Friday night’s game at Cbus was effectively finals footy for both teams – especially since they’ll be taking on Penrith and Melbourne, the two most like Grand Finals contenders, next week. Both Canberra and St. George were on 8 wins and 11 losses, and while the Raiders were sitting on 10th and the Dragons on 11th, they were both on 18 competition points with a differential of -82 – a much better differential than Newcastle, who were at -139, but had shifted up to 7th after beating Brisbane at Suncorp the night before.
St. George had struggled with their kicking game recently, and with Ben Hunt out, there was even more pressure on Corey Norman, who was also playing for a spot next year. Add Jack Bird’s third game at fullback, and the Dragons did really well for the first half hour here, dominating the scoreline until just before half time, and only permitting Canberra to take the lead at the forty-third minute. Even then, they prevented any more tries, although they also failed to score another point, with only a sole penalty kick punctuating the last half hour.
All in all, then, it was a bit of a drab game at times, albeit an interesting counterpoint to the Raiders’ ten-point loss to Newcastle, when they lost momentum early on and never quite recovered it. Here, too, they found their feet relatively late (even though the Dragons never challenged them quite like the Knights), taking control of the middle part of the game before it all descended to a war of attrition in the back quarter – and an error-fest in the last ten, when even Jordan Rapana’s 150th milestone motivation at fullback couldn’t rally the troops.
Jack De Belin summoned a big pack to smother Josh Papalii on the first play, and Joe Tapine copped the same treatment on the second, but Elliott Whitehead wasn’t having any of it on the third, crashing so hard into Cody Ramsey that the young centre was taken off the park for an HIA with barely thirty seconds on the clock. He ended up failing it, meaning Talatau Amone was on for good, as the Raiders gradually found their feet over the second half of the set, culminating with a decent kick from Sam Williams, inside the forty.
Nevertheless, St. George had better position to play with, as Josh McGuire crossed the halfway line halfway through the set, and Adam Clune kicked from the same position as Williams. He targeted the right corner, where Semi Valemei reached out both hands and realised it was going to be too awkward to take, pulling back at the last minute to let it bounce into touch. Even though they started from the ten, the Raiders made better headway this time, getting Williams down St. George’s end for his first floater.
It was a dangerous kick, and a good riposte to Clune’s chip, quashing the Dragons’ momentum, and forcing Norman to take his first one in the St. George forty. The visitors aimed for more of that smothering defence early in the next set, but they took it too fast, conceding the first six again with a McGuire offside. Four tackles in, Rapana became the first player to reach the red zone (literally) after cleaning up a loose Williams ball, forcing the Saints to work it right back from their try line on the following set.
Now it was St. George’s turn to get six again, off a similar error from Ryan Sutton. Just as the Raiders had used their restart to make the first incursion into the twenty, the Dragons now made the first break, thanks to a rapid shift out to the right, where Zac Lomax fed a superb no-looker to Mikaele Ravalawa on the sideline. From there, Ravalawa broke into space, and kicked at speed, but he put too much weight on it, sending the Steeden spinning over the dead ball line. Still, the Dragons got another chance right away with a Papalii cough-up.
They also got the first scrum, an entire set within the Canberra twenty, and then an entire set within the ten, after a late restart off a Tapine ruck infringement. This was too much acceleration not to score, and sure enough Papalii paid dearly for his error when the Red V mirrored their superb Lomax-Ravalawa combo with an equally deft close-range play on the left. All it took was a perfectly placed cut-out ball from Norman for Mathew Feagai to cruise over untouched, making it a six-point game once Lomax added a confident sideline kick.
Canberra tried to replicate St. George’s smothering defence on the restart, and while the Dragons managed to make good metres, Clune still opted to kick midway through, prescient that maintaining the momentum was more important than driving for back-to-back tries. He sent it all the way to the Raiders’ try line, meaning that Jack Wighton only got to the thirty by the time he put boot to ball, giving the Dragons a brief respite before they got stuck into what felt like their real restart on the back of Feagai’s try.
For a moment, this delay and consolidation seemed to work wonders. Where Clune had kicked halfway through the previous set, Tariq Sims now dragged it over the halfway line, so it was frustrating when Norman booted it too hard on the last to grant Canberra the first seven-tackle set. Yet Hudson Young followed Papalii with a ball drop early in the count, and the Raiders conceded two penalties in quick succession – an escort from Matthew Timoko, and a hip-drop from Rapana, who came in as third man for late contact on Blake Lawrie.
Lomax took his time booting through the two, as if to absorb all of Canberra’s chaos into the St. George calm. As a result, their restart was more fluid after the penalty kick than after the try, right down to the Norman bomb, and yet this just prompted the Raiders into some of their most enterprising play for a while – and Lomax into some of his best defence. In fact, Lomax shut down precisely the same combo he’d showcased with Ravalawa earlier on, coming in hard and fast to stop Wighton and Croker opening space for Valemei on the wing.
