ROUND 8: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Wests Tigers (WIN Stadium, 1/5/22, 12-6)
The Tigers’ fairytale fortnight came to an end when they met the Dragons in Wollongong on Sunday night. They might have been pumped from the field goal win over the Rabbitohs, but St. George also had some serious momentum after beating Sydney for the first time in three Anzac Day clashes with a thriller that saw them score all their points in the first forty. Still, this was a tight one, with neither side scoring, apart from a lone Wests penalty kick, until Ben Hunt capped off a great night of leadership by crossing over at the 56th minute.
After nearly an hour without a try, the Red V felt all but unassailable when Jayden Sullivan scored thirteen minutes later, in his first game off the bench this year. Yet the Tigers bounced back with a Luke Brooks try six minutes out from the siren, and came agonisingly close to another grandstand finish, winning a challenge to get a double dropout on the back of a Moses Mbye error. In the end, though, the Dragons stayed strong, coming away with a superb sequel to their Anzac trophy, an even bigger achievement without Jack Bird.
Mikaele Ravalawa secured the kickoff and Frank Molo took the opening run, before George Burgess made seven metres through three Tigers defenders and Ben Hunt booted his first one from the forty. David Nofoaluma took it on the run and had the Tigers back at their own forty for their first play-the-ball, before Jackson Hastings got Luciano Leilua big metres, only for the big second-rower to pop the offload back to Andrew McCullough. This time Hunt was determined to get position off the kick, and booted it all the way to the Tigers’ ten.
James Tamou broke through the line four plays into the next set, but Jacob Liddle didn’t make enough noise for the support play on his inside, and while Mathew Feagai contained this brief burst by taking the kick in the right corner, the Tigers kept the Red V in their twenty for the next five tackles. Standing in for Daine Laurie at fullback, Starford To’a managed to rein in a difficult bounce, and the visitors got the first repeat set when Tariq Sims infringed the ruck. Broosky followed Tamou through the line a play later, before it all shifted back to the right.
Luciano had another inspired moment now, flicking the footy back in field as Moses Suli dragged him over the sideline, but Oliver Gildart couldn’t secure it, and the Dragons survived after some worrying missed tackles over the last set. This time Hunt got his kick from halfway, but it was a more standard effort, so To’a had time to shift it across for Asu Kepaoa to take the first run up the left. Only a Jack De Belin ankle tap prevented Liddle becoming the third Tiger to break the line, while Burgess was down in backplay as Moses Mbye fielded the catch.
He groggily returned to his feet midway through the next set, which ended with Hunt’s kick ricocheting back for Mbye to send a second boot over the left sideline. Zane Musgrove now built on a Kelma Tuilagi charge to drive it hard and fast up the middle, and Leilua got decent post-contacts through McGuire and Suli to bring his men fifteen out, before Talatau Amone shut down a left sweep at five-eighth. Suli then became the first Dragon to glimpse a break, as McCullough was sent for an HIA off the hit-up on Musgrove.
Jayden Sullivan came off the bench to draw on his brief appearances at hooker last year, and To’a did well to take Hunt’s bomb in the air with the sun directly in his face, before Joe Ofahengaue continued the momentum of Musgrove’s run, as did Nofa with a midfield charge directly into McGuire. Again, though, the Dragons cleaned up the kick in their right corner, as Ravalawa came away the victory in a contest with Kepaoa, and Hunt hoisted his highest one so far, while the Red V responded with their two biggest hit-ups so far.
First, Mbye surged in to smash Nofa the moment he received the high ball; then Hunt lifted his men with even bigger contact on Luke Garner. Meanwhile, Burgess was off the park, and Zac Lomax did well up the right edge, where he slammed into Gildart, and pre-empted the knock-on by flicking the footy back to ricochet off Brooks instead. St. George now had their first close-range attack of the afternoon, and almost made good on it when Sims busted into space on the right wing, only for Brooksy come in with a game-changing David-on-Goliath hit.
