ROUND 1: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Wests Tigers (WIN Stadium, 15/3/20)

The Wests Tigers rocked up to Wollongong on Sunday afternoon for the last match of Round 1 – and the last match with live crowds for the forseeable future as Australia continues to shut down as the coronavirus pandemic spreads. Fortunately, this was a great last live match, as the Tigers took a couple of really big hits in the opening minutes of the game, and seriously struggled to regain their composure, before Benji Marshall steered them to a sterling ten point win in the second stanza – an even more impressive result in that Luke Brooks had been ruled out of the game during the captain’s run the day before, and was having scans on his calf when his team mates ran out onto the park in front of a loyal St. George-Illawarra fanbase.

Josh Aloiai took the first hit-up, and Alex Twal made some good metres up the middle of the field, where Billy Walters dummied to get Elijah Taylor in position to crash over the halfway line. Benji finished it all with a superb spiraling bomb, but Mikaele Ravalawa caught it on the full, bumped off two Tigers defenders, broke through the line, and then kicked for himself on the first tackle, storming forward to put the football down. In real time, it looked like he’d scored the first try of the Dragons’ season, but in slo-mo you could see that he bounced the ball down, rather than grounding it cleanly, since Corey Thompson had run him off his line in goal.

At first, this looked like a penalty for St. George, but the referees were so confident that Ravalawa would have scored that they awarded him a penalty try, with Zac Lomax’s conversion putting them six ahead with barely four minutes on the clock. You couldn’t have asked for a worse start to the season than conceding a penalty try on the very first set – the Tigers hadn’t even made a tackle – and so the away team stumbled a bit over the next couple of minutes, starting with an error from David Nofoaluma shortly after. Moments later, the Dragons looked to have gone back-to-back when Thompson knocked on the kick, and Tariq Sims scooped it up, twisted out of a tackle from Adam Doueihi, and kept spinning when Robert Jennings jumped in.

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So far so good for Sims, but when Josh Reynolds made it three in the tackle the pressure got to him, and he lost the Steeden on the sodden turf, marking the first of a series of escalating encounters between Sims and Reynolds over the course of the match. St. George didn’t take long to bounce back, as Tyson Frizell and Blake Lawrie made big runs on the next set, before Jennings was forced to pop a Ben Hunt kick into touch to prevent Ravalawa scoring a double. Frizell almost busted through a second tackle, and then Corey Norman and Hunt sent the footy to the right, where Tim Lafai was cleaned up, but not without a quick play-the-ball that brought Paul Vaughan right to the try line.

Norman took advantage of this rapid pace to boot through a speedy kick on the last, but this time Thompson couldn’t follow Jennings by popping the ball into touch, although it didn’t matter in the end, since while Brayden Williame might have got to the Steeden first, he only managed to pop it forward, rather than making any decisive downward motion. This was a massive letoff for the Tigers, but they were still struggling in the shadow of Ravalawa’s opening try, and couldn’t capitalise next time they had ball in hand, concluding their next set with a fairly underwhelming kick  and an even more lacklustre chase.

Things got worse when Aloiai made a second effort on the last tackle of the next St. George set, and Lawrie almost slammed over two plays later, resulting in a triple head clash that saw Taylor cop a nasty knock from Twal right beneath the posts. For the moment, Taylor was permitted to stay on the park, and he had to rally himself immediately, since the Dragons didn’t show any sign of slowing down, as Hunt swivelled around in front of the posts before making a late offload to Issac Luke that set up Lawrie for another bone-crunching run up the middle. Nevertheless, the Tigers responded with their first big statement of the night on the back of Benji’s next bomb, when three of the big men combined to prevent Luke crashing over on the last, before an offside penalty from Frizell finally got them some field position.