Young managed to flick a forward pass out to Valemei a play later, and got away with the error, but Lomax was in position again for the turnover, before St. George survived an error of their own – a Ravalawa knock-on that was called as a Sutton offside. Norman returned the favour soon after – it had been a night of reciprocal six agains – and Hodgson steered the Steeden into the St. George red zone for the first time, only for Wighton to become the next kicker to boot it too far over the backline.
Still, this was a tantalising glimpse of field position for Canberra, putting them in the spirit to capitalise when Feagai coughed up the footy early in the count. To their credit, St. George mounted a solid defence here, confronting the hosts with a wall of red jerseys in every part of the park. If a try was going to come, the critical play had to occur after the kick, behind the line – and so it was, as Harley Smith-Shields delivered one of the best assists of Round 21, at the tail end of a clutchy Whitehead grubber that slid straight between Norman’s legs.
The ball was going dead for all money, but Smith-Shields never gave up on the play, leaping a metre over the sideline to tap it back into Rapana, who caught it on the full, and won the first big battle of the fullbacks. Defying Bird and regaining his balance to slam the Steeden down, he made it 8 tries from 9 appearances at fullback, culminating a sequence that was every bit flamboyant enough to reverse the rhythm of the game. Croker added the kick, and the Raiders got their next chance when Sims was put on report for a bone-crushing hit on Smith-Shields.
An Amone ruck error later, Rapana drew in a maelstrom of defenders at the ten, shrugging off a couple of tackles, and pre-empting a couple more. He appeared to be orchestrating the game around himself, exuding so much confidence that you had to believe Josh Starling would score off his offload. Instead, it turned out to be forward, giving the Dragons a precious window to reclaim the game – and they did so with style, reversing the last sequence by giving Sims his fourth try of the season to make up for the error that led to Starling’s almost-try.
Even better, this was the first barnstorming try of the game, starting with a break from Clune, who sliced past Young and popped it out for Sims to pivot back inside, slide outside, and come to ground just shy of the line, thanks to a second Young tackle – this time an ankle-tap that was never going to stop big Tariq from crossing over off his own enormous momentum. Lomax missed his first kick from the sideline, but it felt like the Saints had decisively restored their flow here – you would never have guessed these would be their last point of the night.
This had been a pretty heroic sequence from Young, who copped the first charge of the restart, from Ravalawa, as well. His resilience helped set up Canberra for a pretty convincing defensive set, before they got six again early in their next carry, off a grapple from Sims, who had become the pivotal player, momentum-wise, during this second quarter. His brutal tackle had almost conceded a Starling try, he’d scored a try himself, and now his penalty paved the way for the next Canberra try, which was as acrobatic as his own crossover was aggressive.
Similarly, whereas Sims had scored the first barnstorming long-ranger, Wighton now got the first try off a high kick, syncing up with Williams for the best halves combo of the night, while also putting the Lomax-Ravalawa combo on the wing to bed for good. Williams sent a gorgeous chip to the left, where Wighton leaped up to steal it from Lomax in the air, and then spun through Ravalawa on the ground, disposing of Bird in the same motion – and this was a reminder of how much can be done in a single motion, a vision of pure football efficiency.
Croker was always going to convert from this angle, wrapping things up at two converted tries apiece. Lomax had one more linebreak before the siren, but neither team scored again before they headed to the sheds, while Starling got his try after all early in the second stanza. That said, Ravalawa, Lawrie, Ford and De Belin started with a strong sequence of charges, and some decent post-contact metres, to get Norman his first kick over the halfway line, while Bird had his biggest challenge at fullback so far, Rapana’s four-pointer notwithstanding.
Fielding a massive Williams bomb, he had to contend with an even bigger chase from Wighton, who actually forced the footy free – but backwards, before Bird cleaned it up on the ground. With a strong set here, the Dragons might have parlayed this precarious play into a renewed flow, but Feagai coughed it up a few plays later – and the Raiders followed with the last try of the night off an error early in the count. They had a full set in the twenty, and moved their way methodically towards the line on the first two plays, before exploding on the third.
More accurately, Starling exploded, drawing on the frustration of his forward pass-assisted crossover by darting out of dummy half and slamming into Bird, who couldn’t keep him off the ground long enough for Andrew McCullough to get a hand beneath the footy. In fact, the two defenders probably provided Starling with the leverage he needed to spiral the Steeden onto the turf, marking the end of a very spotty sequence for the Bird fullback experiment. Croker had an easy kicking angle, and the Raiders took the lead for the first time.
As with Sims’ try at the thirtieth minute, it felt like the floodgates might open here, and yet this would also be the last time that Canberra crossed, with only a penalty kick left over the next thirty-five minutes. That said, in a game where so many tries had drawn on previous plays, this was the ultimate consolidation sequence – not just because Starling got his try after all, but because the Raiders’ halves combo, so critical at the end of the first stanza, had made the first statement here, with the Williams-Wighton-Bird sequence that got it all rolling.
