The Dragons had won four of their past five games at WIN Stadium when they hosted Canberra for Saturday afternoon football. The field looked dramatic, with sunlight reflecting off the sea and casting the turf in stark patterns of light and shade that would prove especially challenging under the high ball. Even though the Red V went down 8-37, Cody Ramsey made the best NRL debut of 2020 since Charlie Staines, and would put down both of their tries, before the Raiders shut them out in the second stanza.
Tyrell Fuimaono was named with Jacob Host suffering a calf injury during warm-up, and Paul Vaughan was back from suspension for a new front-row pairing with Kaide Ellis, while Josh Kerr and Blake Lawrie were coming off the bench. Meanwhile, Dunamis Lui was starting in the forwards, Rapana was playing his second ever match in the centres, and captain Jarrod Croker only needed to boot through two more goals to become the 10th player in Canberra history to make it to 800 two-pointers.
Josh Papalii had only missed three games in three years, and took two hits on the first set, while Matt Dufty almost coughed up Jack Wighton’s first kick, although the Red V got the first advantage when Dunamis Lui was called offside downtown. Corey Norman found the outside of Lui three tackles later to break through the line, and while Semi Valemei held him up right on the chalk, and Zac Lomax lost the ball a play later, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad now mirrored Lui with an offside right on his own try line.
St. George had the first repeat set, and Kaide Ellis took the first tackle, getting his men six again as Paul Vaughan dragged three defenders over the line on the left edge, and Tyson Frizell surged at the same spot after a brief foray on the other side of the park. Nick Cotric scooped up a wayward pass, but not without a Rapana knock-on, as the Dragons packed the first scrum, and the forwards did more heavy lifting, only for Lui to get his own back for the linebreak by stripping the Steeden from Norman.
Lui was lucky not to get a Captain’s Challenge, since the replay showed there were clearly two in the tackle. While Lui lost the ball too, Ben Hunt knocked it on a few seconds later, before a third offside, this time from Euan Aitken, propelled Canberra into their first repeat set of the night. George Williams threaded the needle well on the last, and Elliott Whitehead made a great chase to pile on Lomax, but the St. George no. 4 still managed to reach out an arm in goal, and get the footy back over the line.
Valemei tried to put Lomax in his place with the biggest hit so far, ten minutes in, and Rapana followed with a half-break, making his way to the thirty. From there, the Raiders asked questions on both sides of the park, and this time the Dragons couldn’t avoid the dropout, as a superb kick from CNK ended with Matt Dufty trying and failing to mirror Lomax’s clutch effort to bring it back into the field of play, with three defenders now converging on the chase to make sure that he remained in goal.
Between Dufty being trapped behind the line, and Valemei’s superb hit on Lomax, the Raiders had neutralized Lomax’s brilliant collect, so it felt like a consolidation moment when they shaped into a left sweep on this set. Wighton double-pumped, Whitehead passed on the ground, and yet the Steeden sailed past Valemei and over the sideline, gifting the Dragons their first big let-off. Lomax made the most of it too, bouncing back from the Valemei hit to force a CNK knock-on.
Dufty also got some closure for his dropout, chasing down Valemei to trap him in goal at the tail end of a deft Corey Norman grubber. The Dragons had now entirely regathered after the Raiders’ opening surge, so if they could score here they would have regained control of the match, as the second quarter loomed on the horizon. Jordan Pereira slammed on the ball at speed on play two, and Cody Ramsey took a harbour bridge pass from Dufty to score on debut, on his first touch, on the other wing.
Ramsey’s putdown was superb – correcting his trajectory perfectly after a low tackle from Valemei sent him towards the sideline, before weathering a second hit from Croker to get the ball down with one hand. Full credit to Dufty, too, for the assist, and to Hunt for the deft double-show that changed direction out towards the right wing. Lomax had a hard angle from the sideline, especially given the sun, shanking it out past the right post to keep it a four point game.
Ramsey also got six again two tackles later, off a ruck error from Tom Starling, and the Dragons might well have scored again here if Lomax hadn’t put it down a play later, allowing Canberra to absorb the momentum of the St. George restart, starting with their own six again early in the tackle count. Starling tried to crash over beside the left posts, and Hudson Young beside the right, before Wighton took a crack further out towards the left wing.
After all those aggressive short-range efforts, Young finally got his try right beneath the crossbar, collecting a short ball from Williams, dancing from boot to boot, and barging through Ellis, Vaughan and Frizell to score a surprisingly soft and simple try. Young now had three in his last four games for Canberra, while Croker had a much easier conversion angle than Lomax, bringing his men to a two point lead after slotting it between the posts.
The Dragons were shaping into their next left sweep when Cotric came up with his play of the match – reaching out a hand to collect a Dufty ball at short range. Valemei cost his men some momentum with a nothing pass that Papalii saved on the fourth, but Williams’ kick ended with a beautiful bounce that appeared destined for Mikaele Ravalawa, only to careen back at an unexpected angle for Rapana, who seized the moment to start a spectacular tryscoring sequence.
