The Dragons bid farewell to Paul McGregor with a rousing win over the Eels at Bankwest on Friday night, bringing his seven year stint to an end in style, as Corey Norman delivered some great plays after being dropped last week, in the fourth halves combination in as many weeks from St. George-Illawarra. On the other side of the Steeden, the Eels were probably relishing the slightly milder conditions after last week’s water slide against the Sharks, although this was still a pretty wet match, with the rain streaming down steadily as the Dragons completed a strong opening set.
Cameron McInnes was the first casualty of the slippery Steeden, coughing it up midway through St. George’s second set, but the Red V stayed strong, preventing Junior Paulo getting an offload away, stopping Reagan Campbell-Gillard making too many metres up the middle of the park, and then containing an offload from Nathan Brown to Clint Gutherson, before Matt Dufty scooped up Mitchell Moses’ last kick and lunged back into the field of play.
Parra got the first restart two tackles into their next set, Michael Jennings’ found some space for Maika Sivo on the third play, and everything came together when Moses’ grubber ricocheted off the left upright, remaining open for Paulo after Norman made a pretty underwhelming effort to scoop it up. In the first big let off of the game, however, the footy glanced off Paulo’s hands before he executed a soft putdown – always a deft spectacle from such a big man – as Ben Hunt steadied the ship with a terrific kick to the right corner next time the Red V had ball in hand.Embed from Getty Images
Both teams now struggled for a while to get out of their own end, putting considerable pressure on the halves to boot it the length of the field, as Norman came even closer to a 40/20 than Hunt, with Gutho once again scrambling to clean it up. Finally, the Eels got the penalty they needed to build some decent field position – the first of the night – when Norman was called offside, and Sivo responded with a barnstorming run through Mikaele Ravalawa on the second play, leaving Hunt as last line of defence.
He stayed strong, and the Dragons didn’t have to dig too deep into their defensive playbook after Reed Mahoney put down the footy a tackle later, gifting St. George the scrum feed, and their second major let-off after Paulo’s almost-try. RCG and Paulo made big contact on Kerr on the penultimate play before Norman was once again to kick from within the forty – and once again Gutho brought it back, setting up Parra for their second restart after a second successive error from the St. George five-eighth.
Ryan Matterson looked for an offload on the right edge, but Tyrell Fuimaono got there just in time, while the growing disparity between the two teams’ kicking options culminated with Dylan Brown fumbling the footy just as he was shaping to boot it. Hunt made a bit more headway with his next last-tackle option, allowing Zac Lomax to clean up Jenko at the twenty, and yet this compressed first play made Waqa Blake’s linebreak even more spectacular, as he caught a wraparound pass from Moses at the forty, surged through the defence, and popped it across to Gutherson for the first try of the match.Embed from Getty Images
Full credit has to go to Paulo, too, who set up Moses for the pass that put Blake through the line, bringing the Eels to a six point lead once Mitch added the extras from right in front. Blake Ferguson and Moses got the restart going by both looking for tackle busts, and Paulo repeated his precision with a near-linebreak for Brown, before Moses booted the biggest bomb of the night, forcing Matt Dufty to come to ground within the St. George ten as a wave of blue and gold jerseys descended on him.
Ravalawa was lucky not to get a knock-on on play two, and while Korbin Sims got some second phase play going a tackle later, Norman ended with his worst kick of the night – a nothing effort over the sideline that gave Parra some breathing-space before they commenced their next piece of attack. Ryan Matterson and Brown responded with a pair of bullocking runs midway through this next set, and the Eels looked set to consolidate only to lose their momentum just as quickly when Jenko was deemed to have coughed up the ball into an enormous tackle from Ravalawa. In real time it looked like he had caught the ball again before it touched the St. George winger, so the Eels sent the play upstairs, where the contact was really hard to discern, since Ravalawa had come in for a low tackle at the very moment that Jennings lost it, meaning the Bunker had no option except to ratify the on-field decision.
