ROUND 16: New Zealand Warriors v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (Central Coast Stadium, 2/7/21, 18-19)

The Warriors had won their last five matches against the Dragons when they hosted them in Gosford on Friday evening, but both teams were struggling for consistency, and needed this win as a consolidation point midway through their season. New Zealand had new blood in their ranks, with Chad Townsend making his first appearance in Warriors colours since 2015, and Dallin Watene Zelezniak debuting on the wing after making the second mid-season switch of his career to leave the Bulldogs behind him.

The result was one of the great arm wrestles of the season, as New Zealand delivered a pretty scrappy opening half hour, and allowed St. George to put down six unanswered points, only to suddenly accelerate in the last ten minutes before the break, when they reclaimed that six point lead as their own. By the fifty-second minute they were triple the Dragons at 18-6, off a Bunty Afoa try that disposed so clinically of Andrew McCullough that they felt destined to cascade into a really spectacular win.

Instead, these would be the last points that the Warriors scored, as the Red V mounted a rapid comeback in the last minutes, when they put down a trio of tries that should have ensured them the win, culminating with a Cody Ramsey four-pointer a second out from the siren, but instead sent the game into golden point after Corey Norman failed to boot through a single conversion. He had the last laugh though, with the field goal that carried the match, at the eighty-ninth minute, after Hunt and Townsend had both tried to nail the winning point.

With no crowds, you could hear every contact as Paul Vaughan, Blake Lawrie, Tariq Sims and Jack De Belin took the opening hit-ups, before Vaughan made another run, Corey Norman booted the first kick and DWZ only just cleaned up the high ball for his first touch as a Warrior. Meanwhile, Townsend only got to the halfway line for his kick, although New Zealand mounted a good chase to drag Matt Dufty back inside the ten when he received it. Josh Kerr added his impact to the St. George forwards and De Belin took them back over halfway.

New Zealand made slightly better headway on their next set, as Townsend got to the Dragons’ forty for his kick, and Vaughan added more metres, this time after contact, to get Ben Hunt into Warriors territory for his next effort with the boot. It went dead in goal, the first glitch of the game, which was already feeling like an arm wrestle, as both sides searched for the big play needed to break it open, and waited for the opposition to make a significant mistake.

St. George got the first advantage on the next set, which saw New Zealand break the twenty for the first time on the back of their twenty-metre tap. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck grubbered down the left edge, where Edward Kosi collected it, and probably could have barged through Dufty to score, but instead seemed to doubt himself, opting for a second boot that was always going to ricochet awkwardly off the Dragons fullback. Nevertheless, the Warriors were back in the red zone (literally) a set later, where RTS delivered a second great grubber on the other wing.

It paid better dividends this time, resulting in RTS’ first forced dropout of the year, thanks to a tough chase from Marcelo Montoya, who forced Ramsey to clean it up deep in goal. Kane Evans now turned around and barged into Lawrie, Vaughan and De Belin on tackle one, as if trying to put that strong opening set, and the arm wrestle it produced, behind him. He made tough contact, but probably should have just taken the hit, instead of popping a precarious offload back to Sean O’Sullivan, who didn’t have time or space to take it cleanly.

In one play, the Dragons had gone from defending a dropout to Norman’s first kick at the twenty, forcing RTS to really scramble to clean it up on the ten metre line. The last thing they needed was an unforced error from Ben Murdoch-Masila, who was far too relaxed as he reached out his hands to take an O’Sullivan pass, dropping it cold in what was probably the softest mistake of the 2021 season so far. On the other side of the Steeden, St. George had their first stint on the twenty, and the best attacking opportunity for either team.

With a ruck error from Evans, a try seemed imminent, and sure enough the Dragons congealed into one of their sharpest sequences a tackle later, when De Belin transformed a fumbly low catch into a great ball for Hunt, who responded with a short one for Kerr that looked like the first assist of the game. In fact, Kerr was hanging over the try line, football extended, when he succumbed to O’Sullivan’s low tackle, losing it at the last minute in a classic David-on-Goliath effort. The arm-wrestle continued, with both teams still on zero.

