ROUND 15: St. George Illawarra Dragons v. Canberra Raiders (WIN Stadium, 19/6/21, 22-20)
St. George had one of their most traumatic losses of 2021 to the Bulldogs last week, which rendered their hard-won victory over the Raiders doubly cathartic on Saturday night – and probably propelled them into the grit and determination that produced this sublime two-point win. Against one of the windiest backdrops of the season – the wind sock testified to the breeze blowing in from the Pacific over WIN Stadium – Ben Hunt led his men with one of his toughest performances of 2021, clearing space for a terrific fullback debut for Tyrell Sloan.
The wind was strong enough to blow the footy off the tee before Corey Norman took the kickoff, and Josh Papalii the first carry, in his second game back from suspension. Play paused immediately as Papalii rose from the tackle with blood pouring below his left eye off a head clash with Josh Kerr that recalled Nathan Cleary’s Origin gash. Both Queenslanders stayed on the park, and finally, after a good three or four minutes, the Raiders resumed their first set with a big breeze at their back that did most of the heavy lifting for George Williams’ first kick.
Tyrell Sloan celebrated his NRL debut with the first Dragons catch, and the Red V got a burst of field position when Iosia Soliola came in with a swinging arm on Jack de Belin. Sloan had a good catch-and-pass as the Dragons swept left on the fourth play, before Ben Hunt came up with a good kick into the wind, and Jack Bird actually took it, landing on his back as Elliott Whitehead stormed in to clean up any tryscoring option. Papalii got through his tackle seamlessly this time, as Jack Wighton was made his kick from within the forty.
This had been a good defensive set from the Dragons, so it was frustrating for the home crowd when Cody Ramsey fumbled an early play-the-ball, gifting Canberra their first real shot at the St. George line. They spend most of the set around the middle of the park, where Dunamis Lui made good metres and then collected an offload from Wighton, who timed the pass perfectly with Kerr around his legs. Soliola and Wighton made good runs, before Williams’ kick ricocheted off Hunt, who stuck out a boot and played at it before Williams knocked on.
Canberra were lucky to avoid a try here, but even so the Raiders got the first restart off a Wighton ruck infringement, only for Sloan’s enthusiasm to get the better of him with a poorly timed one-handed offload to Brayden Williame, who coughed it up in the process. Things got worse for the Dragons when De Belin was penalised for a flop on Soliola, as the Raiders effectively absorbed the momentum of the Dragons’ brief glimpse of field position, with Josh Hodgson assisting Corey Harawira-Naera with a superbly poised long ball out of acting half.
Norman had ample space to tackle CHN, or even intercept the footy himself, so this was a one-on-one miss at two levels. He regathered on the restart, keeping the kickoff short and reading the breeze perfectly so that it blew back to Bird, who bobbled it, and then regathered it. This sudden shift in possession ushered in the fastest football so far for St. George, as Hunt bumped off Whitehead, and passed just a little too early to Mikaele Ravalawa, who didn’t have quite enough space up the wing to withstand a monster tackle from Bailey Simonsson.
Simonsson was just as aggressive collecting the next kick, drawing on some of St. George’s recent speed as he laid the platform for a restart a tackle later, off a ruck error from Blake Lawrie. Wighton bookended it with a beautiful chip to the left edge, where the Dragons got some revenge for Whitehead’s goal line tackle on Bird. Kris caught the footy clean, and looked set to score for all money, but Ravalawa never gave up on the contest, leaping beneath him, wresting the Steeden out of his grasp mid-air, and securing it under him as he came down.
Nevertheless, Norman’s woes continued on the next set – first, with a poorly timed kick that ricocheted off Ramsey on the left edge, and then losing the footy into a soft tackle from Matthew Timoko a moment later. You couldn’t blame the wind this time, so the Dragons were pretty lucky not to defend a full set here, as Simonsson followed his great work covering St. George’s right wing with an awkwardly timed pass to Jordan Rapana on his own right edge.