Seeing Parra lose their Captain’s Challenge seemed to motivate the Dragons, who racked up some of their best field position all night as Adam Clune got to a kick within the twenty. It would have been a great sequel for Ravalawa to score here, but instead he watched the Steeden spiral past him over the sideline after Lomax knocked it back from a contest with Sivo in the air.Embed from Getty Images
Ravalawa got some joy back by taking Moses’ next bomb on the full, and the Eels momentarily looked set to lose some serious headway when Paulo came to ground beneath a huge hit from Euan Aitken, Blake Lawrie and Tyrell Fuimaono. Fuimaono came in third on the tackle, and looked like he might have done the most damage, landing on the playmaking prop’s legs for what could have been a syndesmosis if the angle or impact had been even marginally greater.
Nevertheless, Paulo remained on the park, and Dufty resumed the Dragons’ rhythm by catching Moses’ wobbliest kick so far amidst a maelstrom of Parramatta jerseys. Ravalawa’s comeback came full circle at the end of the next set, when Lomax made an even better take under the high ball, leaping into the air to collect Norman’s best kick. In one sublime motion, he twisted away from Gutherson and popped it over the head of Sivo, who was coming in to clean it up, bouncing the footy like a basketball to Ravalawa, who dunked it over the line for the first St. George try. Lomax shanked the ball away to the right of the posts, leaving a two point deficit that would be dramatically reversed in the last ten minutes, but this was still a stellar sequence for the St. George spine, which tightened and refined in the space of a single play.
They got their next big chance when Clune sent out a beautiful ball for Pereira, who trapped Fergo in-field, fended off Blake, and made ten or fifteen more metres, working his way across field before Lomax scooped up the Steeden and tried to thread it through for Norman, only to watch it ricochet off the Parra defence.Embed from Getty Images
Pereira broke through the left edge again on the next St. George set, slipping and sliding away from Gutho and then Blake as he reached the footy back over his head but got his hand on the sideline just before the tip touched the turf. He’d enjoyed ten tackle busts and 123 run metres so far, so it was frustrating for him to be denied here – and a testament to the Parramatta defence, which ended with Fergo slamming over the burly winger to tumble him into touch for good.
Nevertheless the Dragons built on Pereira’s speed and vision, following the most dramatic shift in possession all night – Brown kicking the footy out on the full and the Dragons getting a restart, followed by Brown intercepting a Clune pass and so setting the Eels up for a restart of their own. As with Paulo’s opening putdown, everything now seemed to come together for Parra when Clune was forced to ground a Gutho grubber in goal – Fergo took the first metres, bullocking his way into the defence like a frontrower, and Moses executed his best footwork on the second play.
The other right winger on the park was now disappointed in turn, as Sivo caught a cut-out ball on the left edge, but couldn’t get through Ravalawa, who slammed in to him for one of the toughest tackles of the night, Fijian flyer on Fijian flyer, holding him up long enough for Lomax to storm him and help bump him into touch. Combined with Kaide Ellis’ hit on Moses on the other side of the park, this had been a great trysaving set from the Dragons, so they seemed destined to score next time they had ball in hand, taking the risk of a Captain’s Challenge to check whether a lost ball from Norman had in fact been a strip from Dylan Brown.Embed from Getty Images
The risk paid off, as Brown returned to a fairly ordinary night after the brief flash of genius we saw with his intercept, and from here the Dragons capitalised immediately, as Norman added the penalty metres instead of conceding the supposed error. Tyson Frizell now took tackle one, Ellis tackle two, and Kerr tackle three, reaching the metre mark before hunt commenced a rapid right sweep that ended with a beautiful cut-out pass from Norman to Ravalawa.