Nevertheless, the Dragons didn’t have to wait long to accumulate more field position, thanks to a ruck error from Tohu Harris. Hunt stepped up with some leadership now, kicking before the last to the left corner, where Ramsey went from conceding a dropout to forcing a dropout, with a tough chase that left DWZ no option but to bump the ball into touch. As with the opening set of the night, Vaughan and Lawrie got things rolling, setting up De Belin and Hunt for a right side sweep that ended with a forward-like run from Jack Bird up the wing.

For a moment, it looked like Kerr had condensed all that right edge energy into a successful putdown, as a cascade of Warriors slammed in to prevent him going the final half metre. Still, this whole set felt like consolidation, especially since Hunt forced his second dropout in as many sets, this time from close-range, with a deft grubber that Townsend read just as efficiently behind the posts, where he flicked it into touch before the chase could hit him. This was partly self-preservation too, as he’d been nursing his right arm since an early tackle.

The Dragons now crystallised their recent drive at the right edge with a short ball from Dufty and a tough run from Bird, who combined his own run, from the previous set, with the short-range charge that Kerr built on top of it. This felt like a crunch moment in the game, shortly before the second quarter, and prompted the best goal line defence so far from Adam Pompey, who made precise but brutal contact on Bird, before leaping up to take the footy on the full when Norman chipped back in that direction on the concluding play.

Still, this wasn’t complete closure for the Warriors, who conceded the first two points when O’Sullivan was pinged for an escort, before RTS wasted their Captain’s Challenge trying to contest it. From the air, it looked like he might have a case, but at ground level this was a penalty every day of the week, and so Norman booted through the points, before Harris and Eliesa Katoa took out their frustration by sandwiching Sims in a massive hit. Harris came out the worse for wear, however, copping the full brunt of Tariq’s shoulder straight in the head.

All in all, this was a pretty deflating moment for the Warriors, especially since Pompey’s catch had initially seemed like such a decisive full stop on the Dragons’ last bout of field position. The last straw was a second loose carry from Murdoch-Masila, who lost it early in the count while charging into a rolling tackle from Hunt up the left edge. Again, Vaughan and Lawrie laid the platform, before Vaughan charged up beside the left post, almost crossed alone, but opted for a late offload to Hunt, who channelled all his no. 10’s energy for the opening try.

It capped off a splendid opening from Vaughan, who’d orchestrated the big men from his very first carry, and proved his dexterity with the best offload of the game so far here, twisting 270 degrees through the low tackle from Katoa before handing more than passing it to Hunt. No surprise that he was topping the VB Hard Earned Index on 47, or that Lawrie and De Belin were sitting behind him on 40 and 25 respectively, since the three men had taken control of the game from their combinations on the very first set.

Norman missed the conversion but the Dragons were still a converted try ahead, thanks to that penalty kick, while Lawrie and Vaughan took the first two tackles of the restart, setting up Sims for a great charge and Andrew McCullough for a neat offload back to Dufty. By the time Bird accelerated up the left edge, this was starting to feel like a greatest hits package for St. George, at least in terms of this game, culminating with a pretty good Kerr chip that might have produced a dropout or try if RTS hadn’t reached out his full wingspan to intercept it.

Even so, the Warriors had to work their way back from their own goal line, and were still in their own twenty by tackle three, before play paused following a head collision between Wiliame and Lawrie while they were fielding a Katoa tackle. It was pretty brutal contact, so both Dragons were always going to leave the park for an HIA, just as Harris had finally succumbed to his head injury a few minutes before as well. Unlike Harris, though, they passed, as Josh McGuire and Billy Burns came on for some fresh blood off the bench.

McGuire took his cues from Sims on the next set, carving up the middle with a rollicking run, and laying the platform for more metres from Bird up the right edge. In one of the more eccentric moments of the game, Norman ran the footy, waited an age for the offload, and eventually sent it on to Vaughan, who followed Kerr with a decent chip up the right edge. It didn’t produce results then and there, but it did curb New Zealand’s field position once again, even if O’Sullivan eventually broke the halfway line before he booted it over the sideline.

