When the Roosters hosted the Dragons for their regular ANZAC Day fixture at the SCG they were on the cusp of a historical match. If they won, it would be their best start since 1999, and they burst onto the field with determination, with James Tedesco almost scoring in the first two minutes. Only an enormous effort from Zac Lomax held him up – twice – as Teddy writhed and wriggled in the kind of stranglehold he nearly always manages to escape.
The Roosters still got the first two points, however, with Latrell Mitchell slotting through the first penalty goal moments later on the back of an escort from Corey Norman. Tariq Sims responded by intercepting a no-look pass from Jared Waerea-Hargreaves a couple of sets later, getting the Dragons their best field position so far, but Norman opted for a conservative kick on the last tackle. A fumble from Jordan Pereira at the start of the next set bolstered the Roosters’ confidence, while only a massive trysaving tackle from Tim Lafai prevented Matt Ikuvalu crossing over off a superb catch-and-pass from Joseph Manu shortly after.
The Dragons followed up with a bit of an unusual set, as Tyson Frizell and Cameron McInnes paused midway down the field as if expecting a penalty. They didn’t get one, costing St. George a bit of momentum in the process, but the Red V made up for it on their left edge, where Tim Lafai broke through the line, demanding a massive tackle from three defenders, spearheaded by Tedesco, to stop him scoring then and there. Even then, Lafai almost turned the trio of Roosters on their back, disheveling the defence enough for the Dragons to almost score on the next play.
This started under the high ball, which Boyd Cordner leapt up to catch, losing it right beneath the goal posts, only for Ben Hunt to be pinged for a marginally dangerous tackle. It was a frustrating moment for the Dragons, but things got even worse for them at the other end of the field, as Cooper Cronk booted a beautiful kick to the left corner, where Daniel Tupou outleapt Zac Lomax and collected the football, throwing it against Latrell Mitchell’s ankles moments before he hit the deck. In the slightest of beats, Mitchell steadied the ball with his foot, before scooping it up and crashing over to score before St. George knew what had hit them.
The same thing almost happened at the end of the next set. Once again Cronk kicked to Lomax, and once again Lomax failed to contain it, but this time the ball went deeper in goal, eventually skittering over the dead ball line before Cordner could ground it. With a handling error early in the next set, however, the Chooks got the ball again, and for a moment it looked as if Mitchell had scored a double, collecting the footy from Cronk on the ten metre line, before eluding Hunt with a big left foot step to slam the Steeden to ground.Embed from Getty Images
Unfortunately, the replay showed that Cordner had obstructed Host in the process, meaning that Mitchell would have to wait for his fiftieth try. Early in the next set, he leaked a penalty after Euan Aitken clamoured for a ball strip, paving the way for a stellar set that proceeded through Aitken almost breaking the line on the right edge, and ended with Norman booting through a low ball on the third tackle. It was a risky move from the ex-Eel, but it paid dividends when Tedesco failed to contain it, gifting the Dragons a scrum feed after Ikuvalu only just regathered the footy.
Immediately out of the scrum, Lomax looked set to make up for letting Mitchell through, crashing over in the right corner only for a pass from Aitken to be called forward. This was a bit of a turning-point in the first half, robbing the Dragons of the momentum they’d started to build, and putting the rhythm back in Sydney City’s hands. Moments later, Cronk executed the most dangerous bounce of the night, splitting Pereira and Dufty to get his team a much-needed dropout.
Sio Suia Taukeiaho and Jared Warea-Hargreaves now got things rolling with a big couple of carries, while Cronk followed Norman by kicking on the third. This time, he applied a bit too much pressure, but it didn’t really matter, since the Steeden still made incidental contact with Pereira as he was trying to elude Tedesco and usher it into touch. The Chooks now had a second dropout, and 63% of possession, but Lafai brought their field position to an abrupt halt, forcing an error from Angus Crichton at the start of the tackle count.
Sydney City responded by amping up their defence, keeping the Dragons within their own twenty by the fourth tackle, and regaining possession of the football about halfway down the field. At one level, the set came to nothing, after Jake Friend opted for a cut-out pass to Ikuvalu rather than the short ball needed to send Manu through the line, but mistimed the execution and sent the Steeden spiraling over the sideline instead.
