ROUND 5: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (Campbelltown Stadium, 14/6/20)
Cronulla and St. George found out at 9:30 Sunday morning that their match had been pushed back from 6 to 4 after a biosecurity measured had postponed the Roosters-Bulldogs clash until Monday evening. The Dragons got the first restart a couple of minutes in, and then a further burst of field position when William Kennedy knocked on Adam Clune’s kick on the left edge. The hosts were now at 179 minutes of football without a try, so it would have been great to score here, on their first opportunity of the afternoon. Josh Kerr came close to crossing over, off a no-look pass from Corey Norman on the third play, before Matt Dufty curved over in the right corner after another restart. This would have been a truly cathartic moment for the Red V, so it was a big dent in their momentum when the try was called back due to an obstruction from Zac Lomax on Chad Townsend, as they went from glimpsing their first try in weeks to conceding the first penalty of the game on their first play of a repeat set right on the Cronulla line.
Josh Dugan only just picked up a bouncing pass from Townsend four tackles into the next set, but the Sharks quickly recovered after a six again call. Two plays later, Aaron Woods made a big run at the posts, and Jesse Ramien followed by drawing in three defenders on the right edge, before the Sharks shifted left, consolidating around a trio of superb wide balls from Blayke Brailey, Shaun Johnson and Townsend. Finding himself on the end of it all, Dugan made one of the best offloads of the match to send Mawene Hiroti across for the opening try, a mere six and a half minutes after donning Cronulla colours for the first time. Shaun Johnson didn’t quite get the run right for a tricky sideline conversion into the sun, but made up for it with a comprehensive tackle on Clune late in the next set, before Kennedy collected Norman’s kick on the full. On the next Dragons set, Norman kicked on the fourth, but Kennedy was just as confident, regathering the footy and sending it across to Sione Katoa for a skittering crossfield run, drawing in three St. George defenders as he came to ground on the left edge.Embed from Getty Images
The Dragons got the scrum feed, and a big letoff, when Briton Nikora lost the ball a couple of plays later, but Toby Rudolf steadied the ship with a big hit on Trent Merrin on the third tackle, before Ramien cleaned up Clune as he was collecting an awkward offload from Kerr. The hosts now tried to replicate Cronulla’s right side raid, and then headed back inside, where they got a six again call, and dug deep as the setting sun cast orange light across the stadium. Merrin managed a late offload to get Paul Vaughan five metres out on the left edge, before Dufty soared a sublime harbour bridge pass across to Mikaele Ravalawa on the right to finally break the Dragons’ drought. Timing his run perfectly, the the big no. 5 burrowed down beneath Hiroti and outpaced Townsend to get their Dragons their first try in 86 days, putting them two ahead once Lomax added the kick. With their name on the board, St. George could finally breathe, and just get back to playing footy, while it didn’t hurt that Ravalawa had slammed through the first Cronulla try-scorer on his way to the chalk either.
Scoring on the restart would have been spectacular, so Vaughan and Frizell laid the platform with big runs, only for Norman to kick early, and too directly to Kennedy, letting the Sharkies off without much pressure. Dugan and Fifita responded in kind to Vaughan and Frizell’s metre-eating, but Ravalawa proved just as safe beneath the high ball as Kennedy, as the game started to settle back into a more evenly paced contest, St. George gaining confidence with every carry. Vaughan came close to a linebreak midway through the next set, earning his men a restart in the process, and once again Frizell followed with a hard effort, before Vaughan gathered the footy again on the third, making this his eighth run with seventy metres already gained. Kerr wasn’t expecting the ball from Cameron McInnes on the next play, and then knocked it backwards through his hooker’s legs, but the Dragons still managed to regather it, with Clune finding himself in position to set up the last play out of dummy half.Embed from Getty Images
This was crunch time for the Red V, so it was dispiriting when Norman kicked too hard, Tyrell Fuimaono was pinged for a ball strip, and Ravalawa culminated it all with the error that gifted the Sharkies their next try. They scored straight out of the scrum, heading right with a beautiful pair of passes from Johnson and Katoa that rivalled their superb left sweep for their first four points. This time the football found Sione Katoa, who put in a gymnastic display here, arcing through the air and grounding the Steeden with his right hand before Clune tumbled him into touch. Paul McGregor responded with a double interchange – Ben Hunt for Vaughan, Blake Lawrie for Kerr – but Cronulla were still the next to cross over, after Norman booted through the first dropout of the game. For a moment, this looked like a try, as Kennedy offloaded for Johnson to put the ball down under the posts, but the replay showed a marginal obstruction from Jack Williams. This time, the Dragons capitalised immediately, off a big run from James Graham that laid the field position for Norman to send over Dufty for the next try.