Both sides now got a brief breathing-space before St. George played it from the ten, sitting on 608 run metres to New Zealand’s 295. They didn’t add too many more on this set, however, as Bird ricocheted so hard off Montoya that he seemed momentarily dishevelled when he rose from the contact, fumbling the footy as he tried to play it prematurely. This was a critical chance for the Warriors, who had their first real stint inside the twenty – and delivered three plays in, when Wayde Egan simply dummied and broke through Norman on the right edge.

After the Dragons had made so many efforts up their own right edge, with so much forward power between them, it was a real rhythm-changer to see how elastically and effortlessly Egan slammed over on the Warriors’ first shot from close range. Add to that Norman’s poor play at marker, and Townsend’s conversion, which also put Norman to shame, and New Zealand had restored the arm-wrestle (and levelled the score) in a single sequence. With nine minutes on the clock, both teams needed a second try to cement their morale in the sheds.

It didn’t hurt, either, that Townsend’s first conversion for the Warriors was powerfully precise – straight through the posts, like missing wasn’t ever an option. Addin Fonua-Blake copped the full force of the St. George defence to begin the restart, but despite being dragged back several metres he still managed an offload out to Leeson Ah Mau, who recovered the metres for him. Townsend added more second phase play for Katoa a tackle later, and RTS broke into space up the left, before O’Sullivan ended a compressed right sweep with a kick on the fourth.

Hunt might have missed Roger the Dodger as he pivoted away from him with some trademark footwork, but Dufty steadied the St. George spine – first with the tackle that finally brought RTS to ground, and then with a heroic effort to collect O’Sullivan’s kick and curl himself around the Steeden before the New Zealand chase could drag him over the try line. Tyrell Fuimaono provided a similar individual effort as the hosts accelerated into their next set, coming in hard on Townsend to force the footy free and get his men seven tackles to play with.

Between Dufty and Fuimaono’s initiative, it felt like the Dragons had successfully contained this last bout of New Zealand position – until Dufty undid it with a forward pass in the face of a big hit from Montoya. Even worse, Fuimaono and Dufty now made back-to-back ruck errors, invititing the Warriors further and further into the territory they’d repelled them from just a moment ago. With such a rapid change in fortune, New Zealand felt destined to score here, and score they did, thanks to another economical sequence on the right side of the park.

This time it all unfolded beside the right post, where Townsend shaped for a sweep out to the wing only to change the angle with a pass back inside to Katoa, who twisted through a low tackle from Lawrie and slammed the Steeden down just before losing control of it. Townsend added the kick, and the Warriors headed to the sheds a converted try ahead after spending a significant portion of the first stanza a converted try behind. The onus was on St. George to get the better of this escalating arm wrestle when both teams returned from the break.

RTS caught Hunt’s kickoff behind the line and took the first carry as well, while Katoa built on his try with a strong run and near-break up the right edge, fuelling Townsend into a bold kick on tackle four. McCullough might have hit back with a big boot deep into the right corner, but Kosi sent it wide to RTS on the very first play, as if to show his men that they could and should maintain this flow into their next set despite working it right back from their own try line. Ah Mau added a late offload and O’Sullivan capped it all off with a clinical chip over the sideline.

Norman followed McCullough with the first bomb since the break, forcing New Zealand to work it out of their ten for the third time in a row, but they got their biggest let-off so far when De Belin was put on report for a cannonball tackle. Ah Mau continued to deliver with ten post-contact metres to bring his men to the red zone, where the Dragons saved the day twice – first by shutting down a silky sweep out to Montoya, and then when Hunt put his body on the line to leap above both Pompey and O’Sullivan and take the high ball at the crossbar.

With a crowding penalty from O’Sullivan to boot, St. George were starting to regain the upper hand, hitting the twenty by tackle four, and condensing New Zealand’s last right sweep into a single pass from Dufty to Beale on the wing. Beale put it down, so this would have been the momentum-builder the visitors needed if Dufty hadn’t flicked it forward – one of the more damaging errors of their night, since it opened up space for the Warriors to reclaim all that red and white rhythm of their own if they could execute a convincing sequence now.

