ROUND 11: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, 25/7/20)

The Sharks had five wins and the Dragons four when they met for a local derby at Jubilee on Saturday night. Josh Dugan had been ruled out on Friday, for what would have been his 200th game, with a tight hamstring, while Briton Nikora was suspended for his shoulder charge on Blake Green. Tariq Sims was also out for the week after a grade one dangerous contact charge against Kieran Foran last round, putting big pressure on the St. George forwards for a game that was often driven by the big men.

Paul Vaughan took two big runs on the first set, but Corey Norman put down a Ben Hunt pass as he was shaping to kick, giving Cronulla their first set thirty-five metres out from the St. George line. Chad Townsend wasn’t much better on the last though, getting ball to boot, but booting it too far, as the Dragons got seven tackles to get out of their own end for the first time. Once again Vaughan was staunch, tempting an offside penalty from Blayke Brailey to get the Red V their first attacking opportunity.

Vaughan drew in three defenders on play one, getting six again in the process, and Matt Dufty danced across the face of the ruck on play two, before Vaughan took yet another run, working twice as hard as any other forward on the field. Tyrell Fuimaono cleared up space on the left edge, and Euan Aitken went low and slammed through Will Kennedy and Siosifa Talakai, who stripped the Steeden from his grasp, but then lost it for Fuimaono to storm in and bookend this superb sequence by scoring himself.

They might have lost some early field position, but the Dragons had scored as soon as they’d recouped it, and they were almost exactly a point per minute when Zac Lomax slotted the first conversion through the posts. Townsend kicked early, and the ball rolled up just over the try line, but Dufty was still able to make twenty metres, and the Red V were back in their own half by the second play. Conversely, Cronulla were trapped right on their own line, until Jason Saab was pinged for a dangerous tackle. 

The Sharkies made the most of their first real burst of position, as Johnson started a right sweep midway up the field that would have ended with a Jesse Ramien try on the wing if Aitken hadn’t got there just in time. Cronulla were unlucky not to get six again on the last play, but they only needed one kick to score – a Townsend grubber that ricocheted off Blake Lawrie and then eluded Dufty, who slipped over just before the try line as Jack Williams stormed in to ground it just before the dead ball line.

In slow motion, though, this was clearly the wrong call, since Dufty had reached out his right hand and got the footy down just before Williams put both hands on it. Still, the call had gone Cronulla’s way, while Johnson levelled the score with a conversion from right in front. Townsend delivered his first bomb of the night on the restart, although it ended up working against Cronulla, tempting an escort from Ronaldo Mulitalo on Mikaele Ravalawa, before Lomax knocked on a Hunt bomb at the end of the next set.

Norman made his second error of the game midway through the tackle count, putting a hand in the ruck as Aaron Woods successfully clamoured for a penalty. This time the Sharks were sharper and quicker in capitalizing on field position, as Ramien followed his splendid run up the right edge by collecting the footy from Towsend in the middle of the park, and bumping off three defenders to cross over beside the right padding, only for the Bunker to immediately deny the try due to a Blayke Brailey obstruction.

Tyson Frizell had been looking for an offload all night, and got his best chance on the next set, but still couldn’t get it away. Still, Lomax booted through the first penalty kick of the match, from long range, after a second error from Brailey (offside) as the rain really started to pelt down over Kogarah. Even from thirty metres out, Lomax’s kick still cleared the fence, sailing fifty to put St. George two points ahead as the second quarter approached, and the Sharkies responded with their best defence of the night.

Talakai was especially huge, containing Vaughan on the first play, and Fuimaono on the second, ensuring that the Dragons didn’t get out of their own twenty until Dufty collected a Cam McInnes offload on the fourth and broke his way through the line on the run, just as he’d brought Townsend’s kick back earlier in the game. Wade Graham just got him to ground, but Hunt’s boot did the trick, soaring towards the right edge, where Lomax caught it on the full, and kicked again for himself down the sideline.

Mulitalo was never going to get there before Dufty, who effectively assisted himself as he put it down right on the dead ball line, while the silky string of passes that ensued between Dufty’s run and Norman’s kick – including a superb ball from Norman – made this one of the best team tries for St. George so far in 2020. Lomax, who’d scored 92 of the Dragons’ 196 points this season, booted through the first sideline conversion of the night, bringing his men to an eight point lead as the second quarter got underway.

Cronulla looked like they’d sunk back into second gear next time they got ball in hand, but two successive restarts – off ruck errors from Aitken and Frizell – quickly galvanised them again. If anything, the leisurely start led to an equally leisurely try – a left sweep that saw the Steeden move through Townsend, Johnson and Kennedy before Sione Katoa crossed over untouched for four on the wing. Johnson couldn’t convert from the side, though, while Ramien was injured in backplay, replaced by Teig Wilton on debut.

By this stage, both teams had only failed to complete one set, so it was anybody’s game. Saab followed McInnes by offloading to get the Dragons out of their own end, and while Lomax consolidated with a superb no-look pass to Ravalawa, Kennedy scooped up Ravalawa’s kick without any trouble. Kennedy mirrored Ramien’s burst at the right corner in the first ten minutes, and very nearly went all the way, but the Dragons managed to contain him just in time, and got the footy back a tackle later.

Still, the Sharkies were dominating field position for the moment, getting another set inside the Dragons’ end when Norman was forced to kick in the twenty, as Mulitalo carried the return back over the halfway line for his best run of the night so far. The big men moved straight up the middle, as Woods brought it over the thirty, Wilton added to an already impressive metre tally, and Toby Rudolf barged straight at the line, clearing up space for Johnson to collect a Blake ball and look around him for an assist.