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Thompson received the footy from Luciano Leilua on the third, slipped out of a tackle on the right edge, and almost made it to the line, but the Tigers were unable to capitalise on this acceleration as the game was now paused to allow Thomas Mikaele to sub on for Taylor, who was finally taken off for his HIA. Aloiai steadied the ship with a big run on the next play, before the Tigers came back with one of the classiest team tries of the year – an offload from Mikaele right on the line that ricocheted off Walters before Reynolds scooped it up and popped it across to Benji. From there, Benji did his magic, dropping the footy onto his boot and sending it spinning away from Jordan Pereira into the right corner, where it bounced perfectly for Nofoaluma to gather it up with two hands for the first Tigers try of 2020.

With Benji nailing the sideline conversion – his first goal since 2013 – the game was all locked up, while Mikaele had made the quickest impact of any bench player so far in 2020. That said, he dropped the ball shortly after, and the Dragons got rolling once again, as Sims and Vaughan took big runs before Sims found himself with the Steeden in the middle of the park with no real game plan from his team. Finally, Norman took control on the left edge with a big right fend and near-linebreak, before Luke Garner collected an Issac Luke grubber, but didn’t make it back into the field of the play, giving St. George a dropout as the second quarter approached.

Luke started this play with a big run out of dummy half and a late offload to Tyrell Fuiamono, which took a big effort from Reynolds to contain. In one of the first big brainsnaps of the night, Lomax now opted to kick early, but the ball was too heavy off the boot, beating Pereira across the sideline and setting up the Tigers for a seven tackle set. Three plays in, Twal made a big step to get away from Graham, and might have broken through the line if it weren’t for a low tackle from the defence, before Adam Doueihi came up with the high ball in goal, but couldn’t ground it, partly because he was tackled in the air by Lafai and then Fuimaono, putting the Tigers two points ahead once Benji booted their first penalty goal of the year through the posts.

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Finally, the Tigers seemed to have bounced back from the shock of Ravalawa’s opening try, and they consolidated further on the next set, with Aloiai and Luciano Leilua making big runs on the third and fourth plays, before Hunt shanked the footy out on the full next time St. George got to their last tackle. Yet the worst moment for the Tigers was just around the corner, and the first time a slippery ball has really defied a player this season. One set later, Thompson collected the high ball without too much trouble, and then lost it just as quickly, leaving it open for Lomax to scoot forward, scoop it up and put down the easiest try of 2020 for the Dragons – an even more devastating and humiliating spectacle than Ravalawa’s four-pointer.

Still, the Dragons had their own handling error on the next set, when Frizell coughed up the footy while trying to get an arm away from the Leilua brothers for a late offload. Luciano, in particular, was lucky not to cop a penalty, and Sims took out his team’s frustration with a huge hit on Reynolds on the next set, before Garner was grounded with what appeared to be a head injury. He was OK to continue, but the Red V had time to recover their defensive line, meaning they were able to clean up Thompson on the right edge without too much trouble a tackle later, before Mikaele passed the ball two metres forward to Zane Musgrave, getting a laugh from Vaughan in the process.

It would have been devastating if St. George scored here, so it was relieving for the Tigers when Thompson braved three defenders for a courageous take under the high ball a moment later. Benji’s next kick paid dividends, spiraling end over end, and giving Lomax a slight taste of how Thompson must have felt, as he spilled the footy right in front of the posts, providing the Tigers the scrum feed ten metres out, and their best field position in some time. Nofoaluma started the set with a skittering, evasive run, almost breaking away from three defenders on the right edge, before Musgrove tried to reach out an arm right on the chalk, only for Josh Kerr to insert himself between ball and ground.

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Garner now drew in a mass of defenders, and a quick wraparound pass saw Aloiai straighten the play, leading to the Tigers final tackle, where we got a reprisal of the previous Reynolds-Sims collisions, resulting in a lost ball and the most emphatic defensive statement of the night so far from St. George-Illawarra. The Dragons now dug deep for two of their most energetic runs so far, only for Reynolds to blindside Hunt with a big hit that forced him to cough up the footy in turn. Both sides were feeling the frustration of a slippery ball and pitch, especially when Sims and Reynolds collided once again, four tackles into the next set, before Jennings cleaned up Lafai right on the line. The Tigers got another chance when Frizell was pinged for a late tackle, and this time Reynolds got away from Sims to start a right sweep on the third.