It was good enough to prevent Sims getting the offload away, although the visitors had to work hard to bring it out of their own end now, and lost more space when the ball careened backwards off Hastings, meaning Brooks had to challenge Mbye with the kick. He did enough to cost the ex-Tiger ten metres as he lost it back, while Nofa reset the balance of field position by tempting a high shot from Molo with another big charge up the middle. Brooks was at the twenty for the kick, but Mbye took it uncontested, and Suli followed by bumping off Joffa.
As if sensing that the Dragons needed to vary their attack on the cusp of the second quarter, Hunt booted it long and led the chase to hold up Kepaoa at the ten, before Lomax got there to finish the job. It was same leadership he’d showed against the Roosters last week, and Brooks hit back with a long low grubber right to St. George’s try line, an even more critical play in that Tamou had taken a beat to return to his feet on the penultimate play. With that kind of vulnerability from the captain, vision from the halves was a terrific tonic for the team.
The end-to-end rhythm continued as To’a was now forced to bring it back from the line. Nofa popped an offload out to Hastings, Leilua made ten post-contact metres up the right, and Twal pulled back an offload in the middle of the field, as it all came down to a Hastings bomb that Ravalawa took ten metres out from his line. Meanwhile, Tamou was looking assertive again, in keeping with his five runs for 62 metres, while the Tigers got a boost when Blake Lawrie put it down thirty metres out, midway through the tackle count.
Amone slammed in to prevent Brooksy doing much off the scrum base, while Sims shut down Tuilagi in the same part of the park, forcing the Tigers to focus most of their attention on the right side of the field, where Leilua dragged four defenders a metre out, before Brooks ended with a crossfield chip that Tuilagi caught on the full and slammed to ground for what initially looked like the first four in Wollongong, only for a cursory Bunker examination to deem that he’d knocked on in the process of grounding it, even though it looked good in slo-mo.
Brooksy and Tuilagi had started the set, so there would have been a galvanising symmetry in them combining again for the kick. At least the Tigers got a penalty off an aerial tackle from Lomax, although it was hard to tell how the St. George backliner could have legally pulled out of the play. With an 0-0 scoreboard, Jacko took the two from right in front, and the Dragons were staring down only 2 tackles in the opposition twenty, and 7 (to 19) in the opposition half, while Nofa and Tamou were topping the run metres with 70 apiece.
Nofa had his next great moment in the face of a big Feagai tackle that was initially called a knock-on, but turned into a clear strip when the Tigers sent it upstairs to testify to the power of their cult winger’s ball control. They didn’t have time to rest on their laurels, however, since Garner put it down on tackle one, and the crowd roared – and subsided just as quickly when Lomax lost it a few plays later to grant the visitors the first seven tackles of the afternoon. Four plays after that, the Tigers drove it up the left, until Gildart fed it to Kepaoa on the wing.
With another few centimetres the no. 27 would have come up with an assist here, but Ravalawa managed to bump him into touch just before he sent it back for Gildart to smash over. Like Tedesco against the Bulldogs, Hunt was now starting to show the strain of so much playmaking, but his men got another shot when Nofa came up with a cold drop off an over-tricky Jacko ball. With a scrum at the Tigers’ forty, a restart on tackle one, and another soon after, St. George had their best shot so far, but the visitors were up to the challenge.
They cleaned up tackles in all parts of the park, andd just when Aaron Woods was driving it beneath the posts, and got the offload away, the McCullough ball that started it all was called forward, as Tuilagi became the next player to (grudgingly) leave the part for an HIA and Alex Seyfarth came off the bench earlier than expected. Now the position swung back to the visitors, as McCullough came up with an illegal strip, and Lawrie infringed the ruck, before making a second effort, and ushering in the most dramatic acceleration of position so far.
It was a plosive period for the Tigers, as Alex Twal muscled his way over beneath the crossbars, but still didn’t get his first try in the NRL after 97 games, while Hastings injured his shoulder out on the left edge, and was barking for his men to take the two – the correct decision, as it turned out, since Lomax forced a Gildart error to bring the set to an abrupt ending, leaving us with a two point game as both sides headed to the sheds. With clutch wins over the Bunnies and Chooks behind them, they had to prepare for another close back forty.