On the spur of the moment, however, Johnson crossed over himself, dummying left and then bumping off McInnes, as Adam Clune came in for a second shot and Vaughan bounced off the top. He also got the conversion, putting Cronulla ahead for the first time, at 16-14, as the last ten minutes before halftime started to wind down. The Sharkies got a restart on the restart, and continued to channel their energies up the middle third, getting the first dropout when Dufty had to clean up a Johnson grubber.

Not only did the Sharks have the lead, but they well and truly had the momentum. They got another restart three tackles in, off a strong run and fend from Graham up the left edge, and Wilton almost crossed over on the right, necessitating another huge trysaver from Aitken. Johnson came up with a second brilliant grubber on the last, as he shaped to pass left, but sent a sly effort off the right side of his boot. Kennedy put it down on the dead ball line, Johnson converted, and the Sharks were eight ahead.

For the first time all night Norman chose to kick dead on the last, since the Dragons were seriously starting to flail, conceding two straight dropouts in the final two minutes before half time, but somehow managing to avoid another Cronulla try. Tensions flared just before the first dropout, when Dufty slammed into the fence for a second time, although neither team could channel this aggression and frustration effectively before they headed to the sheds, keeping the score 22-14 Cronulla’s way.

The Sharkies were just as strong when they returned to the field, making their way methodically up the middle, until Townsend capped off the first few tackles by sliding through the line, before retreating back behind it to play the footy. They got six again a play later, off a ruck error from Ravalawa, and the Dragons let Townsend’s bomb bounce. Katoa almost took it over the line, and while Aitken wrapped him up, the Sharks successfully challenged the handover to show Aitken had knocked on first.

This was crunch time for the Dragons, and to their credit they came up with some of their best defence on this set, containing Woodsy after he received a Royce Hunt offload right on the line, before Josh Kerr held up Hunt in front of the post. Frizell came in for a ball-and-all tackle as Townsend dummied to pass, and Aitken stormed in goal to clean up another brilliant grubber from Johnson, whose short kicking had now pushed him past Mitch Moses and Dylan Brown to most forced dropouts of 2020 (11).  

Even this staunch defence couldn’t survive the next set, however, since the big men now really got stuck in, with Hunt taking his fourth and fifth hit-ups of the second half to get the Sharkies another restart, before Woods slammed over beside the left post on the final play. It was the perfect ending to such a forward-heavy return from the sheds, as Woodsy twisted out of a low tackle from Fuimaono, pivoted off his right hand, and slammed the footy down with this left, setting up Johnson for an easy conversion.

Yet these would be the last points that the Sharkies scored all night, since the Dragons spent the next thirty minutes mounting an almost-comeback that narrowed the deficit from fourteen to four by the time the final siren rang out. This brilliant Cronulla surge continued for a few sets, however, as Jackson Ford was pinged for crowding, and Townsend and Hunt both broke their way through the line, until Ford made up for his mistake by scooping up a Johnson grubber to finally get his men rolling once again.

The Sharkies needed a big one-man effort – and they got it at the end of this set, when Dufty ferried the footy from left to right, gathering it under his right arm and fending off Townsend with his left before flicking it back for Lomax to put down a double on the wing. Lomax might have missed his only conversion of the night, but the Dragons had still reset the rhythm of the match, as Vaughan got stuck in on the first carry of the restart, and McInnes steeled himself for a big hit-up with Hamlin-Uele on tackle two.

Rudolf was raring to break through the line on the next set, and Hamlin-Uele offloaded right on the ground for Brailey, but the Sharks now had only their second incomplete set of the night, thanks to a forward pass from Johnson out to Wilton on the right edge. After such a dominant opening ten, this was a big concession from Cronulla, especially since the Red V had only failed to complete two sets themselves. St. George now came up with the last and most spectacular try of the game to cap off this sudden chance.

Once again Dufty laid the platform, grubbering to the left edge, where Lomax scooped it up in his right hand, and paid tribute to Dufty’s previous assist with an even more flamboyant flick pass. Securing the Steeden in both hands, Lomax twisted his arms around his back to lob it back in field, where it ricocheted off Mulitalo and into the arms of Ravalawa, who kept free of the footy until it careened back to him, and gathered it into his chest, then his head, before tucking it tight under his right arm.

Townsend never had a chance of preventing Ravalawa grounding it, and so the Dragons had arguably the best try of their season, right down to the sideline conversion from Lomax, who booted it straight and true through the uprights. All the Red V needed was one more to take the lead, or at least level the score, but the Sharks circled the wagons over the last quarter of the game, keeping the Dragons out even though they were unable to score themselves – a stark contrast to the high point tally of the first stanza.

St. George hadn’t won until the 79th minute last week, so it looked fairly likely they’d at least put down another try here – and while they conceded a fresh burst of field position to the Sharks off a pair of offside penalties from Saab and Fuimaono, they managed to regroup in the final five minutes. Ravalawa made a linebreak, and Dufty took it over the line, but not without making the error that eventually cost the Dragons the game, leaving them with an agonizing four-point loss in front of the home crowd.

They’ll be steeling themselves for a big game, then, when take on South Sydney on Thursday night, especially since the Bunnies will be hungry for points after going down to Canberra by a converted try on Saturday . On the other side of the Steeden, the Sharks were slightly lucky, in some senses, to get the win here, but should still feel pumped for a big points margin when they meet the Broncos at Suncorp next Saturday.

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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