Both teams were coming off frustrated losses when Canberra and St. George met for the first game back at GIO since lockdown – the Dragons a fourteen-point loss to the Roosters, and the Raiders a one-point loss to the Eels. The Red V started well, and got the first six again call two and half minutes in, as Tyson Frizell shaped for an offload early in the tackle count but found Jack Wighton staunch in defence. Frizell took another strong carry on the fourth before Corey Norman kicked crossfield to the right corner, where Nick Cotric made the first of many stabilizing plays over the course of the evening. The Raiders got the first penalty moments later, due to a high tackle from Paul Vaughan on Ryan Sutton, and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad double-pumped on the left edge a play later, setting up Cotric for a massive run through Matt Dufty. He came to ground about a metre and a half out from the line, but pivoted off the left arm and relied on the momentum of the St. George fullback to carry him through Zac Lomax to score, before Jarrod Croker added a superb sideline conversion to bring Canberra to a point per game, as the Raiders celebrated putting down the first try for the first time in three rounds.
CNK dummied and tried to break through the line midway through the restart, but Mikaele Ravalawa cleaned up Wighton’s kick without too much trouble, although Cotric did even better with a barnstorming kick return to open the Raiders’ next set. St. George survived once again, and got their next burst of field position when Dufty caught an end-over-end kick from George Williams in goal, resulting in arguably their best sequence so far, from a dummy and near-linebreak from Cameron McInnes on the fourth, to a dangerous Norman bounce on the last that CNK somehow managed to regather and bring back into the field of play. Still, the Red V got a second successive seven tackles when Wighton’s kick went too long, although they couldn’t complete this time around, as Tyrell Fuimaono concluded a compressed left sweep by offloading the Steeden over the sideline. Josh Hodgson took over kicking duties next time the Raiders had ball in hand, and came up with one of the best boots so far, sending the footy to nestle right in the corner, although the Dragons got a set restart on play one to get them up the field anyway, marking their third straight set of augmented field position. It was a big turning-point, then, when Lomax lost the footy two plays later, while trying to offload out of a combined tackle from Croker and Wighton.Embed from Getty Images
This would have been a good point for a Captain’s Challenge, since the replay suggested this was an illegal strip from Croker. At the very least, a Challenge would have sapped some of the Raiders’ adrenalin and acceleration, which they put to good use immediately for their second tryscoring sequence – a deft chip to the right corner from Williams, and a brilliant kick contest from Bailey Simonsson, who leaped into the air, spun out of a tackle from Ravalawa, and, like Cotric, kept his elbow up until he could be sure of getting the football down securely. Once again Croker added the extras, before Simonsson took the first hit-up on the restart – and once again Ravalawa prevented Canberra doing too much with the repeat set. Fuimaono almost made a second bad offload on the next Dragons’ carry, but realised just in time that Michael Oldfield was waiting to receive it, and so withdrew it back into his chest. This helped St. George to build momentum, which continued through another good bounce off Norman’s next kick, but the Raiders still accelerated, receiving an escorts penalty from McInnes as Josh Papalii got ready to run out onto GIO for the first time since lockdown.
In fact, Papalii came on earlier than expected, as Iosia Soliola was taken off with what appeared to be a fractured cheekbone as the Raiders gained the first dropout. Papalii’s next effort was monstrous – he seemed to take every second tackle – but one of the toughest sets from Canberra still came to nothing when Croker knocked on at the end of the tackle count. Nevertheless, the Raiders stayed strong, getting their next restart a set later, and building further when Elliott Whitehead offloaded to Cotric for a rapid dash up the left edge. The big winger was cleaned up, but the Raiders had a good rhythm, and had disheveled the Dragons enough for a Williams kick to potentially cause chaos in the left corner, only for Jason Saab to make the best aerial take so far, before his men got a boost up the field off a high shot from Sutton on the first play. Ben Hunt now almost sent Dufty through the line midway through the set, tempting Whitehead into an early tackle. This was the biggest chance for the Dragons since their back-to-back seven tackle sets, as Frizell got them started by busting through a tackle and executing a quick play-the-ball to commence a rapid left sweep that ended with a call of St. George knock-on that was immediately challenged by McInnes.Embed from Getty Images
He was right to do so, since the replay showed that Norman had taken clean possession of the footy and send it backwards before Oldfield knocked it on, allowing the Dragons to resume their recent accumulation of field position with a scrum feed at the ten. Heading left on the first tackle, Dufty gained six again, and from there the Dragons headed back in field, where Norman spun out of a tackle and sent a harbour bridge pass across to Lomax, who drew in Wighton and then two other Canberra defenders. Vaughan followed with a barnstorming run up the middle of the field before a pair of wide passes from the halves saw Euan Aitken almost drag three Raiders over the left corner. Once more, the Red V headed towards the right edge, as McInnes offloaded out the back to Hunt, and Saab tapped back Norman’s kick, only for Lomax’s second boot to send it over the sideline – a pretty sloppy devolution of only the second big burst of field position for St. George so far. Joseph Tapine took his first run of the evening when Canberra got the ball back, and the green machine glimpsed their next tryscoring opportunity when Croker ferried the footy up the right edge, kicking the Steeden back in field where Wighton only managed to get a boot to it before the Dragons got possession again.
