ROUND 13: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Brisbane Broncos (Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, 3/6/21, 52-24)
The Dragons had one of their most seamless finales of the year against Brisbane on Thursday night, keeping pace and pace in the first stanza, and trailing 18-12 at one point, only to cascade into a flamboyant flow over the back forty that saw them post their first ever 50-plus game against the Broncos. The win was even more acutely pointed with five former Broncos in St. George colours – and a testament to the vision of Matt Dufty, back in the no. 1 jersey, making a compelling case for himself as the most crucial player in the St. George squad.
The St. George win also overshadowed a milestone for Alex Glenn, now equal with Michael Hancock for the most Brisbane games – at 274, they’re only behind Sam Thaiday (304), Corey Parker (347) and Darren Lockyer (304). Only Tariq Sims was missing for Origin in the St. George side, while Jack De Belin was back on the bench, Josh Kerr had returned from suspension, and Cody Ramsey was out on the wing again, while Zac Lomax was at least another week away from the all clear on his thumb, forcing Noman into the best conversion game of his career.
Matt Lodge took the first carry, and the Dragons came in hard and fast with defence, conceding the first restart on the third tackle of the match. Tevita Pangai Junior compounded this early burst of field position with five post-contact metres up the left edge, and the hosts only just survived, as Corey Norman booted through his first kick at his own thirty. They got a restart to boost them up the park on their second set, but still Ben Hunt was forced to kick from within his own end, so the Red V needed a big effort to reset the contest in their favour.
Blake Lawrie provided it, felling Selwyn Cobbo with a bone-rattling tackle that dishevelled the entire Brisbane defence, resulting in a knock-on from Jamayne Isaako, out of the play-the-ball, a moment later. Hunt now got his first short-range kick, a deft dab at the left corner, and then another, when Brisbane failed to secure the footy, but this time he didn’t quite get the grubber angle right, sending it directly into the corner post. Albert Kelly wasted no time trying to reset the game again, with a terrific kick at speed that caught Dufty off guard.
David Mead was just as good, getting on the outside of Mikaele Ravalawa for one of the best wing putdowns in weeks, before Isaako made up for his error with a stellar sideline conversion. Seeing Mead and Kelly combine brought back memories of Brisbane’s win over the Roosters a fortnight ago – there was the same enterprising play here, since Kelly’s kick was a high-risk decision, and would have cost his men a seven-tackle set if Mead hadn’t read it so perfectly. It was a good sign, too, that they got through a decent set on the restart.
The Dragons now had to come up with another momentum-changer, since Lawrie’s tackle had long since disappeared into the ether. Josh Kerr tried to provide it with his hardest run of the night, but couldn’t break through the line, or even make significant metres after contact, while Norman attempted to recover his team’s composure with the most challenging kick from any half so far – a dangerous soaring bomb that Isaako only bobbled slightly before containing it.
Dufty turned out to be the magic ingredient, putting in a huge left dummy to draw in Tyson Gamble and break through the line on the next St. George set, before flicking a no-look pass across to Jack Bird at the thirty. After three agonising years in Brisbane, Bird’s transition to the Red V finally felt complete as he shifted the footy to his right arm, fended off Cobbo on his inside, and then came to ground beneath Gamble, who had recovered from the dummy and stormed up in the chase, but too late to prevent Bird’s four points.
Norman was always going to convert from this angle, while Bird’s cathartic moment lifted the whole St. George side into a state of flow that lasted for most of the match. They got a restart on the restart, off a ruck error from John Asiata, and Lawrie almost got his first NRL try before Cobbo pounced on the footy at the last minute. Aware that the tide had turned in the Dragons’ favour, Turpin went for 40/20 on the next set, but Dufty took the Steeden before it could spill over the sideline, as the Red V really started to elasticise and expand their play.
Only a last-ditch tackle from Isaako and Jesse Arthars prevented Cody Ramsey breaking into space up the left edge, and while Kelly did well to bring a beautiful Norman kick back over the try line, a pack of Dragons defenders combined to drag Pangai back over the sideline on tackle two. The call actually went Brisbane’s way, when Andrew McCullough was called offside – and this should have been a turning-point for the Broncos outfit that won over Sydney, but instead Turpin misplayed the ball a moment later under questionable pressure from Bird.
