ROUND 22: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (PointsBet Stadium, 18/8/19)

Shark Park enjoyed its biggest crowd this year for the local derby between St. George and Cronulla on Sunday afternoon. The Sharks dominated possession for the first part of the game, racking up 73% of the ball by about fifteen minutes in, but it took them a while to translate their field position into points. The start of their big surge started with a slow peel from Paul Vaughan, and was followed by Josh Dugan running the ball from the right wing to the left, where Josh Morris helped force an error from Mikaele Ravalawa.

Moments later, Jayden Brailey came close to scoring, only for Corey Norman to hold him up at the last minute, while another mistake from Ravalawa got the footy back in Cronulla’s possession on the first tackle of the next St. George set. Brailey nearly put Wade Graham across on the fourth tackle, but was held up, before Gareth Widdop played at the ball, got it back, and then secured a penalty when Chad Townsend was pinged for lying in the ruck.

Nevertheless, a high tackle from Tyson Frizell, a big run from Matt Moylan, and then a mistake from Zac Lomax soon got the Sharks another shot at the St. George line. After all this possession, it was critical that the home team score first, so the crowd went wild when Brailey collected a quick play-the-ball, drew Norman in off his line, and then booted the footy past Vaughan in goal, where Aaron Woods outran Cameron McInnes to slam it to ground just before the dead ball line.

Shaun Johnson promptly added the extras after bringing the football back about six metres, and the Sharks got rolling again on the next set, starting with a superb linebreak from Graham on the left edge. With nobody coming up on the inside for support, and Graham apparently unwilling to risk passing it to Bronson Xerri or Josh Morris on his outside, the play came to an end, but the momentum carried over to the subsequent right edge sweep that got Cronulla their next six points.

This time Townsend was the key playmaker, collecting the footy in the middle of the field and shaping as if to kick, before carrying it into the line and flicking it across to Johnson on his right. Johnson and then Moylan took their cues from their halfback, bringing the Steeden a little more into the line each time, and creating enough of an overlap for Moylan to lob it over to Sosaia Feki in time for the big winger to slam past Widdop and get it to ground while remaining in the field of play.

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While Johnson’s sideline kick bounced off the post and through the uprights, his communication with Xerri a couple of sets later wasn’t so good, resulting in a botched catch-and-pass that could have been the key ingredient in a third Cronulla try. A few sets later, Graham kicked too hard, sending the ball past Morris and over the line, and gifting the Dragons the seven tackle set that led to their first try.

While Graham may have compensated for his kick with the biggest hit of the game so far on Blake Lawrie, the Dragons got some luck at the end of the set, when Hunt shifted the footy across to Aitken, who sent through a grubber that bounced horribly for Moylan, allowing Jackson Ford to scoot around him and slam down his first NRL try. With Widdop booting the extras through the posts, the Dragons had reduced the deficit to six points as the last few minutes of the first half started to wind down.

Meanwhile, Cronulla were now at eighth on the live ladder, and keen to ensure that St. George didn’t score again before the break, especially since they’ve only led at half time for four games in 2019. They got another chance to score when Korbin Sims lost the ball while trying to offload out of a tackle from Jack Williams, but followed up with one of their messiest sets of the afternoon, from Graham scooting around to gather the footy when it was played to nobody on the left edge, to Johnson bobbling and slipping over on the right to bring the set to an end.

The second half didn’t start well for the Dragons, with Ravalawa making another error – this time a botched flick pass – and Norman finding himself trapped in goal to concede an early dropout to the Sharks. A mistake from Jeremy Latimore leaked more field position, but the play was halted immediately after Moylan surged out of the scrum, and almost made his way to the chalk.

Ben Hunt was the first line of defence, but slipped as Moylan accelerated past him. He’d barely hit the deck when he copped a boot in the face from Ford, who was twisted around while trying to secure Moylan in a low tackle. Eventually, Moylan broke through Ford, who now copped Moylan’s boot in his face. Yet while Ford’s lip might have been broken, the real damage was done to Hunt, who was taken off for an HIA, leaving the Dragons without their halfback for at least fifteen minutes.