Three Dragons combined to drag Nofa backwards on the first play, but the forwards compensated with two big carries, while Leilua made fifteen post-contacts up the right, and Brooksy delivered a strong attacking kick to the same edge, where Ravalawa knocked it forward. All in all, it was one of the most powerful Tigers sets of the evening, and the best for metres after contact, so the visitors were pumped for position when St. George’s challenge showed that the Ravalawa cough-up had been an accidental offside.
Technically, they probably should have retained their challenge, even if they lost position, and while the Tigers lost it straight off the scrum, the error was absorbed into a Hunt offside. Wests now bookended the break by choosing to tap and go for a second time, as Leilua supercharged the set with an offload on the ground on the right, and Tuilagi landed five metres out on the left after taking a Brooks ball and tumbling over Amone. The play reached peak volatility on the same wing, but the Dragons survived and got Hunt to a strong kick.
Nevertheless, the Tigers continued to make easy metres on the next set, getting Jacko inside the thirty for his kick, which Ravalawa rose to meet in the air for the most elegant take so far. Woodsy stood in the tackle for a minute midway through the next set, Hunt booted it towards Lomax, Brooks ran the St. George centre off the footy – and promptly sent the decision upstairs. These kind of challenges are hard to pull off, but luck was flowing the Tigers’ way tonight, as the replay showed both players colliding on their way to the high ball.
A big hit from Sims on Liddle couldn’t prevent the Tiges from continuing to roll up field, as Leilua remaing staunch with the post-contacts, and then required a stoppage in play after landing awkwardly beneath McGuire, who was put on report for a technical hip drop, in one of the harsher calls of the night. The visitors had a full set in the St. George half, as Musgrove glimpsed a space beside the right post, but had to content himself with a messy offload back to Liddle, who did well to dive on it without conceding a knock-on.
Both teams now needed a big individual effort to get on the board, and Hastings almost provided it here, taking off from the ten and somersaulting three Dragons into touch, where they somehow managed to wrap him up without the Steeden touching the ground. Brooksy couldn’t parlay that determination into his crossfield chip, a fairly standard affair that Kepaoa lost in the corner before Twal found himself offside in the ten – an error that galvanised one of the stronger St. George sets, even if it still ended with De Belin knocking on a Hunt ball.
In any case, it paled in comparison with the accumulated momentum the Tigers had built with their successive runs off their own line, although that just made it more surprising when the Dragons got the rub of the green a play later, and off one of the Tigers’ most promising plays since the break. Busting into space up the middle, Musgrove might well have scored if not for a heroic Mbye legs tackle, but Sims then came in when the play seemed complete, and as Musgrove was rising to his feet, to dishevel him into a fumbled play-the-ball.
Only a desperate To’a tackle preveted Amone crashing over up the left edge, but the Dragons still got the ball back off a Gildart touch, in their best attacking rhythm of the whole game. The light was turning purple over Wollongong as they packed the scrum from the ten, and then got six again on the first play, off a Hastings offside, before Kepaoa slammed in to stop Lomax doing anything with a cut-out pass from Amone, who almost plunged over off the right boot, before Lawrie followed in his wake, giving the Tiges their biggest challenge yet.
Amone brought all his acceleration to a head with a grubber that didn’t initially have any clear target, but eventually forced a St. George dropout. Four plays in, Nofa tried to intercept a harbour bridge ball to the wing but knocked it on instead, and this last burst of position turned out to be the death knell, as Lawrie consolidated by reprising his charge at the right wing, and Hunt culminated a superb evening of leadership by reining in a short ball from McCullough, shrugging off Gildart, and ducking under To’a to put down the first try at the 58th minute.
After an evening of stalemate, it was exhilarating to see Hunt boot it into the crowd in celebration, before Lomax made it a four-point lead with the kick. The Tigers survived the restart, and had to hit back fast and hard now, as the final quarter arrived, and Leilua had his clutchiest handling so far on the right, where he fumbled it a couple of times before finally regaining it in the face of a renewed Red V pack. Still, De Belin couldn’t make metres, forcing Molo and then Hunt to do the job to gain the position needed to trap the Tigers in their end.
