ROUND 16: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Canberra Raiders (WIN Stadium, 3/7/22, 12-10)

Of all the dramatic wet weather footy games around a rapidly flooding Sydney this weekend, the most brutal came last. Poised against a roiling Tasman Sea on the Wollongong coast, the Dragons welcomed the Raiders with gale-force winds and driving rain, producing chaos football by the final quarter, which devolved into a seemingly neverending cycle of scrums, knock-ons and desperate dummy half runs, as the Dragons grimly held onto their twelve points, all notched up in the first forty, to come away with a gutsy two-point win.

Only the most committed Canberra supporters were standing on the east hill, a solitary pair as the windsock heaved in the gusts of air that were blowing 65-70km/h during the most dramatic sequences, turning the wind itself into as much of an antagonist as the opposition team. In this context, Ben Hunt’s short kicking game would prove critical, but very few kicks were possible to totally control, so the Red V had to dig deep and dig hard to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Illawarra Steelers for the core of ultra-faithful fans who turned up.

Jordan Rapana took the kickoff, lobbing a squat end-over-ender to experiment with just how much leeway he could expect booting it into the breeze. A Raiders pack absolutely smothered Tariq Sims on play two, and, sensing that the set wasn’t going anywhere special after this, Andrew McCullough kicked early, from just outside his thirty. Nick Cotric took it, and the visitors started their first attacking stint against two formidable opponents – the home side, and the gale force winds, but still managed to break halfway off a tough Joe Tapine run.

Jack Wighton took the opposite approach to Rapana with the kick, hanging the Steeden high enough to get an unpredictable trajectory off the gale that split the St. George backline, and totally defied Cody Ramsey in particular. Add a penalty for a Zac Lomax strip, and the green machine had the first attacking shot of the afternoon, leaning into a tough Josh Papalii charge to spend the first part of the set in front of the posts, before gradually drifting left, where Papalii took another charge, and eventually pivoting back out to the right on the last.

Wighton’s aim wasn’t so good this time, as he received a short ball from Jamal Fogarty, went to drop it on his boot, and clean missed it. Whether this was the direct effect of the wind, or the pressure of attacking into the wind, or just a cold drop, was unclear, but in any case the Dragons had their second set of the night, five minutes into the match, as Hunt parlayed the wind into a massive kick to the Raiders’ ten, while keeping it low, since the sheer strength of this gale made it an unpredictable force, even at his back.

Xavier Savage did well to bring the ball back fifteen metres, and again the Raiders made good position, before Ramsey came up with a strong take to start working his way back from that opening miss. The Dragons also woke up on the last play, spreading it left for Mathew Feagai to poke his nose into the red zone, offload for Jack Bird, and get a Canberra touch, before Ramsey completed his comeback by breaking through the line and showcasing some brilliant footwork to reach the ten. In two plays, St. George had reset the balance of position.

They weren’t done either, as Talatau Amone followed Ramsey, and ended up in much the same place after a dart infield and back again. Bird almost crashed over on the left and Jack De Belin took a settling run up the middle, so it was agonising when Hunt went the way of Wighton with an unforced error, losing the footy to the right as he was shaping for a cut-out to an unmarked Moses Suli on the wing. As if the gale wasn’t enough, the rain had just started falling, so this was a newly slippery Steeden, and Hunt was taken by surprise.

Nevertheless, the Dragons had built enough momentum here to carry them into their next set, as Sims took a barnstorming charge to poke his nose through the line, and Wighton and Papalii leaked a pair of tackles (not square at marker, dangerous contact) in quick succession to gift St. George an even more dramatic accumulation of position than their own opening. Ryan Sutton became the third man to be penalised, swinging a lazy arm into Ramsey’s head late in the count, as the Red V opted for a quick tap, and a full set in the Raiders’ ten.

De Belin went for a crash play beside the right post two tackles in, but he was held up, and couldn’t carve out enough space for Sims to follow in his wake, so the Dragons pulled back, experimented on both wings, and ended up relying on an Amone chip that Savage missed and Bird failed to get down before the dead ball line. After a trilogy of penalties, Canberra had seven tackles to play with, so they had to build big position, at the very least. Instead, Sebastian Kris went the way of Amone, booting it too far to concede seven plays.

Full credit to Ramsey for his patience in letting the footy roll dead with a squad of Raiders behind him, and to Hunt two plays later, for scooping up a bouncing Jaydn Su’A offload before any of the visitors could get to it. Hunt also showed his acumen with the boot on the last, hitting it perfectly to drive Savage back behind the line, where he probably would have been trapped if Rapana hadn’t escorted Bird, as brilliantly as Bird himself milked it. St. George had another set on the Canberra line, and pressure was mounting to show something for it.