The sweep ended up with Luciano, where a ball knock from Pereira got the Tigers a scrum feed right in front of the posts with two and a half minutes left on the clock. This was crunch time for the away team, who stayed on the right edge for most of the play, before Benji kicked on the penultimate tackle, as both Leilua brothers converged on the footy. Joey got there before Luciano, but he clean missed the ball, begging the question of whether one Leilua might have been better than two in this particular attacking formation. The Dragons now had seven tackles to close out the first stanza, but they only got one, as a desperate hit from Nofoaluma forced Lomax to cough up a Norman pass as soon as they got ball in hand.

The visitors had forty seconds to get back on the board, and then twenty, as the Dragons slowed down the play on the first tackle, before a right sweep ended with Luciano being cleaned up on the edge of the park as the siren blew out. The Tigers got the first penalty of the second stanza, following an obstruction from Sims, and Reynolds seemed particularly galvanised, barging into four or five defenders on the left edge, only for Luciano to cough up the ball on the other side of the park on play three. Vaughan and Luke made good runs along the ruck on the next set, but Nofoaluma cleaned up Hunt’s kick without too much trouble, moving further than Vaughan and Luke combined before Benji was pinged for a marginal obstruction.

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St. George elected to take the two, and Lomax slotted their first penalty kick of the year through the posts, bringing them to a converted try lead. Vaugha then followed with a late offload to Luke on the penultimate play of the next set, and Fuimaono poked his nose through the line in turn on the last, offloading for what would have been a certain try if Sims hadn’t fumbled the footy in goal. Instead of conceding another four points, the Tigers now had seven tackles to flex their muscles – and Benji made the most of it, darting through the line on the fifth play off a superb play-the-ball from Mikaele, and shrugging Lomax out of the way to level the scoreline once he converted his own try a minute later.

Aloiai started the next set with a bone-rattling run, part of a very strong night overall from the big no. 8, collecting the ball for another carry on the fourth. Hunt responded with a spiral bomb at the end of the next St. George set, but Thompson was able to clean it up on the ground, as the breeze that had been blowing all night started to diminish, making the high ball a bit easier for both fullbacks from hereon out. Benji, Reynolds and Doueihi moved quickly up the left edge at the end of the set, and Benji bombed back to the right, where Nofoaluma collected it, got it back to Benji, recovered it again, and then kicked it himself, forcing Lomax to crash onto the football for one of his biggest defensive moves of the game so far.

The Tigers had got some of their groove back over the last few sets, and got another boost when Hunt made the hardest kick of the night on the fourth, sending the Steeden skidding into the fence behind the dead ball line. This time Nofoaluma took the first hit-up, but the Tigers lost a great attacking opportunity when Walters lost the ball on the second tackle, costing them some of the momentum they’d managed to generate over the last few minutes. Kerr now rallied with strong contact on Mikaele on tackle two, but Reynolds cleaned up Hunt before he offloaded, while Norman lost the footy forward on the final play, leaving it open for Thompson to scoop it up and shift it across to Jennings for a seven tackle set.

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Benji now gave Joey some early ball on the right edge, before the Tigers made a twenty-metre gain on the left, thanks to a quick tap from Doueihi after another St. George penalty. They were within the ten on the second tackle, and Aloiai took a run at the line on the fourth, but was shut down by Ben Hunt, in the best David-and-Goliath moment of the night. Finally, Benji tried to decompress the play with a wide ball to the left edge, where Doueihi popped it on to Jennings, only for Jenko to fumble it between his legs, and almost – but not quite – recover it before he slammed to ground in the corner, in one of the most frustrating moments so far for the Tigers.

Benji dug deep into his kicking game again at the end of the next set, resulting in a scramble right on the dead ball line that – surprisingly – came back as a try from the onfield referees. Sure enough, when it was sent upstairs, you could see that Lomax had arrived at the footy first, and tried to shepherd it into touch, before Nofoaluma and Luciano converged to try and get it down. Nofoaluma’s foot hit the chalk, meaning he was taken out of the play, but the replay showed that Luciano had reached out a hand beneath Lomax’s boot to tap the footy down first. This was the most exciting kind of try – when the tryscorer wasn’t even aware he’d scored – putting the Tigers four ahead after Benji sailed the Steeden across the front of the posts.

