ROUND 19: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, 22/7/22, 20-6)

Manly had Pepsi Max on the jerseys for Retro Round, but it was St. George who really wound back the clock, coming away with a stellar win to celebrate 100 games at Kogarah. Covid had knocked out three of the Sea Eagles’ starting forwards – Jake Trbojevic, Lachlan Croker and Andrew Davey – while neither Toa Sipley nor Haumole Olakua’atu seemed completely on song. There was particular pressure, then, on the spine, especially Reuben Garrick, who had made 234 run metres during the thirty-point win over Newcastle the week before. 

On the other side of the Steeden, the Red V might have missed more tackles than any other side this year, and had a big shock in the back half against the Roosters last week, but also had Ben Hunt on one of the best streaks of his career – 4 tries, 15 assists, 41 tackle busts and 4 40/20s behind him already in 2022, along with the Maroons win that finally put his Brisbane agony to bed. He did wonders with the boot tonight as well, doubling his dropout tally for the season, and scoring the first two tries of the night to bring St. George into first gear.

That’s not to say it was all clear sailing for the Dragons, however, since they lost Cody Ramsey early on, forcing Moses Mbye to slot into the fullback role off an amped up, miced-up training session. He’d been answering questions while barking out orders all over the park, and he translated that aggro into the second stanza in particular, where he fielded DCE’s bombs with aplomb, and came up with one of the best takes under the high ball as well. That vision was one of the main reasons that St. George managed to keep Manly to one try after the break.

Even then, this was another lopsided game for the Dragons after their loss to the Chooks, but less drastic this time, as they put down three in the first forty, and then waited until the last thirty seconds to score again. That made for a pretty sparse period after the sheds, and yet this also spoke to their resilience and resolve – their ability to prevent Manly capitalising on a long gap between tries, and to still come away with the final word on the match despite the Sea Eagles utterly dominating possession and run metres at some of these later moments.

Jack De Belin was slammed back over the ten after taking a long ball from Talatau Amone for the first hit-up of the night, but the Dragons were at halfway by the time Hunt booted it. Garrick made ten on his first return, St. George bunched in to try and keep Manly down their own end, but ended up conceding the first penalty of the game with an Andrew McCullough offside, giving the Sea Eagles a full set down their end instead, as Garrick again took the opening charge, and made good metres off a Zac Lomax slip.

Jack Bird and De Belin did well to lift Sipley clean off the ground on tackle two, but he still managed to trickle the ball back for Sean Keppie to continue the charge, before Olaka’atu continued this surge from the big men by glimpsing space up the right, where he busted through tackles from Hunt and Moses Mbye before a big Dragons pack finally got him down. This was tough stuff, and a good statement in the absence of so many forwards, but DCE didn’t channel it correctly on the kick, which he booted too hard to concede seven plays.

Now it was St. George’s turn for a shot down Manly’s end, and yet no sooner had they hit the twenty than De Belin put down a short one from Hunt. The scrum was delayed for Olakau’atu, who required some attention to his right leg on the ground, but luckily the Sea Eagles didn’t lose any more of their forward pack here, although Haumole looked a little ginger as he rejoined the fray. The Red V now summoned a terrific pair of tackles, driving back Morgan Harper and Ben Trbojevic before Dylan Walker missed his mark with the dummy half pass.

Luckily, Olakau’atu was there to scoop it up, but this was still a messy sequence, so by the time DCE got boot to ball he was barely past his thirty. With Jack Lawrie bringing it back over halfway midway through the next set, the Dragons were well and truly winning the battle of field position, and did better on their second foray into the twenty, when Bird won six again off a Tolu Koula ruck error, and Kieran Foran conceded another set a moment later, before McCullough capped it all off with a sneaky grubber that DCE had to usher into touch.

St. George had the first dropout of the night, and got their first penalty on tackle one, when De Belin again lost the footy on the brink of the twenty, but this time off a Sipley strip. DCE was the next Sea Eagle to give away six again, and with so much time on the Manly line the Dragons had to bust through now or concede the momentum back to the hosts, who were more determined in defence than ever, thanks in part to a tough shot from Koula, who made up for his ruck error by coming out of the line for a terrific read on Mbye.