Finally, after three dropout-hungry kicks, Amone did the job, slotting through a deft grubber that Sutton cleaned up precariously enough on the line for a pair of Dragons to roll him in goal. With 35% of possession, Rapana went short with the dropout, Wighton managed to tap it back, Amone reached out his right hand, but was actually able to take it in both, so unprepared were the Raiders for this eventuality. It was one of the great surprise tries of the year, although the Dragons remained at four when Lomax missed the kick.

There was a brief question of whether Rapana’s kick had even cleared the ten, but this was one case when the wind worked cruelly against Canberra, since the dropout was above the line for a brief second before being blown back in an errant gust to Wighton and then Amone. The Raiders had tried to use the gale to their benefit, but found it working against them, while the Dragons finally had points on the board to show for their dominance in position and possession, and got stuck into their restart with grim determination.

De Belin and Sims laid the platform with tough runs up the middle, and while Elliot Whitehead prevented McCullough doing the same with a well-timed shot, Hunt regathered the set with another pinpoint kick, landing it in goal, and getting an oblique bounce, to force Cotric to work it right back from the chalk. Canberra couldn’t have asked for a better time, then, for McCullough to swing an arm into Rapana’s face, on the cusp between the first and second quarters, possibly charged up by Whitehead’s contact on him the set before.

Wighton finished as well as Hunt now, dummying a few times to the left before sending the Steeden off the side of his boot in goal, where Mikaele Ravalawa had no option but to clean it up. Canberra had their first dropout of the afternoon, Corey Horsburgh was fresh off the bench, and it all ended with Ramsey stripping the Steeden from Sutton, and so absorbing this last green and white burst back into the energy of the home team. By this stage, the turf was truly sodden, causing Wighton and Lomax to slip chaotically while negotiating tackle one.

Lomax had a second slide late in the count, careening along the turf to roll a Ravalawa pass back to Amone, and these brutal weather conditions now coalesced around one of the most dramatic sequences, wind-wise, so far. Hunt shanked one of his highest bombs yet, catching a gust of gale that lifted the footy even higher, suggesting that the bounce, when it landed on the Canberra line, might be proportionately enormous. It was a big surprise, then, when the footy sat up in goal, forcing Rapana to scramble as Suli and Feagai got on their bikes.

They cleaned him up just before the dead ball line, while the wind drama continued when Rapana tried to reprise his short dropout, but didn’t even clear the ten this time around. By the time Lomax set up to take the two, the weather was so hostile that he had to reset the tee after it blew away from the boot, as both sides faced down the last fourteen minutes before the break with the most drastic conditions of this weekend of wet weather footy so far. In the end, McCullough put a finger on the ball to secure it for Lomax’s kick.

The Dragons now had six on the board, half of their final score, while Savage also had to hold the footy up for Rapana, as the rain reached peak intensity, making last night’s game between South Sydney and Parramatta look like a light shower by comparison. There were shades here of the Sharks-Rabbitohs sludgefest back in 2015, as Adam Elliott made his mark off the bench with good metres up the left, while Michael Molo wasn’t as impressive, fumbling the play-the-ball midway through the Raiders’ best defensive stint of the game.

Defence now galvanised attack, especially since Canberra had kept St. George to their thirty, meaning they didn’t have much space to cover when they got the footy back. Savage had been raring to explode all night, and reached full force now, receiving a bullet cut-out from Wighton, dumying for Kris on his outside, and then deciding to just go it alone. The acceleration was palpable, as the young fullback danced over Lomax, banged off Ravalawa, landed on his back beneath Ramsey, but slid fast enough to roll the Steeden down.

Horsburgh and Elliott continued to make a big impact off the bench on the restart, while Fogarty defied the wind to launch the highest bomb so far. Ramsey was up to it, coming up with an equally good chase, while Hunt reasserted himself in the battle of the boot with a spiralling floater, before Ramsey got a tougher reception under the next kick as Elliott spearheaded a tough pack with Wighton to slam him to ground. Ravalawa got a similar treatment on tackle two, and it all ended with a Bird knock-on a few plays later.

Five minutes out from the break, the Raiders had a shot at changing the narrative, especially when Molo compounded his knock-on with a ruck infringement. Elliott settled them with another tough run from short-range (although he couldn’t get the offload away), Young came down just shy of the line a play later, and Tapine extemporised a pretty good kick over the top on the last, but with Ramsey taking it clean on the line, Cotric losing Hunt’s next end-over-ender, and Wighton playing at it offside, the game swung back towards St. George.