A ball strip got the Tigers a repeat set, and they headed right, before two former Rabbitohs went head to head as Fuimaono cleaned up Douiehi as he tried to take a Benji pass over the line. Still, the Tigers got a dropout when Lomax was forced to ground the Steeden in goal, and then another dropout when Lafai fumbled a Benji kick before popping it over the sideline. With 61% of possession in the second stanza, the Tigers had to score now or concede some momentum back to the Dragons, so it was frustrating for the away crowd when it all ended with yet another Sims-Reynolds combo – this time a short grubber from the ex-Bulldog that the big second-rower brought back into the field of play, holding his ground right on the chalk as the Tigers defence piled on.

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All of a sudden, the Dragons started to find space and move fluidly, so it was a real rhythm-killer when Nofoaluma stripped the ball back midway through the next set. Lomax then lost the footy after trying to clean up a Benji kick, and Walters dummied on tackle zero, almost making his way to the line, where Thompson now tried to make up for his error in the first half of the game. Burrowing his head into Lomax, the Tigers fullback somersaulted backwards, but was unable to ever make contact with the grass, thanks in part to a strong follow-up tackle from Sims, who crashed over on top to prevent him getting a hand free. Still, the Tigers had three more plays, as Michael Chee Kam trotted onto the park at the best possible moment.

Collecting the footy at the end of a big right sweep, Jennings now got his arm free, reached over the line, and came within nanometers of the grass, despite a big combined tackle from Lomax and Hunt. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Lafai now stormed in for the best trysaver of the season so far, getting his palm beneath the Steeden just long enough for his fullback and halfback to roll Jennings over, hold him up, and eventually contain him. Nevertheless, Benji got another dropout at the end of the set, and Lomax was once again the Dragon forced to put it dead, as the Tigers tried to translate the momentum of Thompson and Jennings’ monster runs into another four or six points on the board.

Chee Kam took the third tackle on the next set, and showcased some good footwork, only for Leilua to drop a no-look pass from Benji, bringing this sublime period of Tigers attack – and Dragons defence – to an abrupt end. From there, Frizell disposed of Benji pretty clinically on the next set, and St. George consolidated almost immediately, with two major tryscoring opportunities that – amazingly – didn’t come to fruition. On the first, Hunt dummied and stuck his head through the line, popping a one-handed flick pass across to Vaughan, for a certain try if the big no. 10 had’t dropped it. On the second, Hunt sent the ball out the back to Frizell at the forty, setting him up to break through, dummy and send the ball forward in field, where Kerr screamed in frustration to see the try Norman should have scored go begging.

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No surprise, then, that the Reynolds-Sims show climaxed a tackle later, when Sims made high contact, and was put on report. With their two best tryscoring opportunities of the night coming to nothing, the Dragons seemed to lag over the rest of the game, as Benji forced his fourth dropout at the end of the next set, with about two and a half mintues on the clock. Hunt tried to go short, but the Steeden still sailed thirty-three metres, as Chee Kam responded with a questioning, skittering run on the third, before Joey Leilua was held up over the line, and the Dragons knocked on, gifting the visitors the scrum feed as the final minute ticked down.

In one sublime final play, they completely shrugged off their lackluster opening, as Walters sent Nofolauma over the line out of the scrum, setting up the fan favourite to break through several lines of defence to put the football down. With Benji booting through a beautiful sideline conversion, the Tigers ended up ten ahead, at their first away fixture, with Luke Brooks off the park – a sterling start to their 2020 season. They’ll be looking to make it an even bigger lead next week, when they host the Knights for their first Leichhardt game of the season (although the vibe will be considerably different with fans locked out), while the Dragons will be looking to come back big when they take on a Panthers outfit flush with success after their last-minute win over the Roosters on Saturday evening.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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