Hunt made it two successive dropouts with a grubber up the right, where Garrick reached his right arm to rein it in, missed it, but regathered on the brink of the dead ball line. As it turned out, however, this was the last great play in this sustained period of St. George possession, since Manly bounced back pretty quickly – first, when, Harper, Jason Saab and Ben Turbo converged to lift Lomax clean off the ground; then, when DCE made up for his own six again, and that over-weighted kick, by intercepting a short ball from Hunt on the left.

This marked the start of a trio of moments that swung – or had the potential to swing – the game back in Manly’s direction. First, Lomax responded to the three-man pack by lifting Harper well above the horizontal as he extricated himself from the tackle, a spectacular enough play in other circumstances, but one that smacked of frustration and even desperation here. Second, the sheer fact of DCE winning the first real battle of the halfbacks was inevitably a boost to the Sea Eagles, especially with so many veterans off the park.

However, the Dragons copped the third and worst blow a minute later, when Cody Ramsey crumpled so awkwardly beneath a combined Walker-Keppie tackle that he had to be assisted off the park as Tariq Sims came on earlier than expected. Add to that a sudden increase in rain, and the visitors couldn’t have asked for a better time to get their next penalty, which came with a Josh Aloiai offside. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as Hunt bounced back from the intercept, and this potential Dragons slump, with the first try of the evening.

At first the play didn’t look all that promising, as McCullough grabbed it out of dummy half and lobbed it across to his halfback, who had that rare thing in rugby league – a fortunate slip, which allowed him to dodge Sipley more than any duck would have ever done, before he built on his luck by straightening to burrow heroically beneath Garrick and Olaka’atu to make it six on the board once Lomax booted through the extras. The Dragons have only won when they’ve scored first in 2022, so this was a momentous rhythm-shifter from their skipper.

More generally, it cemented 2022 as one of Hunt’s greatest years, and even had touches of his Origin III match-winner about it, given how critical this early individual effort would be to lifting the Red V’s spirits. Manly survived the restart, Mbye got low to collect DCE’s next bomb, and the Dragons got yet another six again, which became a penalty, for a Sipley hand in the ruck, as Bird drove it to the halfway line. Hunt did his magic with the boot again on the last, opting for a short grubber that DCE only just slotted into touch from the Manly try line.

While the Dragons had the third dropout of the first quarter, it was paramount they intensify now, since Hunt’s kick had been preceded by arguably the best defence of the game – Harper and Ben Turbo wrapping themselves around a mad Jaydn Su’A charge up the right. Lawrie provided that aggro in droves, slamming so hard into Ben that the youngest Trbojevic brother left the field, and supercharging the rest of the set, which ended with a second and even simpler try for Hunt, who chased down an Amone kick like it was a St. George training run.

If Hunt’s first try had broken the spell of an early rough patch, then this sequence had consolidation written all over it. The halves had synced perfectly, Hunt had flown ahead of Ravalawa, Ramsey, Lomax and Feagai to become the Dragons’ top tryscorer of 2022, and the visitors had reached peak flow, which Hunt expressed as an exuberant celebration kick. Lomax added the extras to make it twelve unanswered points, and Mbye came up with a masterpiece of his own at the end of the restart, pinpointing it deep into Christian Tuipuloto’s corner.

The chase was just as good, and with Toula kept in the ten on tackle two, the Sea Eagles decided to extemporise, as DCE lobbed it across for Saab on to Foran, who booted it from his own line, in one of the most daring plays of the 2022 season. Harper came up with it, and made it over the forty by the time Tautau Moga got to him, as Marty Taupau came off the bench to celebrate his 150th for Manly, and Josh Schuster ended with a chip that was almost as close to St. George’s line as Foran’s had been to Manly’s, only for Saab to knock it on.

Even so, this was a daring enough sequence to prevent the Sea Eagles wilting under the alarming stats that closed out the first quarter – 5/5 to 14/16 completions, 22 to 46 runs and 158 to a whopping 158 run metres from St. George. Hunt had to hit back, and did so with what would have been his fifth 40/20 of the year if the sodden surface hadn’t slowed down the Steeden a metre out from the sideline. Between DCE and Hunt, we had a third of the 40/20s this year, so this felt like a pressure-point, the start of a new period of the game.