It would be poetic if the Dragons could end the first forty by capitalising on one of Hunt’s best kicks, and sure enough Suli smashed through Savage two plays later, off a brilliant short ball from Bird, who turned to face the left sideline and drew in Whitehead before popping it back inside to his barnstorming centre. Lomax added the extras, and the Red V had their final score of twelve on the board, paving the way for a courageous second stanza in which they would consistently prevent Canberra from taking the lead to come away with a two-point win.

We were in a strange gloaming between day and night when Ramsey, hunched over against the weather, booted the kickoff into a wall of wind that stopped it dead in the air, utterly defying both Kris, who missed it clean, and then Wighton, who knocked it on. St. George had the scrum fifteen metres out, as Aaron Woods brought it five from the crossbar, Bird tried to break through the defence a couple of times, Francis Molo attempted to twist and spin-beside the right post, and McCullough plunged over in his wake, but didn’t ground it.

Already, this was a grinding second stanza, with none of the Dragons apparently willing to risk elasticising the play under such slippery and windy conditions. Even then, McCullough was millimetres away, and the Red V tentatively experimented with a sweep to the right, where Amone made the decision to drop ball to boot right there and then, instead of risk any more expansive play on this opening set. It paid off, thanks in part to a terrific chase from Ramsey, who slammed in hard to bang Rapana back over the line once he scooped it up.

By this stage, it was almost a matter of luck who got the rub of the sodden green, as the Dragons got themselves a repeat set off one of the most bizarre sequences so far. Two plays into the dropout, Amone shifted it out to Lomax, who might have broken through Kris’ waist tackle if not for the wet weather,which gave the Canberra winger traction to slide down and continue the contact on his left leg, forcing Lomax to right himself by pivoting onto his right boot, then his left again, all the while bending right down with his head close to the turf.

He went for a no-look offload, and while the footy found Cotric, he knocked it on, giving St. George one of the more dramatic let-offs tonight. Again, they focused their opening energy in the middle, and again they fell apart when they tried to sweep, as Woodsy was held up beside the left post, Hunt charged into a swarm of Raiders in the middle, and then offloaded with men to spare out on the right, only for Michael Molo knock on. Meanwhile, Wighton capitalised on this shift in possession with one of his best long-range efforts.

Ramsey was as cool at the back of it as he had been when letting the ball go dead in the first stanza, but a better strike this time, combined with a desperate chase from Kris, meant he had to concede the dropout at the death. Canberra proved better at spreading it than St. George, more acclimatised to these wintry conditions, but an offside from Bird was quickly absorbed by a superb strip on Young from Ramsey, who bookended this period of Canbera position with the grace under pressure that is fast becoming his signature at fullback.

After an extended period on the Canberra line, and a slightly shorter period on their own line, the Dragons settled back into working it out of their own end, although the set imploded on the final play, despite Horsburgh getting a touch to Hunt’s kick, as Lomax came in for a second effort, but shanked it over the sideline to give the Raiders their first tackle twenty out from halfway. Whitehead got some good post-contacts up the right on the third, before setting up a sweep that ended with Rapana popping it back in to Fogarty for the kick.

He weighted it well, forcing Amone to slide onto it with Horsburgh on his back, while Wighton opted to go long this time, sailing it all the way to the Dragons’ forty, no small feat in these blustery conditions. Tapine now glimpsed a break in the line, shrugging off a Blake Lawrie tackle so easily that Ramsey had to come in for a David-and-Goliath effort, wrapping both arms around his quarry and twisting him to ground in a stellar show of leadership from the backline. Unfortunately, though, the high contact produced Canberra’s final try.

Worse still, this was the easiest putdown of the game, as Young got some joy after the Ramsey strip by collecting a dummy half ball from Tom Starling on the chalk, and slicing through a St. George line that hadn’t regathered, to put himself equal with Kris and Timoko for most Canberra points in 2022. Su’A barely knew what had hit him (or how he hadn’t hit Young), while Fogarty added the extras to make it a two point game with 25 minutes on the clock. Neither side would score again, producing one of the most grinding final quarters in 2022.

For a moment, it did look as if Canberra would build some flow here, as Kris came up with a massive run to poke his nose through the line, laying a platform for his men to travel almost a hunded metres, but in the end Young’s kicking game wasn’t as good as his running game, and McCullough cleaned up his grubber with no real problems. Still, with Amone only getting his next one to the thirty, the Raiders had a shot to reprise this rapid accumulation of position, as Papalii remained on the bench under Ricky Stuart’s direction that he needed rest.

