ROUND 4: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (Bankwest Stadium, 8/6/20)
Kieran Foran was back after his shoulder reconstruction, and the Dragons were held scoreless against the Warriors last week in Gosford, so both teams had a point to prove when they met at Bankwest for a rare Monday afternoon match at the close of the long weekend. Will Hopoate was back in the fullback jersey after a few appearances by Dallin Watene Zelezniak, and collected the first high ball cleanly, but the Bulldogs quickly lost momentum, as St. George got the first restart on their next set. The call came late, so Corey Norman chipped on the first, still thinking it was the last, but he still managed to wrap up the football a second later. This surprised Canterbury, who were lucky when Lachlan Lewis avoided a professional foul after wrapping himself around Ben Hunt in response – and luckier still when the Dragons opted to take the two rather than work at the line, since they’d built up enough energy to have a good chance at scoring here. Zac Lomax added the goal and Tyson Frizell took the next hit-up off the restart, but Nick Meaney was able to collect the next kick pretty easily, only for Lewis to pass over the sideline after a terrific fourth tackle run from Adam Elliott.
Cameron McInnes made good metres on the next set, and Adam Clune took the final kick, sending it into the right corner, where the Bulldogs managed to secure a seven tackle set. They swept right on the third play, and continued the sweep on their fourth, only for DWZ to knock on during a tackle from Frizell, bringing an abrupt end to what had been their best set so far. They now needed to keep the Dragons in their own end to retain some of this rhythm, but Tariq Sims, Tyson Frizell and Josh Kerr responded with a trio of big runs, greeting the Dogs at the thirty before Hopoate collected his second high kick of the afternoon. For the third time, however, Canterbury couldn’t get to their final play, since Raymond Faitala-Mariner now made an error to gift the Dragons the scrum feed. McInnes made another searching run on the fourth, and then Hunt sent through a deft grubber at the tail end of a rapid play across the ruck, but Hoppa was safe, and managed to bring the football back into the field of play.Embed from Getty Images
This was the most fluid sequence so far for St. George, and Hunt’s best play so far, which is perhaps why Lewis compensated with his trickiest effort at the end of the next set – a floating bomb that bounced at several oblique angles, forcing Norman to contend with a huge chase from Foran as he waited until it was safe to regather. By contrast, the Dragons now had their worst final play of the night – an awkward pass on the penultimate tackle and then a bad run of the football by Hunt, who was caught up by the Dogs before they received a six again call on their very next play. Three plays later, Foran made the toughest attacking move of the night, drawing in Vaughan, Norman and Frizell a metre out from the line, but the energy fizzled when Hopoate let a wide ball slip off his right hand and bounce across to the sideline, where Jordan Pereira could have let it tumble into touch, but instead made a play at it, gifting the Bulldogs a scrum feed at the ten metre line, only for the same thing to happen in reverse, as Foran coughed up a similar pass on the other side of the park.
With the Dogs sitting at 4/8 completed sets, this was a pretty dire way for Foran to return to the footy field – and Reimis Smith took out his frustration in a pretty uncharacteristic manner on the next play, grinding his knee into Mikaele Ravalwa’s jaw, but somehow avoiding the sin bin, despite being put on report. One tackle later, the Red V got a pair of successive restarts, and had to score now to capitalise on the accumulating Canterbury errors over the last ten minutes – or least secure another bout of field position to exhaust the blue and white army. Instead, Lewis forced a mistake from Sims with a heroic low tackle, and the Dogs got their own restart on the first play, while Smith made carries on the next and third tackle, to help burn off some of the frustration of his infringement on Ravalawa. Smith’s last carry ended with a rapid play-the-ball that started the left sweep that ended with the first dropout of the night, secured by a deft Lewis grubber that Ravalawa was forced to tap into touch.Embed from Getty Images
Norman went long with the kick, but the Dogs were still galvanised by the rapid turnaround in the wake of Lewis’ tackle on Sims, as Tolman made twenty metres to bring them back to the Dragons’ twenty by the time Josh Jackson played the footy a couple of tackles later. With each new play the Bulldogs accelerated – the long kick almost worked to their advantage in that respect – culminating with Elliott barging through a combined tackle from McInnes, Norman and Hunt to slam down the first try of the afternoon to the left of the posts. This was a barnstorming effort from the big second-rower, who collected his first four-pointer since Round 3 against the Tigers last year, but it was also a deft deception play, since in slow motion you could see how perfectly Elliott had timed the dummy after collecting the footy from Tolman, getting around Kerr and opening up just enough space to get the Steeden down. With Meaney adding the extras, the Dogs were a try ahead, and Lewis sent through a monster kick on the restart, although Norman was up to the challenge, ferrying it up the field as Trent Merrin subbed on for Josh Kerr.