Still, the Broncos refrained from a Captain’s Challenge, and the Dragons scored their next try quickly, although you wouldn’t have guessed it would happen from the fourth play, when Ramsey had to scramble to clean up an overlong Bird pass. The Broncos got the ball back, but St. George consolidated further on their next set, when Bird mirrored Dufty by poking his nose through the line, standing in a low tackle from Arthars, and twisting around for a pitch-perfect offload to Brayden Wiliame at about the same point he received the footy from Dufty.
Wiliame responded in kind, busting through a low tackle from Isaako, a torso tackle from Cobbo, an ankle tap from Kobe Hetherington, and then a second shot from Isaako, who was powerless to stop him at close range. Norman converted again, the Dragons had two superb putdowns, and Hunt congealed them further with an incredible kick on the restart – more a 40/8 than a 40/20 effort – before almost sending Lawrie over for a try a moment later, as Glenn and Hetherington converged on the big St. George prop for an excruciating head clash.
Hunt tried to send Kerr over on the right side on the next play, and then collected a clutch offload from Paul Vaughan, before Cobbo came in with a terrific trysaver to just prevent Wiliame crossing over for a double in the same spot where he’d just scored. Hunt had been settling into some of his best football in weeks, so it was frustrating to see him lose the footy a tackle later, especially since the team seemed to momentarily wilt around him, as a Ramsey error under the next high ball set the stage for TC Robati’s first try in the NRL.
It came off a rapid right sweep, and a well-timed short ball from Kelly, while exposing Bird’s relative inexperience with defending at no. 4, which had a spillover effect for Norman as well, leaving him in open space as Robati dashed past him and danced over Dufty at the death. To make matters worse for St. George, Daniel Alvaro left the field a moment later, having just come on, after copping Thomas Flegler’s elbow in the face. Jack De Belin came on in his place for his first touch of the first-grade football since the finals season in 2018.
With the score levelled Dufty needed to step up at fullback, and he started immediately, crowding in on Ramsey to claim the next high ball as his own. Ramsey lost the footy a moment later, and Cobbo scooped it up for fifteen metres, as the Broncos effectively settled into an augmented restart, compounded by a deft offload from Flegler early in the tackle count. History repeated itself as Kelly collected the footy on the right edge, and offloaded to Robati for a debut double in exactly the same part of the field where he’d scored two minutes before.
In a game that had been marked by moments of St. George acceleration, this was a reminder that the Broncos had the chance to change the narrative if they remained consistent – while Kelly’s dexterity, again, recalled his barnstorming game against the Tricolors two weeks ago. De Belin’s time off the park was also a factor here, since his timing was pretty spotty when he tried to take down Kelly, allowing the Brisbane half to get on his outside shoulder before he knew what had hit him. Meanwhile, Isaako converted again, and Brisbane were six ahead.
If they had scored again on the restart they might have really secured the momentum, or at least forestalled the avalanche of St. George points in the second stanza, but instead Flegler put the footy down early in the tackle count, and the Red V levelled the scoreline a moment later. Dufty now really started to take the spotlight, receiving a wide ball from Hunt and showcasing his mercurial timing to skip, give the slightest hint of a dummy, and leave just enough time for Gerard Beale to hit the hole perfectly to cross over untouched.
Norman added a confident sideline conversion, and McCullough opted to kick early on the restart, from within the forty, treating the set as an opportunity to solidify this mini Red V comeback rather than search for more points then and there. Ramsey was safe under Kelly’s biggest kick so far, Pangai was lucky not to be pinged for a crusher tackle on McCullough, and Isaako did well to defuse a dangerous bounce on Hunt’s next bomb, before garnering a penalty off a high shot from Josh Kerr, as the game hung in the balance for both teams.
