Both St. George and Manly were fairly confident when they met at WIN Stadium on Saturday evening. On the one hand, the Dragons had dominated the Bulldogs 40-4 at Jubilee the week before, while the Sea Eagles had come away with a convincing 26-18 win over the Knights in Newcastle. In addition, both teams were at the top of the table in terms of points scored in the first twenty minutes, making it doubly surprising that this turned out to be such a messy opening, and such a low-scoring affair.
Both teams had multiple opportunities to score over the first stanza, racking up enough dropouts to sustain a whole round of football, but they only came away with one try apiece, with a failed conversion from Daly Cherry-Evans and a penalty kick from Tim Lafai resulting in a 8-4 scoreline at halftime. After proving such an important finisher over the last couple of weeks, Corey Norman’s boot got things going in this game, with one of his early kicks leading to the first sustained period of St. George possession.
The kick found Jordan Pereira in the corner, who put enough pressure on Reuben Garrick for him to knock on the football, getting the Dragons an early dropout. On the next set, a kick from Cameron McInnes trapped Kane Elgey in goal, and almost led to the first Red V try of the night, as Paul Vaughan attempted a strip on the ex-Titan, who only just managed to retain control of the footy as Vaughan tried to wrench it to ground.
St. George didn’t let up, however, with Ben Hunt now driving the footy deep in goal for a third dropout, and DCE responding with a sixty metre kick that the Dragons brought back just as quickly as the previous two. By this stage, the Sea Eagles had been forced to make thirty tackles, compared to the Dragons’ thirteen, and their exhaustion showed when Apisai Koroisau knocked the footy on halfway through the set while trying to clean up a loose carry from Vaughan.
Moments later, the Dragons got an offside penalty, and yet they chose to take the two – an incredible decision given the pressure they’d tightened over the last three sets. In effect, this was a victory for the Sea Eagles, who came away only two points down after being hammered so mercilessly during the opening minutes of the match. A slow peel from Blake Lawrie now helped Manly get down the other end of the field, where Toafofoa Sipley burrowed through a pack of Dragons right beneath the uprights to almost score the first four points for the visiting team.Embed from Getty Images
The Red V got a bit of breathing-space while Sipley’s effort was examined by the bunker, but Koroisau still managed to trap Hunt in goal for a dropout, suggesting that the Sea Eagles might be about to reverse the momentum of the opening eight minutes. It all came to nothing, however, as Koroisau lost the footy in front of the posts a moment later, before being cleaned up by the St. George defence, who were clearly determined to resume their attacking advantage as quickly as possible.
A bit of a messy period now ensued, as the Sea Eagles got the ball back immediately after a handling error from Euan Aitken, only for Joel Thompson to fumble it before the Dragons could get to their kick. Things got worse for Manly at the end of the next set, when Brendan Elliot fumbled a spiraling kick from Norman that would have been difficult for even an experienced fullback to neutralise. During the next set, the Dragons seemed on the verge of consolidating, with Lawrie actually walking in goal on the first tackle, where he was held up at the last minute by a swathe of Manly jerseys.
The Sea Eagles were a bit shocked by the ease with which Lawrie had carried the football over the line, and brought a bit more energy as the Dragons moved the ball to their left edge, where Moses Suli slammed Tariq Sims to ground for the biggest hit of the night so far. On the next tackle, McInnes straightened the play with a short, hard run at the line, before Norman sent across a wide pass to Hunt, who booted the footy for Matt Dufty to slam forward and score.
With Lafai adding the extras, the Dragons were six points ahead, and had finally got their spine syncing. Nevertheless, they followed up with two unnecessary penalties, the first of which came from Vaughan, who lost the Steeden on the first tackle of the next set, and threw some verbal dissent at the referee in frustration. Moments later, Aitken condensed the team’s collective frustration with a big hit on Elliot – a bit too big, as it turned out, since he was pinged for a dangerous tackle.
The Sea Eagles now responded with another dropout, as Norman tried and failed to deflect the ball on its way in goal, where Garrick forced Pereira to send it into touch. Meanwhile, Elliot was forced to leave for an HIA, and Garrick slotted into the fullback role, with Jack Gosiewski trotting onto the field to make up the numbers. On the next set, Corey Waddell laid the platform with a tough carry, following Sipley a tackle later by almost coming up with a try right beneath the posts.Embed from Getty Images
While Waddell was further away than Sipley, he came closer to getting an arm free before the Dragons defence cleaned him up at the very last moment. Still, this was a galvanising moment for the Sea Eagles, resulting in an accelerating rhythm that culminated with a terrific ball from DCE to Gosiewski on the last tackle, only for a massive hit from Lafai to put an end to the play. The footy broke free, but by the time it came to ground it had travelled forward, and eluded Suli anyway.