Not even explosive footwork from Jacko could get the Tigers far into St. George territory here, as Brooks took the kick on the halfway line, before the hosts were back at the same spot two tackles into their next set. They didn’t get to the last, though, since Hunt flicked it forward to Tyrell Fuimaono, giving the visitors a mild reprieve as they faced a flashback to their game against the Titans, when they led 6-2 until the final minute. They had to be wondering whether they could pull off a similar comeback tonight.
One of their issues was the inability to make good on the left edge combo, although at least this time Kepaoa stopped soo enough to prevent too many Dragons coming in, giving Brooksy space for a crossfield chip that garnered the next goal line dropout. Tamou was inside the ten early in the count, Hunt stopped Liddle twisting and spinning from dummy half, and it all came down to another crossfield chip, and another dropout, as Kepaoa got hands to the footy but knocked it back in goal, where Amone had to slide on the grass to bump it dead.
The Tigers now had a burst of position to match the Dragons’ last campout on their line, so it was paramount they capitalise on it as well – another St. George try was unthinkable now. Twal fended off Sims and offloaded for Brooks to put Tamou five metres out, and Hastings ended with a set play to bump Musgrove towards the right line, but the Dragons read it well, and capped off their best defence of the night now, even if they were starting to show signs of fatigue when Gildart made fifteen post-contacts up the middle on the following set.
Yet with eleven minutes on the clock, the Tigers were starting to come off the high of their dual wins over Parra and South Sydney, as a Kepaoa error gave way to the second St. George try. Hastings had attempted a big run from ten metres out, but it was Sullivan who delivered, storming out of dummy half and putting in a deft right foot step to break through Madden and Joffa on the line, before Lomax added the extras to make it 12-2 – an almost insurmountable lead given how slowly the points had come tonight.
Even worse, Leilua was now off with an injury, and while the Tigers opted for a short restart, Lomax calmly came up with it. Kepaoa may have taken Hunt’s bomb on the full, but the visitors were really struggling for field position now, only breaking their own twenty with a dummy half run from Jacko on tackle four, before Madden booted it just outside his forty, and Mbye comfortably brought it back to the thirty to get his men on the front foot again. Yet with Suli putting it down, and high contact from Lawrie, the Tiges had another chance.
The sunset was a brilliant purple over WIN Stadium as the black and gold settled into their first close-range chance in ages, as Nofa saved a bouncing ball on the right with an offload back to Garner, before Joffa had a mad dash out of dummy half. There was one tackle left, and just like that the halves synced up, as Jacko drifted into the line and fed it out for Broosky, who danced over an Amone ankle tap, bumped off Mbye, and got to ground before Ravalawa could dispose of him, only for Hastings to miss an easy kick angle to keep it a 6 point game.
Nofa took the first run of the restart, and only just made it over the ten, where Tamou had to rely on a quick play-the-ball in lieu of any serious metres. By tackle four, they’d only reached their forty, while Madden got the kick just outside his halfway line, and for a moment looked like he’d struck it too hard, only for the bounce to totally defy Mbye, who left it so long that he had no option but to take it into touch with Seyfarth on his back. Just as they were preparing to defend another St. George set, the Tigers had the last dropout of the game.
Brooks and Hastings almost laid space for To’a to break through on the left, Hunt and Suli shut down Madden at the end of a right sweep, and Brooksy bombed back to the right, where the footy came off the Tigers, gifting the Dragons a twenty-metre restart with forty-five seconds to go – until the Tiges sent it upstairs to prove that Ravalawa had made first contact. Joffa took the first run from halfway, Twal the second, and Seyfarth the third, before Madden flicked it back for Seyfarth, and received the offload to shift it out to Brooksy on the right.
For a brief moment the Tigers faithful envisaged a sublime halves pairing to rival the field goal wins over Parra and South Sydney, but the Red V hung on here, coming away with a win that was every bit as momentous as their Anzac Day victory over the Roosters. They’ll be looking to broker that energy into a big one against a Melbourne outfit who have put down 122 points in their last two games, while the Tigers will be desperate to restore their fleeting winning streak, and newfound halves synergy, when they rock up to meet Manly on Saturday.
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