Lodge followed Bird by popping his nose through the line on the next set, and got a hand out of the tackle, but was unable to get the offload away. The Broncos followed with a series of hard short-range plays, getting a restart off a McCullugh error, settling into what looked like it might be their biggest attack on the St. George goal line defence, only for Isaako to lose the footy a moment later. Now Gamble infringed the ruck, as the most evenly balanced part of the game gradually, subliminally, seemed to be shifting St. George’s way, with one minute to go.
Yet Brisbane got the ball back ten seconds later, and this first stanza seemed done – until Farnworth lost it, and the Dragons got the scrum feed with fourteen seconds left. Everything came together beautifully now, as Norman kicked out of the scrum, and Isaako looked certain to ground it for all money – so certain of the putdown that he decelerated as he reached the Steeden, leaving space for Dufty to storm up behind him for arguably the greatest stealth try of the year, bringing the Dragons to (another) six-point lead once Norman converted.
Isaako needed a strong play for his first carry back so it was a horror show when he knocked on his first play-the-ball, planting it on Kerr’s boot, stepping over it, and wasting his team’s Captain’s Challenge to contest it. The Dragons effectively had a repeat set now, as De Belin and Kerr came up with a pair of big runs, and McCullough followed with a crash play that saw him dragged onto his back. Isaako fumbled Norman’s grubber in goal again, although this time he regathered it, only conceding a dropout rather than another four points.
Faamausili started the dropout with a good hard run, Bird tried to crash over on the left wing, and Beale drove the footy right to the line on the other side of the park, before Norman opted for another left-edge grubber – and one again Isaako was forced to concede the dropout, this time by tapping the ball into touch as he should have done before the break. Faaumasili took the first tackle of the dropout, but copped Robati’s shoulder in his face, leading to a brief stoppage in play as Robati was sent to the bin, and Kaide Ellis was activated as 18th man.
Alvaro got the dropout rolling again with a tough run up the middle, and the Dragons condensed all the field position they’d accumulated since the break into a left edge sweep. Norman ran deep into the defensive line and Dufty held it up just long enough to clear up space for Ramsey, who threw self-preservation to the wind as he leaped a good two metres through the air and careened over Isaako, somersaulting on the tip of the Steeden before tumbling into touch.
Norman followed with a terrific sideline conversion, bringing the Dragons to thirty, and the forwards were insatiable on the restart, burrowing their way into the Brisbane defence until Norman kicked for field position midway down the park. Finally, eight minutes in, the Broncos had their real touch of the football, and started making up the deficit when Alvaro was pinged for a high shot on Farnworth. Lodge glimpsed a gap in the line a moment later, but Lawrie prevented him making much of the half-break, as the Red V closed their ranks once again.
Brisbane really needed a repeat set here to continue regaining momentum. Instead, Ravalawa collected Kelly’s grubber right on the line and briefly dodged his way back in goal before bringing the footy back over the chalk to avoid a dropout. Kelly took out his frustration with a dangerous tackle a moment later, and was put on report for his troubles, while the Dragons showed Brisbane how to capitalise on a penalty, as Kerr collected a short ball from Dufty and crashed over beside the right post.
There was a brief question of whether Kelly had been obstructed, but the try was confirmed, Norman added yet another conversion, and Brisbane had now conceded 30 points or more for the 15th time in 31 games. The Dragons didn’t show any signs of slowing down on the restart, while Brisbane had their hearts in their mouth when Cobbo overran the next kick, and pivoted around to see it curve back to Ramsey, who kicked it but got unlucky with the ricochet, which came straight off Cobbo and back into the Brisbane no. 2’s arms.
Still, the Dragons got another burst of field position on their very next set, when Turpin was pinged for an illegal strip, and Brisbane had no challenges left in their arsenal to contest it. Ravalawa almost crashed over on the right edge on tackle two, Kerr made a run at the crossbar on tackle three, and Hunt chose to double-pump instead of run it on the last, giving Brisbane the chance to wrap them up on the left edge. Yet with Gamble knocking on as he was receiving to kick, St. George got a chance to make good on this excellent set.