Lewis and Hunt went bomb-for-bomb over the next few sets, before Meaney booted through a penalty kick after Frizell was pinged for holding down. Meaney got a second two-pointer following the Bulldogs’ next dropout, and by the time the siren arrived Canterbury had really recovered, completing all 14/14 of their sets since the 17th minute, as opposed to the Dragons’ 7/11. Conversely, the Dragons returned from the sheds without having scored a try in 136 minutes of football, so this was crunch time for the Mary Maguire era, and for the Red V game plan as it currently stands. They got some early field position after a dangerous tackle from Jake Averillo, but the young winger made up for his mistake with a heroic effort to force an error from Sims, before this brief burst for the Dragons came to an end with a marginal forward pass from Norman, who made a second error beneath a Foran kick a minute later, handing the Dogs their best attacking position since the siren.Embed from Getty Images
They headed left straight out of the scrum, where they would have scored off a three-on-two if Lomax hadn’t knocked down the ball, but the Red V didn’t seem to learn from this formation, since the Dogs opted for exactly the same play out of the next scrum, after a brief foray on the right side of the field for the first tackle. This second left sweep was so clinical that it felt like a training run, starting with a quick pair of passes from Foran and Lewis, who had been synergizing much better in the second half, and ending with Hoppa carrying the Steeden deep into the line before popping a harbour bridge pass across for Meaney to score in the corner. The first time around Lomax had saved the try, but the second time his defensive decision contributed to it, and you could see the agony on his face as Meaney set up to convert his own try with a spectacular sideline kick that brought the Bulldogs to a fourteen point lead.
After so much disappointment and frustration for the Dragons in recent times, this particular try felt like the final death knell, since they’d let through the four points despite having a dress rehearsal out of the first scrum to prepare for it. While Ravalawa made good post-contact metres on the Red V’s next carry, Renouf To’omaga stole the Steeden a tackle later. For a moment it looked like Canterbury might score then and there, as RFM popped a late offload for JMK to accelerate and almost score beside the right post, but Hopoate was unable to get his hand away from Aitken and Norman a play later, while the Dragons brought all their defensive pressure to bear on preventing Meaney crossing over on the left wing for a double at the end of the set. St. George were barely holding on – and their form got worse as the final quarter arrived, starting with a clean drop from Frizell after they received their first set restart in some time.Embed from Getty Images
James Graham was the next forward to lose the footy, moments after subbing on for Blake Lawrie, and luckily Lomax caught Foran’s next kick on the full, since his men would have been utterly decimated if the Dogs had scored off this error. Frizell now offloaded to Clune on the third play, but it didn’t build any more pressure, while McInnes popped out an even less energetic offload to Frizell a minute later. However, all of a sudden, Frizell injected the energy the Red V needed, setting up a superb sequence of second phase play that saw the footy change hands so many times that we were well on our way to a team try by the time Pereira collected it and made a bee line for the left corner. The St. George winger came close to the best grounding all year, lifting and suspending his entire body in the air as he made contact with his right arm, but DWZ committed to the tackle like his life depended on it, forcing Pereira to delay grounding the footy until the very instant that his other arm hit the turf.
Even this brief glimpse of speed, and Frizell’s resurgence, might have been enough to sustain the Dragons into next week’s game, but the Bulldogs added salt in the wound by scoring on the very next set. Lewis, Hoppa and Tolman made big runs up the middle of the park before Canterbury headed left, where RFM searched in vain for an offload before he was cleaned up by an increasingly desperate Dragons defence. Realising that this missed chance at second phase play had cost his side their speed and rhythm, Lewis kicked all the way to the right edge of the park, where Reimis Smith leaped up, AFL-style, and found himself contesting Pereira in the air in the football, before wrapping it under his arm and twisting away from the luckless winger to slam down the next four points, finally getting some real catharsis after being put on report in the opening half. With Meaney adding another conversion, the Bulldogs were now twenty points ahead, and confident of coasting through to the siren, despite a mistake from JMK and a penalty from Lewis for not being square at marker.Embed from Getty Images
Meaney broke through the line four minutes out from the end, but the Bulldogs wouldn’t score again, while the Red V got one last dropout with ninety seconds on the clock, but couldn’t do anything with it, heading to the sheds with close to 180 minutes of tryless football. In its own way, this was a historic game for St. George, not unlike some of the really dire Newcastle matches of the mid-2010s that signaled the need for a major restructure and rebuild of club culture. At least they’ll be playing the Sharks next week, the only team they’ve beaten in fourteen games, but that will presumably make Cronulla even keener to come away with the win too. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a relieving result for the Bulldogs after their 32-6 loss to the Sea Eagles on the Central Coast last Sunday evening, but they’ll still need to bring everything they have to next week’s match, against a Roosters outfit flushed with pride from their own historic victory against the Broncos at Suncorp on Friday night.
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