ROUND 24: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Wests Tigers (SCG, 1/9/19)

The Dragons-Tigers game on Sunday afternoon started as the Sharks-Raiders game was in the midst of golden point, an overlap that captured all the tension of the last couple of rounds before finals footy begins. The Tigers needed the Raiders to win, and they did, thanks to a field goal from Aidan Sezer, setting up next weekend’s match between Cronulla and the Tigers at Lechhardt as a sudden-death standoff, and making it critical for the Knights that the Sharks come away with the win here.

The Tigers were the first to score, thanks to some quick thinking from Luke Brooks, who won an early battle of the halfbacks by scooping up a Ben Hunt grubber, and almost making it to the ten metre line. The visitors quickly capitalised on Brooksy’s momentum with a right sweep that culminated with a massive pass from Benji that found Paul Momirovski right on the chest. Taking advantage of the sudden acceleration in attack, the ex-Rooster dodged around Jonus Pearson and scooted back inside to put down the first four points of the afternoon.

The next big moment was an intricate sequence of play that initially looked like it might be a try for the Dragons. It started with Pearson knocking a Ben Hunt bomb backwards, where Widdop caught it on the full, and grubbered it off the right boot, despite James Graham running a hard line and clamouring for it on his inside. Corey Thompson then knocked the footy on while trying to bring it to ground, allowing Pearson to regain possession and muscle through David Nofoaluma and Thomas Mikaele right on the chalk.

With Pearson losing control of the football, there was a question of a strip, but the replay showed that this had just been a handling error. Still, the Dragons got the scrum feed, since Thompson had made the first knock-on, and made the most of their next set, starting with a trio of big runs from James Graham, Tyson Frizell and Paul Vaughan, who all came close to crashing over. They then changed tack, opting for a quick sweep that saw Hunt collect a pass so wide it bounced on the ground, and then shift it across to Widdop for a grubber on the right edge of the park.

Robert Jennings had the right instincts, launching himself on the Steeden in goal, but he’d counted without a terrific tackle from Zac Lomax, who prevented the big winger from ever securing the Steeden, leaving it open for Euan Aitken to plant it down with the right hand a second later. With Widdop sending the extras through the posts, the score was locked up at six all, and the Dragons had flexed their muscles for the first time in the game, pairing the power of their forwards with the dexterity of their halves.

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Nevertheless, two St. George players were now defied by the hard surface of the SCG. First it was Tristan Sailor, who made his way through a maelstrom of defenders only to bounce the footy instead of grounding it. The Dragons still got a penalty kick after an escort from Momirovski in backplay, but the near-try seemed to decelerate them, especially when Graham had a similar experience fifteen minutes out from the siren. Sailing horizontally through the air, the big prop almost ground a grubber right on the dead ball line with the tips of his fingers, but lost possession at the last moment, seeing the Steeden bounce up in front of his eyes like Sailor before him.

These two near-tries put a bit of a dent in the Dragons’ momentum, and the Tigers took advantage of it, culminating with a one-on-one strip from Brooks that set them up for their next four points. At the other end of the field, Brooks sent a sneaky grubber through the defence, and Luke Garner put the footy down with Lomax and Sailor converging behind him, after Aitken had slipped over on his way to the try line. Again, Momorovski made the conversion, as Josh Reynolds trotted onto the park to give his team a fresh burst of energy.

The Dragons got their last big attacking opportunity of the first stanza at the back of a Hunt bomb. While Thompson collected it cleanly, he was dragged over the sideline by Pearson. This wouldn’t be Thompson’s worst experience under the high ball of the game, but for the moment the Tigers held on, as Jackson lost the footy during a tackle from Esan Marsters on the right side of the field. Incredibly, though, St. George recovered the ball from the Tigers’ scrum feed, as Sailor ferried it over to their left edge before Korbin Sims straightened up the play.

Luckily for the Tigers, Tim Lafai was cleaned up on the last tackle, but the shock of this sudden change in possession meant that they needed to score the next try, and to score it as spectacularly as the Dragons had won the scrum feed. Four and a half minutes into the second stanza they got their opportunity, as Widdop responded to a wide pass from Hunt by sending an equally relaxed ball out to Lafai, right on the St. George line. Momirovski saw his chance, intercepting Widdop’s pass, and getting away from the defence, with Nofoaluma storming up on his outside.