This was a cathartic moment for the St. George five-eighth, as he paused just long enough to get Townsend interested, before popping the footy across to his fullback, who made a great argument for a starting role in the no. 1 jersey by getting through Dugan, and even taking advantage of the momentum of the tackle, to reach out his right hand to score. St. George expanded their lead further in the last minute before the break, when Hunt dummied right on the line, slammed through Graham, ducked under Brailey and got the football down just as Kennedy came in to try and hold it up. It looked like a try in real time, but Henry Perenara called it no try, calling on the Bunker to see whether Hunt had lost possession in the millisecond before the Steeden made contact with the turf. After surveying the footy from a variety of angles, the try was cleared – an absolutely pivotal moment for Hunt. With his history, it would have been heartbreaking to lose the ball here, while no other Dragons deserved this satisfaction quite like their five-eighth, who may well have scored the try that saves their season.Embed from Getty Images
The Red V were eight ahead as they headed to the sheds, but couldn’t make much headway during the first ten minutes back, despite a pair of soaring bombs from Norman, and a dominant bout of possession and field position. Cronulla didn’t get their first real chance until Ravalawa knocked on under the high ball without much of a kick chase from the Sharks – presumably due to the glare of the lights – regathering the footy in goal but conceding a dropout in the process. Ravalawa’s last error had led to a Cronulla try, so the Dragons brought their A-game in defence now, as Johnson took on the line for the first time on the third play, and the Sharkies got six again a tackle later. They headed right, where Euan Aitken made a tough tackle on Nikora, and then swept from side to side, ending with a deft kick from Townsend to the left corner.
One of the strangest sequences now ensued, as Lomax cleaned up the ball, tried to get back into the field of play, but was stopped by Graham, who he fended off before trying to pass to Dufty in goal, despite the fact that his fullback didn’t stand much more of a chance of avoiding the dropout than he did. The ball never reached Dufty, but instead bounced around behind Lomax, where Graham, still grounded from the tackle, reached out a hand to score what would have been one of the most memorable tries of the year – memorable enough to get Cronulla back in the contest – if Connor Tracey hadn’t made a marginal knock-on before the footy left Lomax’s hands. St. George needed to capitalise on this good luck, but Hiroti cleaned up Clune’s next kick pretty easily, as the Sharkies got stuck in to recover the momentum they’d lost at the end of their last set. Both sides started to fragment for a while, until Norman reset the game with a big kick that Kennedy was forced to ground in goal just before Dufty stormed in to claim a try, getting the dropout that started the most sustained St. George possession all night.Embed from Getty Images
Johnson booted the footy fifty-five metres, and Vaughan brought it back twenty metres, as Hunt barked out directives, before commencing a left sweep on the third that was aborted by a pack tackle on Clune. Still, the Dragons headed left again, where Jordan Pereira collected a challenging harbour bridge pass from Dufty, but couldn’t find space to break through on the wing, meaning Norman ended up kicking to the right side, where Lomax knocked on. For a second, Cronulla had the ball back, but Katoa lost the footy on the first play, and St. George went left once more. This time the ball from Clune to Pereira was too wide, but they still got a set restart, and then a second dropout, when Norman shaped to pass but then kicked to the right edge early in the tackle count, forcing Dugan into his most desperate run to knee the Steeden into touch, with Ravalawa and Lomax storming up behind him. By this stage, St. George had nudged ahead with 55% possession, and got a fresh restart a tackle in, meaning they had to score now or else concede the best defensive period of the night to Cronulla.
Vaughan continued his massive game by asking some big questions on the left edge, getting his team another restart before McInnes drew in three defenders to hold him up beneath the posts. A play later, the Dragons hooker slammed the Steeden down in the very same spot, collecting a short ball from Hunt and ducking his way through Andrew Fifita, remaining suspended in the tackle, but getting out his right arm to ground the footy before Kennedy stormed in, for his first four-pointer since the Round 11 game against the Sharks last season. A pair of Cronulla errors followed, and then an unsuccessful Captain’s Challenge, but the rhythm shifted quite dramatically following an offside penalty for Frizell, bookended by mistakes from Clune and then Hunt. The Sharks scored off the last, putting down the simplest and most elegant formation of the night – Townsend running into the line and shifting the footy across to Johnson, Johnson finding Graham on the chest, and Graham slicing through the defence to get some joy after almost scoring off Lomax’s loose carry ten minutes before.Embed from Getty Images
With Johnson adding the extras, we were back to an eight point game, but the Sharks never scored again, despite a couple of good opportunities. The clutch point came when Pereira lost the footy in goal, at the tail end of a Johnson kick, leaving it open for Katoa to ground it, only for Aitken to read the play perfectly, and get to the Steeden just before the Cronulla winger reached it. Instead, the Dragons had the final word, with Ravalawa crossing over in the last minute, off a wide ball from Dufty, to bring them to a 30-16 scoreline when Lomax added the extras after the siren. This was just the game that St. George needed to come back from their last couple of months – an emphatic win in a local derby, a completion rate around 90%, and a final try to rocket them to nearly double their opponents. They’ll be keen to prove this isn’t a one-off when they take on the Titans next week, , while Cronulla will be looking to make up for a pretty frustrating game – and a shock loss – when they meet the Dogs on Sunday.
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