ROUND 9: New Zealand Warriors v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (Suncorp Stadium, 11/5/19)

The Warriors had been doubled by the Knights at Mount Smart in Round 8, and the Dragons had almost been doubled by Parramatta at Bankwest, so both teams were raring for a win when they met at Suncorp on Saturday night for the fifth game of Magic Round. Since St. George had beaten the Broncos in a Round 3 thriller at Suncorp, they seemed as if they might be marginally more confident at this particular venue, although Kodi Nikorima would also have been particularly keen to come away with a win for his first game back in Brisbane in New Zealand colours.

Nikorima poked his nose on the fourth tackle of the first New Zealand set, before the Warriors dragged Matt Dufty back to the ten metre line after he’d collected the first high ball from the hosts. Things got better for New Zealand when Ben Hunt’s next kick went too long, and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck followed Nikorima with a near-linebreak, but on the whole the Warriors didn’t do much with this early burst of field position, since Hunt made up for his overlong kick by cleaning up Blake Green’s grubber on the fifth, before curving back through the posts to avoid a dropout.

Hunt might have lost the Steeden after Isaiah Papali’i’ attempted a strip, but Jordan Pereira scooped it up, giving the Dragons a big letoff, and an unexpected surge of momentum, after a pretty good opening for New Zealand. Dufty now made some big metres up the middle of the field, and Cameron McInnes sent a superb wide ball out of dummy half to initiate a rapid left edge sweep that culminated with some big questions from Pereira up the side of the field. Both surges culminated with Tyson Frizell collecting a Ben Hunt kick, rolling over and offloading to Zac Lomaz, who briefly considered passing to Mikaele Ravalawa before slamming over himself.

With Lomax adding the extras, the Dragons were on a roll, as Blake Lawrie took the first hit of the restart, and Ravalawa drew in three New Zealand defenders to hold him up on the second tackle. The third tackle was the treat, as Paul Vaughan collected a close-range offload from James Graham, stuck his head through the line, and offloaded to Jai Field, who stormed into open space, careening and curving towards the right corner to beat RTS over the line for his first try in the NRL. St. George had now excelled on both sides of the park, and seemed destined to utterly dominated the Warriors if they continued with the same rhythm and focus.

For a moment, it looked like they might actually reprise their last try, as Graham glanced over to Vaughan on the restart as if wondering whether it was worth simply repeating the previous play. Yet their momentum now took a bit of a hit, as Lawrie subbed off early following a knock on the head, and Vaughan leaked the first penalty of the game for a slow peel on the next New Zealand set. The Warriors very nearly capitalised immediately, as David Fusitua slid up the right side, sending the footy back in field at the very last minute, where the Dragons conceded a fresh set of six, marking the next moment in the game where rapid sideline play produced points.

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The Warriors made good on their next set, as Agnatius Paasi crashed over off a short pass from Nathaniel Roache out of dummy half, marking the first really poor defensive display of the game from the Dragons. With Patrick Herbert converting from right beside the posts, the deficit was narrowed to four points, as Lomax sent the kickoff deep into the left corner, and the Dragons tried to trap New Zealand in their own end. A set later, Field came up with the best last-tackle kick of his career to date, splitting the New Zealand backline, and setting up the Red V to get the ball back. Now it was the Dragons’ turn to make a big push up the right side, where Lomax made a superb offload miliseconds before the Warriors put him into touch.

As with the Warriors a few sets ago, the Red V now got a call of six again, but Papali’i responded with the first and best penalty of the game for the Warriors – a slow peel – since this allowed New Zealand to catch their breath and reform their line right when the Dragons were on the cusp of accelerating beyond their control. For that reason, the Red V elected to take the two, but they didn’t have to wait long for their next repeat set, which came after a Ben Hunt kick ricocheted off the New Zealand defence. For a Warriors defence that were starting to tire, and probably would have capitulated without Papali’i’s penalty, this was the tipping-point, especially since Vaughan exhausted them further with a mammoth run on the very first tackle.

No surprise, then, that their next try came down to sheer strength, as Cameron McInnes burst out of dummy half, and ran over both Roache and Papali’i to score the next four points beneath the posts, putting St. George triple New Zealand at 6-18 once Lomax booted through his third goal. Nevertheless, these would be the last points that the Dragons would score all night, as the Warriors used the second stanza to put twenty unanswered points on the visitors and come away with a 26-18 win. In retrospect, you could see the shift almost immediately, as Lomax made the first handling error on the restart, but New Zealand were still unable to score this half, despite three successive penalties for St. George as the siren approached.

Graham almost sent Dufty through the line on the first Dragons set after the break, but Blake Green responded with a potentially tryscoring tackle around the ankles, before Roache broke into open space three tackles into the next New Zealand set. The Warrors lost thirty metres on the fourth tackle, but Maumalo managed to trap Ravalawa in the right corner on the last to get his men another shot at the line. This second set was just what the hosts needed to consolidate, and they did so at the tail end of a superb left edge sweep that started with an early ball from Green to Nikorima. The ex-Bronco then sent an outside ball to Peta Hiku, who tricked Ravalawa with a dummy flick to Maumalo before crashing over the line himself.