That reciprocal momentum made it particularly dangerous for Canberra when Starling lost the footy early in the restart. Not only did it deny them the chance of back-to-back tries, but this was exactly the reversal we saw with Sims, suggesting Starling might become a similar rhythm-pivot if the Dragons scored here – especially since so many of the critical moments had come off errors at the start of the tackle count. Yet with an equally early error from Ford, the Raiders got their restart after all, as Williams opted to kick on the third for position.
Bird had to bring it back from the try line, and continued to suffer in the custodian role, setting his eyes at a big Canberra pack, only to cop a high shot from Emre Guler, who joined Sims and Rapana by finding himself put on report for his troubles. The Dragons added significantly to their post-metre tally on the next set, and were at the twenty by tackle four, but Norman’s crossfield chip was too flat, leaving space for Croker to both take it on the full and withstand a dropout as he came to ground, Steeden-first, on his own try line.
Once again, Williams kicked early, cementing a new frantic energy in the game, as both sides sensed that the next team to score – if anyone scored at all – would likely carry the night. Norman followed Williams with a boot on the fourth, Smith-Shields caught the inflection off Lomax, and Wighton was forced to kick it in his own forty, but managed to orchestrate such a good bounce that the Canberra defence had time to jam in by the time Ravalawa contained it – only for Whitehead to undo all that position by stripping Lawrie as third man in the tackle.
In other words, both teams were playing more elastic, expansive footy now, risking errors for the sake of harnessing the adrenalin that had been unleashed by this last sequence of clutch plays. For the next seven minutes, the Dragons got the best of it, as the Raiders opted for two enterprising plays that ended up conceding a torrent of position back to St. George, who had their longest stint on the Canberra line all night – fifteen tackles inside the twenty – along with their best sustained attack, methodical and tough at the same time.
The first play came from Croker, who tried to intercept a Clune-Lomax pass, but knocked it on instead, before conceding six again off the scrum, inside his own ten. From there, the Dragons asked questions in every part of the field, and especially on the left edge, where Bird started to come into his own at fullback, culminating with a superb run late in the count where he fended off three players, beat Guler, and set up De Belin for a charge into the post. Big Jack was only just held up, meaning the set came down to a Clune crossfield chip on the last.
Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Rapana now grabbed the footy into his chest with one hand, taking possession so quickly and cleanly that Lomax was tempted into a second effort before he knew what hit him. Yet Tapine followed Croker with another enterprising play that didn’t come off – a late offload to Wighton that turned into a midfield knock-on. Norman wasted no time targeting the left edge again, where he almost broke through at close range, and actually got his boots over the chalk as Timoko turned him round to face his own try line.
A late tackle from Tapine got St. George another set, and it was now crunch time, as all Bird’s energy on the left edge crystallised around a McCullough grubber. Bird reached for it, and might have slammed his whole body onto the Steeden if Rapana hadn’t showcased more scintillating defence, and won another bout of the backs, with a last-ditch effort that saw his rival custodian tap the footy into touch instead. After all that attack, the Dragons didn’t have much in the tank for the next Canberra set, which ended with another sublime Williams chip.
At first, this looked like it might be the consolidation try of the night, as none of the contesters cleaned it up, meaning that Papalii, who was watching on a few metres back, found the Steeden suddenly careening straight towards him. Taking it on the bounce, he brushed off Sims and slammed under the crossbar, for what would have been a barnstorming try if the replay hadn’t showed the very tip of Wighton’s left index finger making fleeting contact in the air before the Dragons defenders tapped it back.
This was an interesting moment, momentum-wise. Of course, the Raiders had lost a try here, while the error took the edge off the earlier Williams-Wighton combo – no small matter in a game where each major shift had built so precisely on what had come before. Yet even a near-try felt like a minor victory for Canberra, who had managed to consolidate better in one set than St. George had in fifteen tackles within the twenty. With one more missed opportunity from the Red V, you had to feel like Canberra had it in the bag here.
Sure enough, the visitors botched their next incursion to the Raiders’ twenty, thanks to Whitehead, who got himself in place to play at a Norman grubber, and so tempted Corey into an accidental offside. Williams followed with the sole 40/20 of the game, Lomax became the next player to be put on report for dangerous contact, and Croker booted through the penalty goal to put the green machine beyond a converted try lead as the last ten minutes arrived.
Ravalawa and Hodgson now went error for error, but the Dragons couldn’t do anything with the reversal, as McCullough failed to mirror Williams’ 40/20, and De Belin joined Lomax on report, for sliding in at a dangerous angle to make contact with Rapana on the ground. From here, the game degenerated into a litany of errors, ending with a whimper rather than a bang – an incentive for the Raiders to continue getting their house in order before they play the Storm next week, and a worrying sign for the Red V as they prepare to host the Panthers.