The Dragons did better containing the Raiders this time, forcing Fogarty to take his next kick from the forty, and garnering seven tackles when it bounced over the back line. Hunt was determined not to let Canberra get a head start at the end of the next set, striking it beautifully to trap Savage right in the coner, and running forty metres to join Lomax for what would have been a dropout-producing chase if Cotric hadn’t come in to help his gun fullback make it back into the field of play.

Still, St. George got a close range set soon enough, when Rapana put the ball down while trying to rise to his feet too quickly. Suli started with a searching run to question the possibilities on both sides of the park, Hunt set up Sims for a charge beside the right post, McCullough won a restart off Horsburgh and, true to the chaotic spirit of this game, realised he’d run behind De Belin, stopped to take the tackle from Young, and promptly lost the footy into some of the softest contact of the night.

By this stage, then, we were in chaos football mode, as both teams tacitly gave up any pretence at risk management, and just launched themselves onto the footy with everything they had. Canberra got their first big chance since Young’s crossover when Ramsey spilled back a nightmare soaring bomb from Wighton, only for Wighton himself to put it down on the first play off the subsequent scrum. The ball handling had been pretty good during the first stanza, but it was all starting to come apart now, as both sides hung on for dear life.

If anything, the Dragons got more ambitious now, as Hunt sent it through Amone to Suli, who actually shaped briefly for an offload in these brutal conditions, before Timoko infringed the ruck for another six tackles. De Belin was charged up now, making an impact twice in this set, the second of which officially marked this as a low patch for Ramsey, who knocked on his prop’s pass. Finally, fourteen minutes out from the siren, Papalii came on for his second stint, right in time to defend his line when Timoko put it down on play one.

The Raiders wasted their challenge trying to contest it, St. George packed yet another scrum, Mbye replaced Feagai for his first stint of the evening, and Wighton bounced back from his error with an absolute monster of a tackle on Su’A, coming in so low and hard that he lifted the big bopper clean off his feet, leaving just enough time for Young to slam across in support. It was becoming a game of scrums and knock-ons, as the Raiders packed it again, Starling delivered a sneaky run to break halfway, and Ramsey did better under Wighton’s kick.

St. George amped up their defence again on the next set, driving Savage, Cotric and Kris backwards, ensuring that the Raiders had barely broken the thirty by the time Fogarty sent a desperate kick high into the air. Conversely, Ravalawa was back at his own thirty on the first play, while De Belin continued his late game surge by making twenty up the left, getting Hunt in place to coast his next one into the breeze, making it even more spectacular when Cotric lay down to get it, bracing himself against a committed chase from Lomax.

Ramsey did the same on his back at the end of the next kick, and by this stage both sides were trying to survive the conditions as much as the opposition attack. De Belin continued to be a menace up the middle, clamouring for high contact on his next carry, but the next error came from Savage, and the next error from Lomax, for a hand in the ruck, following the penultimate really promising set for St. George, which saw Su’A almost bust his way up the right, and Amone wilt back in the middle, so surprised to have multiple options that he froze in place.

Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad now finally left the bench, five minutes out, to try and make a difference, but his presence was immediately eclipsed by Wighton’s penalty kick on the back of the Lomax error. With a fresh set here, who knows what might have happened for Canberra, but Ravalawa leaped up over the sideline, tapped the footy back inside, and then managed to regather it to get his men on the attack again. Canberra got it back, but a Fogarty knock-on into Sims on the last produced St. George’s last big chance.

Not only were they unable to score again, but Ramsey spilled the kick backwards for a second time. The Raiders had won in exactly this situation two weeks ago, when Young took it behind the line, so the Young-Ramsey rivalry reached its peak now. Canberra tried every part of the park, got a restart in the last five seconds with a Lawrie offside, clamoured for a Hunt penalty to take them into golden point, but didn’t get any chance to contest it, so rapidly did it all occur during those mercurial moments before the siren rang out.

A two-point margin for St. George was achievement enough, and truer to the spirit of this most dramatic of wet weather games than a bigger win could have ever been.Both teams deserve a bye to rest up, since they exerted enough energy for two matches tonight, but the Dragons will have to back up next week to take on a Brisbane outfit galvanised by their loss to North Queensland, while the Raiders need to take this frustration and bottle it for when they meet a Storm outfit determined to get the home win at the end of Round 18.

About Billy Stevenson (739 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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