To rub salt in the wound, Bird got away with the same mistake in the play-the-ball Isaako had made after the break, laying the foundation for a repeat of the right edge play that had almost sent Ravalawa across early in the previous set. This time it all came together, as Mikaele caught a superb wide ball from Dufty and powered through Mead and then Isaako to pivot off his left boot and get the footy down with his right hand – a pretty impressive balancing act given he’d leaped about half a metre above the turf to collect it.
Norman missed his first conversion of the night, but this was still a career best evening with the boot, while the Dragons had hit forty, and more than doubled Brisbane, who got a much-needed let-off when Hunt knocked on the kickoff – or so it seemed, since the Red V risked a Captain’s Challenge that paid off. In slow motion, it was clear that, after Farnworth knocked the footy back, it had been Kelly, rather than Hunt, who got a hand to the ball first, clearing up St. George to resume their restart with the advantage of a scrum feed.
The Dragons elasticised up the right edge, then made their way up the middle before Norman opted for a left side play, Dufty grubbered, and Cobbo lost the footy, and Robato was too eager with an illegal strip. The Red V had gone from an aborted restart to a fresh set right on the Brisbane line. Yet the Broncos now got a let-off with an error from Ford, who had just come onto the park – only the third mistake of the night from a St. George outfit completing at 91% – and then another when Flegler offloaded out the back and Vaughan dove on it.
Luckily for the Broncos, Vaughan marginally knocked on here, but their good luck came to an end when Ramsey stripped the footy from Isaako a moment later. With so much momentum behind them – or, rather, with so much Brisbane failure to capitalise on potential shifts on momentum – the Dragons were always going to score on this next set. No surprise that Hunt was the man, channelling Joey Johns as he received the footy 25 out, ducked away from an exhausted Flegler, and dove beneath three Broncos to score right beside the right post.
At this point, no side had conceded more in 2021 than Brisbane – and they were another two in the red when Norman added the extras from right in front. This was also the lowest point of the year for Isaako, who slipped while trying to defend Hunt, and was brought off the park a second later. Meanwhile the Dragons were flying – literally, as Ravalawa jumped a good metre and half, AFL-style, to collect the dropout. It was a perfect image for the flamboyant flow of St. George at this point, even if they lost a Captain’s Challenge a tackle later.
Lodge got Brisbane rolling with his first offload of the night – out to Flegler – and no sooner were the Broncos within the St. George twenty than McCullough accidentally booted a Turpin grubber over the dead ball line with the back of his heel. Norman got an early mark as the Dragons set into defend the dropout, while Lodge became the second player to get away with an awkward play-the-ball after sliding knee-first into the defence on tackle three. Flegler followed with another offload, and Kelly’s grubber garnered another dropout on the last.
Brisbane were now starting to play more like the team that had kept pace with St. George over the first half, getting a further burst of position when Hunt went short with the kick and Ramsey knocked on. Lodge offloaded again, on both the second and fourth plays, and both times to Pangai, before the game paused briefly for Kerr to recover from an accidental reverse crusher from Pangai. Gamble kicked as soon as play resumed, Arthars chased it down, and the Broncos had their first (and last) try since the thirtieth minute.
Gamble booted through his first sideline kick in the NRL, the Broncos got to the end of the restart, and six minutes later, after a near-try from Cobbo, the Dragons had the last word. It started with Ford collecting an Asiata pass, and a pair of strong runs from Bird and Vaughan. It ended with Hunt receiving the footy from Norman on the last, and sending a weird kick off the outside of his boot to Kerr, who collected it, and offloaded back around the corner for Hunt to break into open space and assist Dufty’s second try of the night.
With two tries and five assists, this was a fitting end for a game so driven by the vision of the St. George fullback, who remains off contract for next year. Bird converted to bring them to 54 – the first time the Dragons have ever notched up fifty points against Brisbane, who had one of their bleakest matches of the season. They’ll be looking for much stauncher defence when they take on the Raiders after Origin next week, while the Dragons will be keen to continue this superb flow when they meet the Bulldogs for the Queen’s Birthday game.
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