No surprise, then, that Hunt kicked fast and far on the fourth to recoup some field position and lift the motivation and momentum of his team. Rapana translated his frustration into taking control of the early tackle count, popping out an offload to Hodgson on the third, and shifting to dummy half himself on the fourth to make fifteen metres up the middle. In doing so, he laid space for Wighton to become the first player to genuinely weaponise the wind.
Wighton’s kick started as a soaring, towering, wobbling bomb, but when it landed it bounced at such a bizarre angle, and ricocheted so far towards the goal line, that it played as a second-phase chip. Ravalawa did well to secure it with Semi Valemei on his back, and the Dragons got some fresh blood with Paul Vaughan coming on in place of Josh Kerr. Vaughan made a mark immediately, combining with Norman midway through the next Canberra set to halt Hodgson’s drift to the right, off the back of some deft second-phase play from Whitehead.
Yet the Dragons couldn’t nail their fifth-tackle here, which had only progressed to this point so quickly because Norman had given them a middling kick to contend with at the end of St. George’s last kset. In the best single sweep of the game, Wighton paused to kick, and shifted it right to Whitehead, who broke through Hunt at the ten, dummied left, broke away from Sloan, and offloaded through Gerard Beale to Kris. From there, Kris dummied left, shrugged off Sloan, the main casualty of this sequence, and reached out his arm to get the footy down.
From Wighton to Whitehead to Kris, this sequence felt like the Raiders twisting and spinning through every defensive option the Dragons had to muster, capping it off with a superb conversion from Williams, who read the wind brilliantly. Norman hurried the kickoff to make sure it didn’t blow off the tee a second time, and the Raiders got stuck into their restart, as Papalii took his eighth big carry, and Williams got a floater away – a floating pass, that the wind carried so far that Wighton didn’t have time to kick before St. George cleaned him up.
Norman’s next grubber got the freakiest dropout of the game, careening towards the dead ball line as Rapana and Wiliame converged on it. Wiliame reached out his fingertips to collect it for a last-ditch try, and missed it, tumbling to ground and tripping up Rapana, who looked back to find the footy ricocheting off his knee just as he slid over the dead ball line. Rapana wasted a Challenge to contest it, but the Red V didn’t do much with the dropout, ending with Sloan dropping the ball right on the boot for a poorly weighted grubber that went too far.
Sloan got some joy on the next set, though, steeling himself as last line of defence as Whitehead and Kris reprised their previous combo right on the line, forcing a knock-on from Kris in the process. With two successive restarts off Emre Guler and Ryan Sutton errors, this was a potential turning-point for the Dragons if they could just get to a good option on the last. They almost got there, as Hunt opted to run the footy, shifting it out to Bird, who sent it out for Beale to dash up the side and back in, where Kris got even more closure than Sloan.
Not only did Kris collect Beale’s offload, but he tempted a high shot from Norman, as the Raiders resumed their momentum from a few sets before – and contained this brief surge of St. George energy. Joe Tapine got them rolling with a deft offload to Simonsson on tackle two, Sutton slammed into the line, and Tapine took another carry to carve up space down the middle. Wighton chipped, Kris and Ravalawa contested it again in the air, and Sloan put it down as the Dragons steeled themselves for more goal line defence with ten minutes to go.
Before that happened, they sent up a Challenge in an attempt to claim that Kris had knocked on during his encounter with Ravalawa in the air. They were successful, putting a pin in the Raiders’ accumulation of field position just when the green machine seemed poised for their third try. As if this reversal weren’t dramatic enough, Williame picked up speed on the left edge, and shifted it out to Ramsey, who kicked at speed, but was prevented from chasing the footy down by Simonsson, before Sloan knocked the Steeden on while trying to put it down.
Since Timoko was in goal, this wasn’t deemed a penalty try, or even a professional foul – just a penalty – so it was cathartic for the Dragons when they scored the best try so far, three tackles into the repeat set. This was sublime stuff from Hunt, who drove the footy into the line, paused for a brief moment, and almost handed it across to Billy Burns, who proved himself as a late inclusion by storming across from the left edge to hit the Steeden at speed.