Both sides were starting to get desperate, especially as injuries started to mount, with the game pausing while Thompson recovered from a slight head knock, DCE suffering a momentary ankle complaint, and Dufty finding himself stunned by a massive effort behind the Manly posts. It all came off a plosive sequence in which the St. George fullback was trapped in goal for yet another Manly dropout. Four tackles later, DCE kicked early, clearly confident of another dropout, making it a big win for the Dragons when Norman managed to bring the footy back into the field of play.
With a follow-up effort from Lafai, the Dragons were back at the twenty by the time the first tackle was completed, yet a crowding penalty from Lafai helped get the Sea Eagles to their next dropout shortly after. They opted for a deft left edge play on the third tackle, where a quick pass from DCE saw Brad Parker finally put down their first try. While DCE might have booted the conversion too far to the right, the good news was that Elliot had passed his HIA and was on the verge of returning to the field.
Nevertheless, the Sea Eagles were a try behind when they headed into the sheds – a significant deficit in such a low-scoring game. They gradually accelerated over the first fifteen minutes of the second stanza, managing to keep out the Dragons while waiting for an opportunity to exert the sustained pressure they needed for four or six more points. Finally, they got it, when Pereira dropped the footy straight out of the scrum, as Suli got the next set rolling with a big run on the opening tackle.
Once again, the Sea Eagles headed left, with Elgey sending a harbor bridge across to Jorge Taufua that was a bit too long, forcing his no. 2 to wait for it to bounce before he scooped it up into his chest. In the interim, Ravalawa got there in time to contain the play, forcing Manly to shift the ball back inside the field, where Jake Trbojevic straightened the play on the third tackle. While Gosiewski required four St. George defenders to hold him up on the fourth, the Manly attack didn’t have a lot of structure, and they only got a repeat set, and scrum feed, due to an error from Dufty.Embed from Getty Images
Their next set felt similarly meandering – strong, but meandering – as they rotated through set-up play after set-up play without congealing into a convincing tryscoring structure. First, it was a huge Lawrie-Thompson hitup, then it was a follow-up effort from Waddell in exactly the same part of the field. Next, they half-heartedly shifted the footy to the left, but the momentum was halted when Hunt cleaned up Elliott about ten metres out from the sideline.
It was all the more surprising, then, when this set ended with the deftest, quickest and most surprising sequence of the game so far. Finding himself with the footy right in front of the posts, Manase Fainu played it as quickly as possible, allowing Gosiewski to scoop it up and almost crash over then and there. With the St. George defence taken by surprise, Gosiewski was able to somehow offload backwards between his legs, where DCE caught it and slid through the defence to score, before convering his own try a moment later.
The speed, serendipity and sublimity of this try was more than enough to bring Manly back into the game, cementing a terrific period of leadership from DCE, and feeling like it might well be the final try in this low-scoring match. Only in the final five minutes of the game did the Dragons mount their comeback, when a marginal escorts penalty from Parker gave Lafai the chance to boot through a second penalty kick.
This turned out to be the second easy shot of the night that Lafai missed, spiraling the footy away to the right of the posts, and keeping the Dragons on 8-10, suggesting that the Sea Eagles might have been in for their lowest-scoring win since they beat the Roosters 8-0 in 2014. Yet the Dragons got the ball back quickly following a knock-on from Garrick, amping up their attack immediately over the next set, where only a terrific trysaver from Thompson prevented Frizell scoring off a short pass from Graham.
It all ended with one of Hunt’s best kicks of the year, as he drove the ball across to the right edge of the field, where Aitken tried to pick it up, but didn’t get a hand to it, drawing Parker and Suli in from the defence, and leaving enough space for Ravalawa to scoop it up and score his fourth consecutive four-pointer. Only Elliot got to him in time, but by this stage Ravalawa had too much momentum, grounding the ball for what would turn out to be only a two-point lead after Lafai missed another kick.Embed from Getty Images
Those two points turned out to be critical in the final moments of the game, at the tail end of DCE’s final kick, in the last second, when Lafai clearly made an escort on Garrick, but wasn’t penalised by the referees. With two points on the line, a penalty here would have taken the game into golden point, leading to some very understandable frustration from DCE in the moments after the siren. The Sea Eagles will have an axe to grind, then, when they take host the Raiders at Brookvale, while St. George will be looking for a less precarious win when they play the Roosters on ANZAC Day.