Patrick Herbert seemed to be channeling Shaun Johnson as he contemplated the space between the footy and the posts, measuring the angle perfectly to add a spectacular sideline conversion for his first kicking game in the NRL. Tyson Frizell was just as hungry as Dufty for a linebreak on the next St. George set, but once again the New Zealand defence stayed strong, with RTS cleaning up a solid Ben Hunt kick with no convincing chase from the Red V’s outside backs. The Warriors felt like they could have scored on the next set, but they took a hit when Jazz Tevaga was taken off for an HIA after a big clash with Graham, forcing Paasi back on earlier than expected.

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On the other side of the Steeden, the Dragons were only up to their second interchange a minute later, when Jacob Host came on for Blake Lawrie. Immediately energized by this replacement, St. George executed with a much more convincing kick chase on the next set, when Lomax collected a Hunt kick in the air, and shifted it across to Ravalawa, who would have put down four points if Lomax hadn’t knocked on while trying to outleap Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. The no. 5 hadn’t been able to score a try, but he did save a try a set later, when he made the best defensive run of the night to preventing Maumalo from scoring beneath the St. George high ball.

After a strong opening to this second stanza from New Zealand, things seemed to be levelling up again, as the Dragons felt as if they could regain total control of the game if they managed to secure the next try. For a while, both teams went set for set, as the Warriors shut down a pair of big bombs from Ben Hunt, but were unable to make much headway at the other end of the park. The tipping-point came when Luciano Leilua leaked a penalty for crowding, turning what had started as a fairly standard New Zealand set into their next big tryscoring opportunity. This sequence was all RTS, who took the second and fourth tackles, before sending out a sublime cut-out pass on the last that Herbert caught-and-passed to Fusitua on the corner.

This was only the second try in Fusitua’s 2019 season, making these four points feel even more eventful. While Dufty had been raring for a linebreak over the last ten minutes, RTS had also won the battle of the fullbacks for the moment, bringing the Warriors to 18-18 once Herbert booted two more through the posts. Between the assurance of RTS’s experience and the precision with which Herbert had stepped up as goalkicker, the Warriors had finally settled into the momentum they needed to win this match. Nevertheless, they wouldn’t score their last two points until the final ten minutes of the game, despite a pair of spectacular kick bombs around the sixty minute mark.

As with so much of this match, the next big sequence came on the back of a repeat set, but this time it was a second St. George set that produced points for New Zealand. This sequence pretty much came down to a sustained tousle between Hunt and RTS, starting with Hunt’s best kick of the night, which defied several Warriors before the New Zealand fullback popped it into touch at the last minute. Yet RTS’ boot proved even more remunerative on the restart, as the Steeden sailed through the air so slipperily that Hunt coughed up the catch, in a horrible flashback to the dying moments of the 2015 grand final. This repeat set should have been when the Dragons consolidated, but instead they had channelled the most traumatic grand final error this century, so it was no surprise the Warriors accelerated from here.

They capitalised on the very next set, asking some big questions on the left edge before scoring off a sequence that started with RTS initiating a left sweep, and ended with a defensive error from Hunt that allowed Maumalo to plough over untouched in the corner. This was the silkiest sequence of passes all night, as the Steeden moved through Tohu Harris and Peta Hiku before the Dragons could adapt to the play, while full credit also has to go to Blake Green for the abrupt shift in his fullback’s direction after appearing to dummy right. With Herbert’s kick swerving away to the left of the posts, the Red V had lost a significant lead for the second time in two weeks, bringing back bad memories of their loss to Parramatta last Sunday.

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The Warriors now got a repeat set immediately following a touch from Ravalawa, who also did the Dragons a favour by getting them some breathing space right as New Zealand looked set to consolidate down his side of the field. Once again, New Zealand headed left, and once again Green abruptly shifted the direction of play, almost sending Leeson Ah Mau across on the right side of the posts, on the fourth tackle. By the time that RTS had moved back to the left edge, he’d been pinged for being offside – a rare error from the New Zealand fullback during this stellar game, and the second last major tryscoring opportunity that the Dragons would enjoy.

Ravalawa now made an excellent run on the third tackle, but RTS was there to clean him up. In response, St. George tried to mirror the Warriors’ superb left sweeps with three enormous cut-out passes a tackle later, but it came to nothing when Ravalawa knocked the footy on shortly after. Karl Lawton now stepped up to dominate the final minutes of the game, making terrific metres on the second tackle of the next set, and laying the foundation for Burr and Tevaga to get the Warriors forty metres out with two up their sleeve. The next sequence had a ring of pure football elegance about it, as Hiku popped Green’s bomb into Maumalo’s hands, but with an on field ruling of no try the Bunker was unable to prove he had definitively knocked it back.

This was the critical set for the Dragons, so when a Frizell offload bounced past Ravalawa and over the line it felt like the Warriors had effectively won the match. They weren’t content to rest on a four point lead, though, as Lawton made the best run of the game so far, storming fifty metres to break through the line, taking the Dragons so unexpectedly that they never quite recovered enough to prevent Nikorima sending Hiku across the chalk with less than a minute left on the clock. New Zealand had gone from 6-18 to 26-18, in one of the best comebacks of the 2019 season, so they’ll be pumped for a big win when they meet the Panthers at Penrith on Friday night. Meanwhile, this was a pretty heavy loss for the Dragons, and for Hunt in particular, so they’ll be steeling themselves to take on a Knights outfit buoyed up by their win over the Bulldogs when they travel to Mudgee next week.

About Billy Stevenson (750 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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