That’s not to say that the Dragons had lost their energy, but that it was starting to feel like an even contest again – at least relative to the last ten minutes – as the visitors failed to break into Manly territory on the next set, and Garrick took Hunt’s kick clean to make his way back beyond the twenty. De Belin had shown real leadership in the forward pack tonight, but he conceded a critical penalty with a flop on Saab now, giving Manly one of their best attacking positions of the night, as DCE tried to mirror Hunt with a crafty break up the right.

He didn’t get through, but Walker leaned into his vision, driving the footy all the way to the crossbar, and dishevelling the defence enough for Daly to kick his best one of the game so far out to the right, where Lomax swung out his left palm and missed, forcing Mbye to come in with the right arm and bang it into touch. Neither defender had got both hands to it, a good sign that the Sea Eagles might succeed here if they could make space for the mercurial power of their halfback’s boot. All they had to was get to the last, and get him in place for the kick.

It was heartbreaking for the home crowd, then, when Schuster made their first error of the night with a fumbled play-the-ball that brought all this newfound rhythm to an abrupt halt. Almost from the moment they broke the scrum, the Dragons felt like the team that had dominated the end of the first quarter, as Hunt came up with a terrific sequel to Mbye’s kick to the left, keeping Manly in their own end, despite a decent fifteen-metre return from Garrick, and a strong charge from Taupau, who didn’t risk the offload in the wet weather.

Just when the game was settling into a slog, with one of the grittiest St. George passages up the middle, the Dragons came up with their most dynamic sequence beneath the high ball so far. Hunt set the scene with his most soaring kick – almost vertical to the right edge, where Lomax knocked it back before hitting touch, and Su’A received it from Moga for an even more precarious play, slicing his way up the right and booting it back infield at speed before tumbling over the sideline himself, as DCE took it in the face of a staunch Dragons pack.

He didn’t recognise it immediately, however, actually shaping for Garrick before Su’A, still charged up by that mad run and kick, commandeered a five-man effort to drag him back into touch. The most detailed scrutiny of the game now ensued to see whether DCE had lost the footy, and conceded a try, in the fray, and while the decision came down in Manly’s favour, the Dragons still had another dropout to continue this flow. There were ten minutes left until half time, the rain had eased up, and it was critical the Sea Eagles remain strong now. 

One clutchy play on the side proved enough for Lomax, as he lost the footy through his legs, and this seemed to fragment the remainder of the set, which disintegrated entirely when Bird risked a catch-and-pass to the wing in the face of a big Tuipulotu tackle that was always going to rock the footy free. A knock-on wasn’t enough for Manly by this stage though – they needed significant field position, and Taniela Paseka knew it, making the best post-contacts of the game to set up Aloiai for a scintillating charge that got Foran the kick from the thirty.

The Dragons allowed it to bounce right on the line, and while the Sea Eagles came up with it, Schuster couldn’t stop Su’A from slamming him into touch. Josh took out some of his frustration by combining with Paseka to almost lift Frank Molo above the horizontal early in the next set, while Bird was officially having an impatient period, dancing brilliantly over an Olakau’atu ankle tap, mirroring that movement by sliding down from a Schuster hit, and dodging away from a Foran tackle, only to ruin it all by opting for a second risky play.

This time it was an offload through Harper and Foran that became back-to-back forward passes, a rare enough occurrence to shift some momentum back to Manly if they could make the most of the scrum feed. Lomax stemmed the tide with a massive hit on Harper late in the count, but Aloiai had been a workhorse tonight, and resumed the rhythm for DCE to launch up a wobbler that Mbye caught clean, but without any chance of a return. A minute later, the Sea Eagles got their last shot before the break with a ruck error from McCullough.   

They’d gone into half time with double figure tallies in four of their last five games, but points weren’t in the offing here, as Taupau realised a clutch play was needed, only to take it too far with an offload after the tackle was completed, before Billy Burns took advantage of the slippery conditions by dragging Paseka and Taupau seven metres and reaching out his arm for what would likely have been a third try if Paseka hadn’t smashed it free. Lomax took the kick to make it sixteen unanswered points as the Red V headed to the sheds, head held high.