The contrast between Hunt’s deceleration and Burns’ acceleration was quite spectacular, narrowing the deficit to six points after Norman booted through the first red and white two-pointer. High on this flow, the Dragons sent up their second Challenge a moment later to contest whether Sloan had knocked on – and the replay just added to their confidence, since it showed Bird offloading, Sloan doing well to avoid contact, and Norman scooting in at the last second to deftly bat it back to Andrew McCullough and ensure the St. George possession.
Norman followed with his best kick of the night, booting it forty minutes into the wind, although even a pummelling Dragons defence couldn’t prevent CHN and Tapine getting successive offloads away on the next Canberra set. Wighton matched Norman’s kick with a soaring bomb and the game moved up a gear as the last five minutes of the first half arrived. Hunt outplayed CNH and Tapine with the latest offload so far, to Norman, before Hunt’s kick caught an errant gust of wind above WIN Stadium, soaring 15 metres forward and 25 back.
This was a boon for Canberra, so it was an equally big let-off for the Dragons when CHN reached out his left hand for an offload and simply lost it under big pressure from Daniel Alvaro. Ravalawa was punishing on the next tackle, but Tapine got some revenge on Alvaro, on CHN’s behalf, by shutting down the following play. Even so the Red V’s big men continued to carve up the field – especially Vaughan, who was huge on the penultimate play – but the left sweep didn’t come together at the end, as Timoko slammed Williame out of contention.
With ninety seconds on the clock, Hodgson stole the footy from Sloan on play one, shifting it across for Rapana to bring the Raiders into the St. George ten. Guler almost made it to the line, so it was agonising when Wighton followed CHN with a loose carry, spilling the footy one metre out. Kris stormed in to collect it, and copped an accidental poke in the eye from Ravalawa, followed by a late tackle from Bird. Kris came from the field, Xavier Savage trotted on with less than a minute to go, and Williams added the penalty kick as the first half ended.
CHN had the same issue with kickoff at the start of the second half as Norman had at the start of the game, forcing Simonsson to hold it the footy in place, Charlie Brown-style, while he got a boot to it. McCullough immediately claimed this back forty for the Dragons with a 40/20 early in the tackle count, and the Red V got a penalty when Hodgson failed to get square at marker. Norman took the kick, narrowing the deficit to six as he drilled it through the posts, before Hunt put down the ball early in the next tackle count, giving Canberra the scrum feed.
Simonsson now brought the ball to the line on the left wing, and Wighton did the same closer to the posts, before Tapine continued this drifting movement by collecting a short ball from Sutton, as Guler ran the decoy, and crashing over just beside the right post. This was an epic putdown, as Tapine reached out his arm beneath the combined weight of Norman, Alvaro and Tariq Sims for the toughest try so far. Yet these would be the last points that Canberra scored all night, after Williams steadied the Steeden to add the extras against the sea wind.
While the subsequent St. George comeback wasn’t quite as dramatic as the two games on Sunday – Manly over Gold Coast, Parra over Canterbury – it was just as cathartic given that catastrophic loss to the Bulldogs last week. Sloan got pummelled collecting the next kick but the Dragons still got six again on the first tackle, thanks to an offside from Guler, while the young fullback was particularly dexterous on the next set, tapping the ball back to Ramsey as the kick chase arrived, before collecting a beautiful Hunt offload just before it hit the ground.
This combination between Sloan and Hunt laid the platform for the next and best St. George try, which came off Hunt’s best last-tackle option of the night as well. Receiving the footy on the last, Hunt glimpsed space on the right wing, tucked the Steeden under his arm, and ran a curving line up the corner. He waited until the last minute to pop it across to Bird, meaning the ex-Bronco only had to execute the shortest and simplest of passes to send Beale across.
