the end of the first half. With both teams getting a much-needed interchange –Graham for Frizell, Ogden for Elliott – this was starting to feel like an evenly-paced match once again. If the Dogs had managed to score a couple of tries here, they would easily have been back in contention, but they lost their last big chance at a comeback when Smith coughed up the footy right on the line on the first tackle, moments after Okunbor had been dragged back by a sterling St. George pack defence.

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The Bulldogs had lost the ball on the first tackle, and the Dragons now scored on the first tackle, capitalizing on the rapid sweeps to the wing that had worked so well during this particular game. Dufty now made up for his early forward pass, getting on the outside of Cogger to shift the footy across to Lafai. The big no. 4 responded in kind, executing a lightning-quick catch-and-pass that set up Pereira to curve back inside, slice through the defence and slam the Steeden down. While Lafai sent the ball across the front of the posts, the Red V were still comfortably ahead at 22-0, as the last quarter of the match got underway.

There had been four tries in sixty minutes, and now there were four tries in twenty minutes – three from St. George, one from Canterbury – as the score went from 18-0 to 40-4 by the time the siren rang out. The next four points came when Kerrod Holland was wrapped up right on the line, and offloaded out the back, only for the ball to find Hunt’s boot instead of another Canterbury player. In the apotheosis of all his vision and dexterity over the previous hour, Hunt kicked for himself, and slammed forward to land chest-first on the Steeden for the most rousing try of the night so far, before Lafai added the extras to skyrocket his team to a 28-0 lead.

Seventy minutes out from the end, an error in the play-the-ball from Dufty set up Martin to break through three defenders on the left edge, but there was no indication he’d got the ball to ground. A minute later, Okunbor fumbled the high ball once again, but this time there was no dangerous tackle from Ravalawa to give Canterbury possession. Instead, Hunt collected the ball cleanly and sent it across to Zac Lomax to put down another four points on the left edge of the park, before Zomax took over kicking duties from Lafai to bring the score to a staggering 34-0.

The Bulldogs now had to put down a try just to perk up their spirits during the next week of training, and they got one, two linebreaks and a Dragons dropout later, when Cogger and Hopoate sent Smith over on the right wing. It was hard to even call this a consolation try, though, since Martin missed the kick, in an awful flashback to last week’s game against the Storm, before Hunt sealed the deal with his second try of the night fifty seconds out from the siren, with Lomax’s second conversion bringing the Red V to a 40-4 scoreline that not even their most staunch supporters would have predicted from the opening minutes of the match.

This turned out to be the most spectacular set from St. George, featuring a gymnastic display in which Pereira caught the ball over the sideline and somehow managed to careen it back into the field of play, where Hunt eventually came up with it, and offloaded on the ground to Norman in the middle of the field. Norman then turned 360 degrees, considering every angle before taking a run at the posts, where he shifted the footy at the final minute to his halfback to take the final four-pointer, in the most triumphant moment of the 2019 St. George season so far.

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With a pair of tries in the last ten minutes – and a pair of tries that had bookended the only Canterbury try – the Dragons had put in one of their most solid games of 2019, and their most significant win margin of the year. It was the perfect riposte to their 0-38 loss to the Dogs at the end of 2018, and should propel them into a big game when they take on the Sea Eagles at WIN Stadium next week. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a big letdown for a Canterbury outfit hoping to recapture that enormous game, so the Dogs will be looking for a big win margin when they host the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium next Friday night.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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