After a couple of aborted wing plays from both sides, this was pure poetry, as Ravalawa set his sights on the try line and stormed down the sideline, pivoting brilliantly off his right boot as Brown and then Gutho came into contain him, before keeping both feet in the air to keep the putdown space. The contrast between these three runs from the big men and the speed of the right side play was pure poetry, as was Lomax’s conversion, which he kicked so straight and high from the sideline that he might as well have been converting from right in front, putting St. George ten ahead as they headed into the sheds.
That said, the Eels regathered quickly after the break, with just the big one-man play they needed to get back in the game. It came from Kane Evans, who offloaded to Mahoney on the first play back, setting up Gutho for some more metres after recovering the kickoff, and then delivered on the dropout after Mahoney read the wet surface perfectly to trap Pereira in goal. Two tackles in, Parra got six again, as Moses raised his hands in incredulity at the length of Lawrie’s ruck infringement. Evans crashed over a second later, collecting a short pass from Mahoney, and basically barging through Lawrie and Kerr to get the footy down.Embed from Getty Images
This was alarmingly weak defence from the Dragons, and yet this would mark the last try of the night, with only three more kicks adding to the scoreboard – Moses’ conversion, and then two penalty goals for the Red V. The first came at the fifty-eighth minute, off a high shot from RCG on the Sims, and the next eight minutes later, after Ellis seemed to have put down his first try in the NRL, rolling the Steeden form his right to his left after collecting the best pass of the night from Clune, but not without making slight contact with Paulo, as Parra got some closure following the questionable call on Jenko’s knock-on into Ravalawa during the first half.
This was a bit of a tough call, but the Dragons still had the penalty after Mahoney was called offside in backplay, and so Lomax booted through the two-pointer that would keep them a kick ahead until the bitter end. A few minutes later, the Eels got their own near-try, off a beautiful clutch kick from Fergo on the right edge, and an even more incredible kick chase from Mahoney – easily the best of the year – who sailed his whole body into the air to catch the footy mid-air and then ground it at the back of the in goal area for what was sent upstairs as a try, but upon close scrutiny from the Bunker was held to have grazed the chalk as Mahoney got it down.
This incredible sequence ushered in an even more incredible closing ten minutes – one of the best endings this year, and one of the best in St. George-Illawarra history – as the Red V brought everything to the table to ensure that they could send Mary out in style. For a while both teams went set for set, until an unforced error from Kerr got Parr to zero tackle with six and a half on the clock, only for Lane to put down the ball after trying to spread it too rapidly on the second play.Embed from Getty Images
The Dragons got their last big burst of field position when Moses conceded another set with an attempted strip on Dufty. They hadn’t got any dropouts all night, but now they set up two in a row – the first off a Norman kick on the right side of the park, the second off a McInnes kick on the left. With Blake pinged for an escort on the second repeat set, the Dragons chose to tap and go as the rain reached a new level of intensity. Norman now arrived at the end of Clune’s next kick, but knocked on in goal instead of scoring, gifting Parra a seven tackles with three minutes on the clock.
This was a self-correcting set from the Eels, or perhaps more accurately from Evans – Fergo’s first slip gave away to a deft offload from Evans, and Moses was cleaned up on the last play only for Evans to pop the footy out to Mahoney for the kick – so they felt set to score when Mahoney booted the ball deep in goal. Sure enough, Ravalawa bobbled it, giving the Parramatta kick chase time to converge on him.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as Ravalawa now darted across the back of the posts, bumping off several defenders before offloading out of a Fergo tackle, in his own in-goal, for Pereira to get the Dragons out of the dropout that could have quite easily lost them the game. This was the ultimate clutch play, and a rousing way to send out Mary McGregor, whose emotion was palpable as he congratulated his men for the last time as St. George-Illawarra coach. It’s a new era for the Red V, then, when they take on the Broncos at Suncorp next week, while the Eels looked slightly stunned by only their third loss of the season, and will be looking for a big one when they play Melbourne in the Thursday night sequel to this week’s Roosters-Storm blockbuster.