In a weird twist, Papalii now came back on for Savage, since the sideline officials had made a mistake with the free interchange at the end of the first stanza. Meanwhile, Sloan moved from laying the platform for the last try to setting up his own debut NRL try with a clutch chip-and-chase. Receiving the footy from Hunt twenty metres out, he booted it vertically into the air for a dangerous bounce that defied Rapana but found Norman, who offloaded back to his fullback as the Dragons squad surged in to congratulate Sloan’s first four points in the NRL.
Poised between Hunt and Norman in this way, Sloan already felt completely attuned to the St. George spine. Norman missed the extras, but the Dragons were still only four points behind Canberra, while Hunt capitalised on the wind at his back when Tapine was pinged for a dangerous tackle early in the restart. St. George now felt as if they were flying, and very nearly scored their next try here, when De Belin put his body on the line to chase down a Norman grubber, only to fumble it on the chalk as CHN came in as last line of Raiders defence.
Even if De Belin missed the try, Canberra were clearly spooked by this recent turn of events, amping up their attack on the following set – from a huge carry from Papalii to an enormous kick chase and pack effort, spearheaded by Wighton, to push Sloan back in goal after he collected the kick. Yet St. George matched their effort immediately, as Norman booted it 75 metres for the dropout, and Hunt skittled Semi Valemei for one of the hardest hits of the night, before the Raiders got six again after a high hit from Vaughan, who was put on report.
They came close to scoring a moment later, when Wighton received the ball from Hodgson, dummied left (on the left) and broke through the line – and a try was actually awarded by Chris Sutton, but denied by the Bunker, due to an obstruction from Simonsson. This was even more deflating than De Belin’s near try – one of the last turning-points of the game, on the brink of the final quarter, as Canberra glimpsed a ten point lead only to concede the rhythm back to St. George. Even worse, Lui was now penalised, one tackle later, for lying in the ruck.
If the Dragons could score here they would have decisively taken control of the game – and stood a good shot at winning a match that had a relatively low scoreline from both teams. They stepped up with some of their biggest plays, including a rollicking Kerr run that drew in four defenders, a desperate Norman charge that saw him attempting to offload with both hands until the death, and finally a heroic David-and-Goliath burst from Hunt on the last, redolent of Nathan Cleary’s courage on the line, that saw him twist into Lui and Rapana.
The footy was still live, tucked under his arm, as he came to ground ten centimetres out, so this was also the most desperate defence of the game from Canberra, raising the energy another notch as the wind started to get stronger again over WIN Stadium. Simonsson regained some ground with a terrific take under the high ball a set later, when the St. George kick chase let down an equally terrific bomb from Hunt, and CNH followed suit with an offload.
The next sequence was every bit as plosive as Hunt’s almost-try, as Hodgson booted and ricocheted the footy off Ramsey and back to Timoko, who put in an even clutchier kick at speed, just as he was being tackled to ground. Ramsey now stepped up with the best single defensive play of the game, scrambling to contain the Steeden as Lui and Rapana sandwiched and somersaulted him over the line. The Raiders still had a dropout, but a De Belin tackle did the job on Lui, leaving his big men free to shut down Whitehead on the last.
Hunt cemented this as one of his best games of the year with a 40/20 on the next set, barking out orders to his men as the Dragons got in place for what surely had to be their next tryscoring sequence. Vaughan took the first carry, De Belin followed, McCullough fed it right for Bird to barge into Wighton, and Sims took a run in the same part of the park. It all came together with two sublime passes beside the left post – De Belin to Vaughan, and then Vaughan’s first assist in two years, an offload on the turf for Norman to spin though Soliola.
Wind at his back, Norman added the conversion, and the Dragons took the lead for the first time. They got a few scares over the last ten minutes, from a Rapana linebreak, to a dropout, to a pair of penalties for Burns as the final siren drew near. But they stayed strong, coming away with arguably their hardest-won victory of the year, putting their loss to the Dogs behind them in the process. They’ll draw on that confidence when they take on the Warriors after Origin, while the Raiders will be looking for a big win margin when they take on Gold Coast.
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