First, Rapana offloaded to Starling, and then the young hooker sent it on to Joe Tapine, who offloaded right on the ground for Wighton to trample through a swathe of Dragons jerseys. He was held for a moment, but eventually used the force of the tackle to cantilever past a last-ditch effort from Norman to get the footy down. Croker added the extras again to bring the Raiders to the biggest lead of the afternoon, while Rapana and Tapine had effectively double assisted with their compounded second phase play.
Norman didn’t get any more joy with the kick-off, sending it too far on the full with the wind at his back, and while Young tried to crash over for a double on the last, the Dragons were waiting for him beneath the uprights this time around. Josh Papalii responded with the hit of the game, skittling Cam McInnes onto his back and rattling the footy free right on the line, although an unforced error from Williams prevented the Raiders from capitalizing on this massive one-man effort.
Instead, Ramsey got a fairytale finish on the brink of half time, putting down his second try for only his fourth run. Last time Dufty could take some of the credit, but the St. George fullback’s cut-out ball was pretty average here, so it was all down to debutant to leap up, collect it, and pivot off his left foot to avoid the sideline, before dodging away from the defence to get it down with his right hand.
This had been one of best NRL debuts in 2020, reminiscent of Charlie Staines’ incredible match against the Sharks earlier in the year – and yet these would be the last points that St. George would score, even if Ramsey came close to Staines’ record with a near-hat trick a few minutes later. He’d grown less dependent on Dufty from try one to try two, and try three would have been a total one-man effort – a sublime sprint down the right sideline – if he hadn’t been called back for an offside halfway through his run.
Instead of a third Ramsey try, then, the Raiders got an offside penalty, as Croker booted through two from the sideline on the brink of half time. Canberra have traditionally been a second-stanza team in 2020, and they dominated the back forty here, despite a good opening set from the Dragons. They were now playing against the sun, and so Clune went high on the last, with the first of many kicks that would target the back right corner, where Lomax outleaped Valemei and Whitehead knocked the footy on.
Josh Kerr rolled over the line on tackle force, but John Bateman got beneath him for the David-and-Goliath effort of Round 18, holding him up long enough for Lui to finish the job on top. This was easily the best trysaver of the match – good enough to propel Canberra into the first in a string of unanswered tries. They resettled their rhythm with their first set, shutting down Ramsey as he searched for space two tackles into the Dragons’ next carry, and recouping when Valemei struggled again in the sunny corner.
Williams ended the next set with a split-second decision to run the footy and shift it out to the left edge, where a compressed sweep ended with a sublime Whitehead kick that split the difference between a grubber and a long-range effort, sliding so fluidly down the sideline that Croker was able to collect it and cross over untouched for a try that was every bit as soft and simple as Young’s putdown beneath the posts. Even if Croker missed the sideline kick, this was still a big consolidation moment for Canberra.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Dragons took a big hit a few sets later, when Kerr and Billy Brittain smashed heads while converging on Young. Both men were taken from the field, bringing Vaughan and Hunt back on earlier than expected, as the Raiders used the pause to get some breathing-space for their next try. This was just as simple as the last three, starting with Siliva Havili opening up the line for Young, who decelerated as he popped it back inside for Bateman to put down the next four points.
It was a Raiders clinic, with Havilii, Young and Bateman just relying on good running, good timing and good passing to defy a flailing St. George defence. Ryan Sutton was the next to crash over the line, drawing in three Dragons to roll him into the right padding, where only the tricep of Kaide Ellis prevented him getting the footy down. This was more luck than good defence, and sure enough Williams assisted Wighton on the very next play, for a try that was even simpler and easier than Bateman’s.
All it took was a slight dummy from the Canberra halfback to trick the Red V into preparing for a left sweep, opening up space for Wighton to cruise over and curve behind the posts for another easy Croker conversion. For the first time this half, and with the sun waning in the right corner, Valemei now defied Lomax beneath the high ball. The Dragons have been pretty conservative with challenges in 2020, but the surprise of seeing Valemei come good tempted them into wasting their third one here.
Whitehead and Croker nearly sent CNK across on the next set, and while Charnze fumbled the footy, the Dragons also got a hand to it, meaning it was still live for a dropout once Clune got caught with it behind the chalk. The Red V were very flustered now, with several of their key playmakers requesting a challenge – especially Frizell – as if unable to process how impulsively they’d used it their challenge only a set before.
Tapine took a good hit-up on the first tackle for his sixteenth run of the afternoon, and while the Raiders got six again off a Kaide Ellis ruck error, they only needed one play to send it left, where Valemei got his try after all, thanks to a silky pair of passes from Wighton and Williams that ended with a superb short-range assist from Croker, who capped it all off with an equally accomplished sideline conversion to make it 8-36.
The Dragons were unable to make much headway over the next eight minutes, allowing Williams to seal the deal with a flamboyant field goal just before the siren, bringing the game to an unusual scoreline of 8-37. Canberra should use this staunch second-half to galvanise them into next week’s home game against the Warriors, while Ramsey can hold his head high after putting down every St. George try on debut – a rallying-point for the Red V as they prepare to face Newcastle on Sunday afternoon.