The big men delivered a series of strong runs, and Townsend made an executive decision to delay the playmaking until the next set, booting it over the sideline again to give his men some time to reset their line before they really built on the Dragons’ disappointment. His strategy felt justified when St. George couldn’t manage a chase on RTS when he took Norman’s bomb on the full, and even more justified when the Red V failed to deliver decent marker plays on the first two tackles of the subsequent set, allowing RTS and DWZ to make ten metres apiece.

Add to that De Belin being put on report for a dangerous tackle, and the Warriors had finally claimed these first ten minutes as their own, with a full set in the St. George twenty. They struggled for the first two tackles, as Hunt slammed in for a monster hit on Bayley Sironen, and Jazz Tevaga had to slide to his knees to take a RTS pass. Nevertheless, it all came together on plays three and four, when they dug deep to fuse the best plays from the big men with the darting vision out of dummy half that Egan had showcased for their first four-pointer.

Egan delivered two runs from dummy half here – the first to Evans, who plunged over and almost scored beneath the crossbar; the second to Bunty Afoa, who fell more than barged through McCullough, wrapping the St. George hooker into the tackle as he scored the easiest try of the night. Townsend added the extras, and just like that the Warriors were triple the Dragons at 18-6, on the back of a try that asked such drastic questions of the red and white defence that you had to believe a cascade of New Zealand points was on the horizon.

Instead, this would be the last time the Warriors scored, while the Dragons clawed their way back to a one-point win by the time golden point was over. They got their first chance a moment later, with a dropout, although they couldn’t make good here, since Sims lost it on tackle three in the face of a huge hit from Katoa. RTS added more footwork up the middle, Katoa drove it up the left edge, O’Sullivan stayed in the same part of the park, and Townsend chipped to the right, where Norman leaped up to take it on the full.

In its own way, this catch was a turning-point for the Dragons, since a repeat set here, or even a fumble under the high ball, might have put New Zealand one try too far ahead to catch. Hunt rocketed it high at the end of the next set, and RTS was faced with a big St. George chase, as the visitors started to tighten the screws again on the cusp of the final quarter. Hunt delivered again on the next set, with a long-ranger and a follow-up chase that forced RTS to pop it into touch just when he was shaping to shepherd it over the line for seven tackles.

St. George had botched their last dropout so they had to deliver here – and from the very start of the set this felt like a consolidation sequence, invoking some of the best moments in their dominant opening half hour. Dufty ran it into the ten, the Red V got six again off an O’Sullivan ruck error, Vaughan delivered one of his best charges since the break, and Kerr hung over the right sideline for the third time, where he drew in an enormous combined tackle from O’Sullivan, Pompey and RTS, who required brief medical attention off the contact.

The Dragons didn’t waste any time resuming their rhythm after the pause in play, shifting it out to the left wing where Wiliame took a massive charge and Norman followed by trying to find a way around the solid goal line defence. Yet the Warriors delivered the second time around too, summoning a massive pack to drag Norman over the sideline, where he got the offload away too late. From there, they received six again early in the next set, thanks to a ruck infringement from Vaughan. They didn’t make much position, but felt in control again.

Conversely, the Dragons lost speed with a messy play-the-ball from Williame, even if they didn’t get penalised for the error, and were sitting at 9/14 to New Zealand’s 17/17 completions. They needed either a big individual effort or a particularly egregious error from the opposition to take control over the last sixteen minutes, and got a glimpse of the former when Dufty cleaned up the ball at the back end of a RTS drive up the Warriors’ left edge.

Nevertheless, the adrenalin dissipated up their own left edge, where Wiliame was brought down by a Montoya ankle tap, and Norman slipped on the turf a play later. The game was starting to devolve into a slog, with no clear sign, anymore, that the Dragons would manage to disrupt the rhythm enough to put down two converted tries before the siren. If anything, New Zealand were accelerating again, especially on their left, where O’Sullivan and Egan almost put Kosi over on their next set

If vision had to come, it had to come from Hunt, who had smashed Kosi into touch before he could get the ball down here. He didn’t get a chance on the next Dragons set, however, since McGuire coughed it up early in the count, giving New Zealand yet another stint in the St. George twenty, where the Red V summoned one of their best packs to hold up Fonua-Blake in his second charge at the left post, before Dufty built on his save from a few sets before. Taking the kick, he surged up his right wing before Townsend finally brought him down.