Burns had low-key delivered one of the best runs of the night, embarrassed two of Manly’s big boppers, and also defied Olakau’atu, who had slipped over in backplay, so the visitors had to hit back hard in the second stanza. They’d do better this time around too, losing the game, but keeping the back forty level with only six points apiece for a final scoreline of 6-20. Hunt took the kickoff, Garrick sent it on to Taupau for the first tackle, and Molo came in for a statement hit to slam him to ground, making it clear St. George weren’t taking prisoners.

The ripple effect was enough for Schuster to cough it up a play later, as the Red V got early position with their first set in Manly territory, hitting the twenty on tackle four. Hunt now risked a rapid shift in direction on the last, pivoting off the left boot and then back for a short ball to Tariq Sims, who ended up being taken pretty cleanly by Foran. Molo wasn’t done in defence though, combining with Burns to drag Harper back beyond the ten on play one, only for Morgan to regain some joy by breaking through the line and hitting halfway on the fourth.

This was the run Manly needed to offset an imminent wave of St. George position, and their luck continued on the very next set, when they reversed the impact of the Dragons’ defence in the most spectacular way. Not only did Molo concede the offside penalty that got them their first set in the opposition twenty, but he and Burns were responsible for them capitalising a beat later. Burns conceded six again just after the penalty, and Burns and Molo were the only men in place when Walker sent a short dummy half ball out to Aloiai.

The ex-Tiger came up with the goods here, burrowing in low to shrug off Burns and slam through Molo, rising to his feet and slapping his legs with a roar in what felt like a game-changer for Manly, especially when they accumulated field position rapidly on the restart, as DCE ended with one of his most challenging kicks so far. That just made it all the more spectacular, however, when Mbye responded with the best single take under the high ball so far – good enough to stem the flow the Sea Eagles had glimpsed in the wake of this try.

Reaching out his left boot, Mbye got both hands to the footy, then lost it at the last minute, before tumbling onto the turf, twisting around and reaching out his right arm to only just secure it. With DCE lobbing an awkward short one out to the left wing on the next set, and Lomax intercepting the desperate flick-back from Saab on the cusp of touch, the Dragons had regained their composure, so it was surprising when Burns continued to devolve from that opening defence, fumbling the footy into a combined tackle from DCE and Taupau.

This wasn’t a clearcut error, since you could make an argument that the hit was complete by the time Burns lost it, but the Dragons didn’t opt for a challenge, so the Sea Eagles escaped what might well have been another tryscoring set. Manly made good headway into the twenty, and once again Mbye defused them with a strong take under the kick, collecting an unusual DCE angle over the top and curving back into the field of play to avoid the dropout. Even so, Hunt didn’t hit halfway with the boot, and Garrick made fifteen on the return.

Su’A and Sims meant business when they came in on Sipley early in the next set, welcoming him back off the bench with some of the toughest contact since the break, while Moga split the difference between Mbye’s two takes beneath a soaring DCE bomb, coming up with a clutchy take and avoiding touch deep in the left corner. Determined not to stay in his own end this half, Burns started a left sweep a play later, shifting it out for Burns to risk a quick pass to Bird that paid off, as Bird put Feagai through the line for a mirror of Harper’s break.

Feagai, too, reached halfway by the time Koula brought him down, while Hunt bookended this rhythm-builder with a kick-and-chase on the fourth. Again, though, the Dragons only glimpsed consolidation, as the footy tumbled into touch, leaving Garrick without much of a challenge in the end. Fifteen minutes into the second half, it was starting to feel like the next team to score would win, that a piece of individual brilliance might decide it, and that one of the halves would be the men to do it. Hunt had come close, but hadn’t quite succeeded.

He took another crack at the end of the next set, lobbing a mercurial kick over to the left edge, and syncing it so seamlessly with the chase that Garrick had no other option than to simply submit to the tackle. That made it all the more frustrating when Bird, who was starting to grow impatient, got done for dragging the stand-in fullback over the sideline a beat later, although he made up for it by getting his hands on the footy to force a questionable error from Koula a few plays later, garnering his men another close-range assault on Manly’s line.