They couldn’t stop the Raiders from scoring the next try, though, as a dropped ball from Adam Clune set up Williams for his first four points in the NRL. In a testament to the skill set of the ex- Wigan Warrior, the putdown came off a run rather than a kick, as he dummied with his left hand, and followed with a disorienting left foot step to score in the middle of the field – a pretty dispiriting prospect for the Dragons given that Norman hadn’t satisfactorily run the footy all night. With Croker slotting through his third conversion ten seconds out from the siren, the Raiders were in fine form when they returned to the sheds, although the Red V came close to their first try early in the second stanza, when Dufty popped a harbour bridge ball across to Ravalawa that was just a little too high, forcing the no. 5 to jump up to receive it, and so leaving time for Simonsson to bump him into touch, before Bailey took the first tackle on the restart and getting his men six again in the process. Nevertheless, Hunt made his best run of the night on the next Dragons set, off a quick play-the-ball from McInnes, breaking through the line and sending a beautiful kick towards the crossbars.Embed from Getty Images
Elliott Whitehead now made his best defensive play of the game, circling around the Steeden and finally scooping it up when the bounce was favourable. Still, Hunt’s splendid run had finally brought St. George to Canberra’s level, as both teams completed faster and faster sets for a few minutes, until Tapine was pinged for knocking the footy out of McInnes’ hands just before bringing a low tackle to completion. This was crunch time for the Red V, who had to score here to have any real chance of a comeback, but Josh Kerr couldn’t make enough headway in front of the posts, while Frizell was unable to break through the line off a short ball from Norman on the right edge either. Yet Hunt was still back in prime halfback mode, and now got his first dropout off the night off a short grubber that CNK was forced to volley into touch, so it was agonising to see Ravalawa cough up the footy after trying to recover it for the first play – a sobering reminder of the difference in quality between these two teams, despite a few moments of brilliance from the visitors over the last few sets. No surprise, then, that the Raiders scored on the very next set, when Croker got his first try of the season, chasing down a sharply angled Wighton grubber up the left side, and outrunning Saab to slam it down in goal.
Croker had now broken the equal longest drought of his career, and Sutton responded with a daring offload on the first tackle of the restart – a flex as much as a strategic play – which Papalii compounded with great post-contact metres on the second carry. Combined with a silky run from Hodgson and a soaring bomb from Wighton, it looked like Canberra might go back-to-back for the first time all night, but Dufty proved safe with the catch, while Croker conceded a fresh burst of St. George field position by not remaining square at marker. For a brief period, everything came together for the Dragons, as Aitken slid out of a tackle from Whitehead to make a second go of it on the third tackle, and a Norman kick set up Dufty to bookend this splendid sequence by slamming down the first try for the Red V. While Curtis Scott countered some of the recent criticism of his form by forcing McInnes to cough up the footy just when the Dragons looked to consolidate again, Dufty remained in pointscoring mode, starting the next tryscoring sequence for his men a minute later, with a pass out to Lomax on the right edge. Despite a messy night overall from St. George, this was one of the most elegant four-pointers of the last few weeks, as Lomax fended off Croker and flicked the footy across to Saab, who sent it back to his left centre to slam it down and score.Embed from Getty Images
With Dufty missing the conversion there was only a converted try between the two teams as the final ten minutes arrived. The Dragons lost a bit of headway when Lomax’s knee buckled back, requiring some on field attendance, but got a repeat set on the very next play when a great kick chase trapped CNK after he’d recovered a shallow kick from Norman on the cusp of the try line. The weirdest Captain’s Challenge of the year now ensued, as Aitken and Ravalawa were deemed to have both knocked on the footy after Clune commenced a left sweep from the middle of the park. For a moment, this looked like a long shot – a way of getting breathing-space more than a legitimate challenge – but after extensive scrutiny the Bunker found an angle that did indeed show Oldfield getting a fingertip to the football as it soared in the air between Clune and Aitken. Yet in another twist, and despite the Bunker seeming to ratify the Challenge – at least television, where I was watching it – the referees on field said that the Challenge had been denied, forcing the Dragons to defend their line once again.
To their credit, Dragons didn’t flag here, but instead scored on their next major opportunity, showcasing one of their best formations of the night in the process – a crossfield run from Clune, who passed to Aitken, and then a barnstorming acceleration up the left edge from Aitken, who fended off Simonsson and Oldfield before poppingthe footy back in for Dufty to put down another try, narrowing the deficit to six when Lomax added the quickest conversion of the season in only ten seconds. Aitken had now run over 150 metres, and almost broke through the line again on the restart off a deft ball from Dufty, but the Raiders survived this last critical set, and staved off golden point, to the acclaim of the 1500 green machine supporters in the crowd. Like the Storm the night before, the Dragons had accelerated to a very fast finish, but they needed another five minutes – or even another two or three minutes – to really capitalise on this late burst of confidence and field position. They’ll be looking to draw on that newfound strength and vision, then, against the Sea Eagles next Sunday afternoon, while the Raiders will need to dig even deeper when they take on a Melbourne outfit galvanised by one of the best wins of the decade this week.