ROUND 23: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Sydney Roosters (Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, 24/8/19)

The second game of the year between the Roosters and Dragons is always emotional, especially since Saints haven’t beaten the Chooks away from ANZAC Day since the 2010 grand final. A lot has changed in 2019, in particular, since that earlier match, and the Dragons’ fall from grace was intensified, on Saturday night, by two debutants who both resonated with the club’s home ground. On the one hand Billy Smith was running out for the Roosters, recalling his St. George namesake, while Tristan Sailor was carrying on Wendell’s legacy with his first match in the NRL.

Sailor made a big statement in the first second of the game, catching James Tedesco’s kickoff out on the full, before bookending the opening set with a cut-out pass to Euan Aitken that took the full brunt of Tedesco and James Tupou to shut down. The two debutants then came together for the second penalty of the night, after Smith tackled Sailor in the air at the tail end of a Luke Keary kick. Once again, the Dragons got a boost in field position, but it came to nothing when Tyson Frizell collected the footy from Gareth Widdop and made a dud offload right on the line.

Buoyed up by these two failed St. George opportunities, the Roosters consolidated over the next set, culminating with a superb sweep to the right that ended with their first try. Starting with Cooper Cronk, the Steeden moved through Keary and Tedesco before Joseph Manu planted it down in the right corner. There was no special play here, just immaculate timing, as the Chooks bunched in close enough to prevent the defence sliding across. By the time the footy reached Manu, he was moving too far for Tim Lafai to secure a low tackle, or for Jonus Pearson to come in over the top.

Despite not having kicked a goal since 2013, Cronk now sent through the first two-pointer of the match, and continued with the kicking duties while Sio Siua Taukeiaho was on the sideline. Cronk’s record now went from 1/6 to 2/7 – a great flamboyant touch to cap off the opening try – giving the Roosters that little bit more momentum to roll their way back up the park and score on the restart. This time the magic ingredient was a short kick from Keary that initially looked set to bounce over the dead ball line, or else be grounded by Sailor and Corey Norman for a dropout.

They’d reckoned without Isaac Liu, though, who showed that a prop of his size can move just as fast as the wiriest backliner, outpacing both St. George chasers to get the Steeden down just before it headed into touch. The try was even more spectacular in slow motion, where you could see both Liu’s strength and dexterity in a single gesture – his strength in the way he stretched his arms out to contend with the other chasers and maximize his reach, and his dexterity in the way he gently brought down his left hand on the ball, making sure not to knock on in the process.

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Once again Cronk added the conversion to bring the Roosters to a twelve point lead. The next try came pretty quickly, and felt like a try on the restart, so brilliantly had Sydney City built their momentum by this early point in the game. Keary set things up again with a superb short ball that sent Tedesco through the line on the left edge of the field. From there, Teddy accelerated into the Dragons’ half, looking around for someone to shift the footy to across on his inside, to continue his incredible pace.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Smith now cemented a debut for the ages. Sensing Tedesco’s indecision immediately, the ex-Kensington Saints import cut back from the outside to the inside of the field, positioning himself perfectly to continue Teddy’s momentum at exactly the right moment. Tedesco read the play perfectly in turn, sending a sublime pass across at high speed – pretty much a no-look pass – before he hit the deck and Smith continued his acceleration towards the try line.

It was a stunning linkup between the best fullback in the world and a debut player, proving how seamless the communication must be within the Roosters squad, along with Tedesco’s role as leader in that squad, and his ability to lift players around him to a new level. With Cronk adding a third conversion, the Chooks weren’t feeling the absence of Latrell Mitchell like they might have expected, putting in a performance that was almost as good as the Blues in Origin 2 and 3 without their star centre on the park.

Fifteen minutes out from half time, the Roosters got their next try, on the back of an offside penalty from James Graham. This time Keary sent Cronk deep into the line, where he managed to isolate a gap in the St. George defence, before popping the footy across to Victor Radley. By the time Radley got on the outside of Vaughan, the big St. George prop could only manage a low tackle, leaving enough scope for him to reach out a hand and slam the football down.

Taukeiaho was now back on the field to take the conversion, putting the Roosters 24 ahead with thirteen minutes left on the clock. They left the best until last, at the tail end of a pair of offloads – from Tedesco to Morris, from Morris to Manu – that dragged seven St. George defenders across to the Roosters’ right edge. Realising the deficit on the left side of the field, Cronk booted one of the best kicks of his Sydney City career across to Tupou on the other wing, facing south but sending it east for a pinpoint effort that caught the wiry winger right on the chest.

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It was one of the best kicks of 2019, precise at 35 metres as if it had been kicked from 5 metres, ending one of the most assured first halves of Roosters football this year. Things would decelerate in the second stanza, however, when the sheer desperation of the Dragons’ defence would keep the Tricolors to just one converted try, while the hosts managed to put twelve points on the clock to regain a little bit of pride as well.

Seven minutes in, Widdop tried to take control with a 40/20 kick, and while Tedesco made a heroic effort to keep it in the field of play, he ended up knocking it on, getting the Dragons the field position their captain had sought. Sailor now almost followed Smith with a try in his debut game, at the end of a rapid left formation, and actually reached out a hand to score, only for Cronk to down him with a low tackle, before Manu came in over the top for good measure.

Once again, the Roosters regathered in the face of a glimpse of St. George strength, starting with a linebreak from Radley on their next set. A tackle later, Cronk shaped as if to pass to his right, but opted for a left-handed offload back infield, where Teddy collected the footy and scored another four points for the Tricolors. This was the apex of the game – almost the apex of the season so far – for the Roosters, a dazzling synergy between fullback and halfback that was sublime precisely because it was so effortless.

In one move, they’d clinically dismantled the slight hint of a Dragons try that had emerged on the previous set. Yet Cronk’s conversion, bringing the scoreline to 34-0, would be the last Sydney City points of the game, despite 28 minutes left on the clock, as the Red V rallied to prevent this catastrophic torrent of points surging any higher. Finally, an error from Zane Tetevano and slow peel from Angus Crichton got Sailor his debut try, at the back end of a rapid sweep to the right edge from Widdop and Norman.

Sailor collected the footy at the twenty-metre line, got away from a low tackle from Smith, and then caught Tedesco on his inside, brushing off the Roosters fullback to get the football down. If Smith’s linkup with Teddy was impressive, then Sailor’s one-on-one encounter with Teddy was just as impressive, giving the Dragons a bit of confidence as the last part of the game got rolling. It felt apt that their next and final try came off a Tedesco handling error, which Norman followed with his most decisive set of the evening.

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First, Norman broke through the line, getting the Steeden across to Cameron McInnes and laying the platform for a plosive series of tackles that ended with Norman getting the ball once again. The ex-Eel now opted for a dangerous grubber to the right of the posts, unpredictable enough to defy Smith, who opened up his arms to greet it but instead saw the Steeden skittling right through. By the time it was in goal, Luciano Leilua was in place, circling around and patting it down with his left hand for the softest try of the night.

The stage could almost have been set for a Panthers-like comeback, but the Dragons failed to make much headway after these back-to-back points, leaving the score at 12-34 when the final siren rang out. All in all, then, this was another dire game for St. George in the back half of a pretty disappointing season, so they’ll be playing for pride when they host the Tigers on Sunday afternoon. On the other side of the Steeden, the Roosters will be striving to recapture this sublime string of points when they host the Panthers, while aiming for a more consistent and remunerative second half.

About Billy Stevenson (489 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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