In another game, the Dragons would have built further on this charge, but it devolved into one of the worst dummy half sequences of the year – Bird sliding to ground to collect the footy from his fullback, and allowing himself to be tapped into touch in the very same play. With a little over eleven minutes on the clock, the Red V were running out of opportunities, and desperately needed to capitalise when Fonua-Blake lose the ball on tackle one of the next set. Hunt swept right on play three, for Kerr to offload back to to Noman for more metres.

This was a small play from Hunt, but it was critical in restoring St. George’s focus and flow. Even then, the next few plays weren’t pretty, as Burns and Hunt both lost it backwards, but both men also came off the victors, garnering restarts off Egan and O’Sullivan respectively, while Hunt’s consolidation fuelled the next two wing plays – a tough run from McGuire up the left, followed by Dufty making good on his wide ball to Beale on the right. This time the pass was good, the arc was true, and Beale had more than enough time to plant down four.

Just to ratchet up the suspense even further, Norman missed the conversion, but this just may have been the key factor in galvanising the Red V into making up for lost time over the last eight minutes, when they scored a point per minute to make up for that long drought in the middle of the game. Burns dropped the footy early in the restart, and the Warriors had half a set in the St. George ten, but Townsend ended with the weirdest decision of the night, opting for a field goal despite the eight-point lead, and missing it to concede seven tackles.

Once again, Hunt steadied his men by taking a big tackle in the middle of the park, before popping a wide ball out to Bird a few plays later. Bird responded with a nice chip down the wing, and followed with a chase that was all determination, grounding it in the right corner to narrow the scoreline to four points after Norman missed another sideline conversion to make it 1/10 in 2021. The strangest field goal attempt of the year had produced another St. George try, bringing the arm-wrestle to an ultra-suspenseful finish with four minutes to go.  

Dufty got the restart rolling with ten metres up the middle and an offload for McGuire, who set up Sims for more metres after contact, before Dufty bookended it all with another run. Hunt sent it right on the last, where Kerr had his fourth and last burst at the chalk. Reaching out an arm, he looked in vain for an offload, before losing it in the face of a big Warriors pack. Still, the Dragons survived the next New Zealand set, while Beale got them rolling with a strong run early in the next set, when Hunt came up with one of his best long kicks so far.

Kosi responded with one of the best collects, landing half a metre back in field and hanging onto the turf for dear life, but Hunt’s boot had a delayed impact, keeping New Zealand close enough to their own line for a big red and white pack to drag RTS back in goal on play two. With fifty seconds on the clock, the Dragons didn’t have time for a complete set, or a complete repeat set when Tevaga infringed the ruck, so it was sublime when Ramsey crashed over on the wing, off a jump-and-pass assist from Wiliame, completing the sweep that Hunt started.

Ramsey crossed over a second from the siren, Norman had booted 3/5 from the left touchline this year, and seemed to be aiming it true until the very end of the Steeden’s trajectory, when it curved away to ricochet off the right post. We were at golden point, and true to the arm wrestle of this particular game, the two teams used up most of the extra time, as Norman, Townsend and Hunt all missed field goals before Norman made up for his spotty kicking game by nabbing the one-pointer a minute out from the very last siren to make it an 18-19 win.

If Townsend had struck it true, he would have won back-to-back games against the same team with field goals, but instead the spectre of his weird field goal attempt in the final quarter haunted New Zealand to the last. The Warriors will be looking for a big one against the Sharks next week to make up for this most agonising of losses, while the Dragons suffered a pretty big scare as well, and will welcome the bye week to consolidate their focus before they face the challenge of a Manly home game (technically) at Cbus in Round 18.

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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