As it turned out, Momirovski didn’t need Nofa, coming to ground beneath the uprights with only Ford hot in pursuit, before adding the extras to put the Tigers ten points ahead. For a moment, it felt likely that the visitors would capitalise upon this incredible surge from Momirovski, but they took a bit of a blow when Chris Lawrence was taken off for an HIA a set later, and Michael Chee Kam subbed on a bit earlier than expected, as the crowd were treated to the painful spectacle of Lawrence’s face, still scarred from his earlier injury, smashing into Widdop’s torso.

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While this tempered the Tigers’ drive, nobody would have expected the Dragons to score as quickly as they did – not even the Dragons themselves – as a fairly nondescript set, and a fairly standard Ben Hunt bomb, ended with the worst handling error from any team in weeks. Reaching out his hands for the high ball, Thompson bumped it backwards, where it almost landed right on Sailor’s chest, before tumbling to ground right in front of Widdop.

No surprise, then, that the outgoing St. George captain made the most of it, scoring a try for his final home game as a Dragon, before adding the extras to narrow the deficit to four points. Yet the Tigers gradually expanded it again, starting with two tries that both came off St. George errors, and both of which depended on some of Benji’s most focused vision all year, gradually putting the horror of Thompson’s handling error behind them as they settled into one of their best grooves of the 2019 season.

The first play started with a penalty from Felise Kaufusi for a slow peel, and saw Benji take a quick tap to get the footy up the Dragons’ end. The Tigers put in a good searching set, moving the Steeden from one side of the park to the other, but the Dragons’ defence was just as good, only faltering on the very last play, when Pearson knocked it on while trying to prevent Nofoaluma cleaning up on the right edge. Benji got things rolling on the first tackle of the repeat set by dancing and doging around Graham, where he was cleaned up by the Saints’ second line of defence, before some good footwork from Brooks very nearly got Mikaele over beneath the posts.

Benji then took control again, dummying a couple of times before sailing the Steeden across Chee Kam’s chest for Momirovski, who headed back inside, barged his way through a trio of St. George defenders, and reached out a hand to score. This was Momirovski’s first hat trick in the NRL, and put the Tigers ten points ahead once he added the extras, but their momentum took a hit a few sets later when a massive trysaver from Frizell prevented Mikaele putting down his first NRL try directly beneath the uprights.

Trying to take advantage of the shift in rhythm, Hunt opted for a 40/20, but the footy went out on the full, setting up the Tigers for their next six points. Reynolds got the set moving with a skittering, searching run to the left, where Thompson put on some Benji-like moves to almost dodge his way around the defence to score then and there. The Tiges sent the Steeden back inside, before Benji condensed all his brilliance at the back end of this season into a sublime run right to the line that saw him get the footy down under Hunt, for his first try against his old club since 2011.

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By this stage, the Tigers had clearly won the game, and kept their finals hopes alive. The icing on the cake came when Sailor collected the footy from Hunt and grubbered directly into the defensive line, where the Steeden ricocheted off Brooks’ body without ever conclusively making contact with his hands. It was partly luck, but also partly skill, since in slow motion you could see that Brooksy had deliberately held his hands out so that they wrapped around Sailor, rather than touching the ball.

From there, Brooks scooped up the Steeden and burst into open space, storming his way up the sideline like he was reprising his stunning debut match at the SCG, bringing the scoreline to 36-14 once Momirovski had added yet another conversion –  not all that different a scoreline from the 34-18 victory the Tigers enjoyed over St. George in Round 24, 2013. Yet the Tigers still weren’t done, as Elijah Taylor followed Brooks with a breakout effort that was less fluid, but even more spectacular.

This play started with Reynolds busting through a tackle in the middle of the field and making his way through the line, passing the ball to Taylor at just the right moment for his forward to continue his momentum. As Widdop and Nofoaluma surged up on his outside, Taylor dummied, and seemed set to pass, before slipping to ground. It didn’t dampen his speed, however, since he got up straight away, continued his run to the line, and dummied once again, before realising that he could beat Ford and ground the Steeden himself beneath the posts.

While it might have been an arm wrestle during the opening minutes, the second stanza accelerated into one of the Tigers’ best efforts this season – a greatest hits package that puts them in a terrific head space to host the Sharks for next week’s sudden death match at Leichhardt Oval. On the other side of the Steeden, this cemented some of the disappointments of the later half of 2019 for the Dragons, especially with Lomax and McInnes both off during the second stanza, so they’ll be looking to go out with a bang when they travel to Robina to take on the Titans next Saturday night.

About Billy Stevenson (739 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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