Yet this error also motivated Friend to step up on the very next set, where he sent through a 40/20 out of dummy half that laid the platform for the next Roosters try. Crichton now got some closure, steamrolling his way through Norman right on the line, and getting the football to ground before Sims could hold him up. Not only had Friend and Crichton both made up for recent errors, but in combination they’d made good on Tedesco’s opening effort to muscle his way through the defence from short range, giving these four points an air of consolidation and escalation.Embed from Getty Images
With Mitchell adding the extras, the Roosters were now 14-0, and didn’t show any signs of slowing down as the half time siren drew near. Two minutes out Tedesco made a spectacular linebreak, collecting the high ball and running most of the field before he was cleaned up about fifteen metres out from the try line. In retrospect, it was perhaps fortunate that Teddy didn’t score then and there, since the replay showed that he’d been helped by an obstruction, which would have turned four points for the Tricolors into a Dragons penalty if the game had gone that way.
Back down the other end of the field, Teddy’s run was followed by two penalties from McInnes – offside and crowding – and with only fifteen seconds left on the clock Mitchell decided to take the two, only to miss his first kick of the night. Still, with a deficit of 14-0, it was clear that the Dragons needed to score – and score spectacularly – as soon as possible after returning to the park. They seemed to outdo their own expectations, however, putting down two spectacular tries that narrowed the difference to four points and cemented the first part of the second stanza as their own.
The first came from Lomax, eight minutes in, who put four points on the board off a terrific last-tackle option from Hunt, who shaped as if to kick, only to sent a cut-out pass across to Aitken, who in turn drew in Tupou and popped the footy out to his winger. This time, there was no forward pass, and Lomax crashed over to score in only his eighth first-grade game. While his conversion attempt might have faded away to the right, this was still a resounding moment for the young backliner, providing him with the same kind of closure and self-correction that Crichton and Friend had received from their tryscoring combination towards the end of the first stanza.
Moments later, Dufty utterly upstaged Tedesco’s spectacular run, collecting the ball down the Dragons’ end of field, before making his way between Crichton and Tetevano. For a while, he was in open space, before Teddy closed in, but Dufty managed to run rings around even Tedesco, shifting left and right so rapidly that the ex-Tiger actually came to ground, and could only look up as Dufty jumped over him and continued on his way. The last line of defence was the halves, but Dufty was on a runner’s high, getting on the inside of Cronk and dancing around Lam to score right beside the posts.
After such a surge of St. George adrenalin, Lomax’s conversion was always going to happen, and indeed felt like part of the same scintillating trajectory that had got Dufty over the line in the first place. The Dragons were now only a try behind, and were in prime position to take the lead, but they got two pretty big disappointments that allowed the Roosters to gradually reassert themselves.Embed from Getty Images
The first came from two of the Dragons’ big men, as Graham sent Vaughan through the line, only for the ex-Raider to slip before he could make the most of his enormous run. The Red V still had possession, but Hunt was held up agonizingly close to the chalk at the end of the next set, while it was Hunt himself who made their next error, fumbling a pass from Graham fifteen minutes out from the end, just as his team were starting to apply some serious pressure.
While both of these plays testified to Graham’s enormous impact on the field, and his increased metres this year, they both worked to sap the Dragons’ energy, which reached its lowest point about eleven metres out from the siren, when Hunt left the field with a shoulder problem that he’d sustained during the first stanza. The Red V got their last big chance when JWH reached out a boot to deflect a Norman kick, seeming to promise the visitors six again, only for Tupou to make a superhuman effort to clean up the footy on the other side of the field.
By this stage it was clear that the next team to score would win, and while the Roosters were ahead, they hadn’t put down points since the thirty-second minute. That all changed two minutes out, when the Dragons lost the footy right on their line and Taukeiaho came up with it, storming his way through the Red V before they’d even reconstituted their defensive structure for the seventh and best try of his career.
By the time the final siren rang, both teams felt as if they’d played two games, in yet another of the ANZAC Day clashes that have proven so entertaining over the last couple of years. While the Roosters went almost fifty minutes without scoring, this was still one of their most resounding wins of the year, bringing them to their best season opening since the 90s – a record they’ll be keen to improve upon when they take on the Tigers, Raiders and Broncos over the next couple of the weeks. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a heartbreaking, but galvanising game for the Dragons, who will be keen bring the same energy to their first ever game at Bankwest next Sunday night, when they take on Parramatta.