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The Sharks couldn’t capitalise on Hunt’s absence, though, or even make the most of Moylan’s earlier surge on the set, especially in the halves, with Townsend showing the ball three times on the right edge before he was cleaned up, and Johnson kicking too deep on the last. This marked the start of a period of sustained St. George possession that mirrored Cronulla’s dominance in the first half, but the Red V were unable to make the most of it, despite Moylan leaving the field with a hamstring injury.

If anything, the lasting play over these repeat sets was the hit of the night from Braden Hamlin-Uele on Sims, followed by a second tackle on Norman that was almost as bone-shattering. The Dragons got another bout of field position soon after, however, when Ravalawa made up for some of his earlier errors with a spectacular trysaver on Morris, chasing the ex-Bulldog down in goal and forcing him to knock on a Johnson kick, gifting the visitors a twenty-metre restart in the process.

On the last play, Dugan managed to bring a Widdop kick back over the try line, only for a pack effort from the Dragons to drive him back in goal. Once again, the visitors had ball in hand for a sustained period of time, with Williams reaching out a boot at the end of the dropout to cut a Norman kick short, before making the slightest of knock-ons when he reached down to scoop it up himself.

The Sharks now doubled down on defence, almost dragging Euan Aitken into touch from about ten metres in field, before St. George rapidly shifted the ball to the left, where Widdop completed the play with a harbor bridge pass to Ravalawa on the wing. While Mikaele might have got the footy back inside before Feki dragged him into touch, it was forward out of the hands, marking the thirteenth error of the night for the Dragons, and the end of another period of possession without points.

Cronulla now had the scrum feed, but offside penalty from Woods quickly got the visitors the chance that they needed. For a moment, this looked like another disappointing set for the Dragons, as Tyson Frizell was taken off the field, and replaced by Blake Lawrie after being dumped on his head following a hard run at the line. Even if he passed his HIA, he’d only be able to play a maximum of two more minutes in the game.

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In the absence of one of their biggest men, the Dragons needed a show of brute strength – and they got it from Luciano Leilua, who collected the footy about ten metres out, bumped off Townsend, twisted and spun through Graham and Williams, and reached out a left hand to get the Steeden to ground. With Widdop adding the extras downbreeze, the game was all locked up with fifteen minutes to go, closing out Round 22 with one of the tightest – and messiest – periods of football this week.

McInnes made a statement soon after with one of the best trysavers of the year, launching himself at Xerri as the young centre took on the line at speed, latching onto his torso, and somersaulting with him several times while somehow preventing him getting the Steeden down. Xerri had the last laugh, though, thanks to a superb kick from Johnson that resulted in Cronulla’s first and only try of the second half.

Booting the ball high, Johnson’s bounce was so good that it utterly defied Graham, careening over his head where it was caught on the full by Xerri. In the Bunker replay, Graham’s response was scrutinized in some detail, since it seemed likely, from some angles, that he had got a hand to the ball – if not from any visible touch, then from the deflection of the footy after it passed back above his head.

In any case, the ball went backwards, and from the moment he laid hands to the Steeden, it was clear that Xerri knew that this was the critical run of the second half. He steeled himself accordingly, tucking the footy into his chest, and storming past Lomax, Aitken and Widdop to slam it to ground, without McInnes around to hold him up a second time. With Johnson adding the extras, the Sharks resumed their six point lead three minutes out from the siren, and the Dragons simply never caught up.

All in all, then, this was one of the more heartbreaking games in a difficult year for St. George, along with one of the messiest matches in weeks, full of awkward changes in possession, double knock-ons and ungainly scrambles for the Steeden. Precariously positioned at eighth on the ladder, the Sharks will be keen to get themselves a bit more security when they host the Warriors at Pointsbet next week, while the Dragons will be playing for pride when they host the Roosters for their last game of club footy in 2019.

About Billy Stevenson (488 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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