DCE was right beside Koula, so it was surprising he didn’t sent it upstairs for a challenge, although the Sea Eagles didn’t lose any ground here, since Harper did well to clean up a shimmying Hunt grubber, and DCE mirrored his opposing halfback’s left sweep to get Saab over halfway on the left, before finally defying Mbye with the kick. Even so, Moses lost it backwards, and had time to regather with a short ball to Feagai. It didn’t lead to anything, but made it clear to Daly that a drop wasn’t enough for the Red V to lose their cool.

Nevertheless, the Sea Eagles had 417 to 266 run metres since the break, so it was critical that St. George recover their rhythm from the first forty on the cusp of the final quarter, especially since the visitors came up with two consolidation plays now. First, another left sweep allowed Schuster to put Saab into space, but quicker and tighter this time; then, Walker drifted to the left and delivered another deft grubber, to the same place where he’d assisted Aloiai, finally breaking Mbye’s streak behind the kicks, since he had no option but to bat it dead now.

With so many of their big men out of action, play paused for Sipley a few minutes before, and Olakau’atu starting to flag, the Sea Eagles couldn’t have asked for a better time for Paseka to pop off the bench for some fresh forward pack energy. For a brief moment, Aloiai looked set to also provide a boost to the big boppers, almost compounding his try with an assist, as he darted across the park with all the wiry vision of a backliner, and glimpsed Koula on his outside, only to lose the footy forward into a bone-shattering Lawrie hit.

In an ironic twist, Koula actually caught it clean, and crossed over, in a ghostly echo of the try that could have been. True to the fractured feeling of this second stanza, Sipley got pinged for a strip on Moga, and while the footage seemed to show pretty clearly that Toa hadn’t been at fault, the call came down inconclusive. Manly retained their challenge, but it would be small consolation if St. George scored off the penalty, so the away crowd must have breathed a sigh of relief when Lomax flicked it forward over the sideline on play four.

This was an even more frustrating moment for the Dragons in that Sims had anchored the early part of the set with one of his most committed runs of the night, making this one of the worst times in the game for Lomax’s unpredictability to rear its head. Paseka finally had a chance to deliver off the bench, garnering some good post-contacts up the middle before Olakau’atu got a second wind on the right, and Moga hit back with his second terrific take deep in the left corner, where he weathered a tough chase led by Harper and Saab.

By this stage, fifteen minutes out from the siren, it was clear that Manly had curbed the red and white flow of the first forty, and that the hosts were finding it harder and harder to capitalise on the bursts of field position that they did receive. The next came from one of the boldest tackles of Koula’s first-grade career so far – lifting Burns well above the horizontal, and dumping him at an awkward enough angle to get himself put on report. This felt like it might be the critical set, as Mbye anchored sweeps to the left and right early in the count.

Neither broke the line, but they both generated enough flow for Hunt to consolidate up the middle, first with a short ball from Sims to slam into an Olakau’atu-DCE combo, then with a sneaky grubber that Harper looked set to bring back into the field of play with a barnstorming acceleration deep in goal, and finally by spearheading the biggest Dragons pack of the night to keep the Manly backliner behind the chalk. DCE wasn’t going to let Hunt win this battle of the halves, however, driving it hard and low to utterly defy Lomax out on the right edge.

Yet again, a consolidation moment had gone begging for the Red V, and things got worse when the Sea Eagles glimpsed a critical consolidator of their own on the next set. It started with one of the twistiest challenges in weeks, as an amped-up Garrick insisted DCE sent it upstairs to show that he’d flicked the footy back infield from the shortest of short sides after Hunt banged him into touch, but got an even cleaner result than he could have hoped for when the Bunker confirmed that Hunt hadn’t been square at marker to begin with.  

With 15 hitups, 135 run metres, 4 tackles busts and an offload-linebreak assist to his name, Aloiai was leading the VB Hard Earned Index at 73, well ahead of Lawrie, Sims and Su’A at 67, 63 and 53 apiece, so his charge midway through this repeat set felt like it might lead to something special, or finally gather the Manly spine into the first tryscoring combination of the night. Instead, it was followed by an agonising error, as Amone came in hard out of the line to force Schuster to cough up a short ball from Foran on the left edge.

No sooner had it begun than this burst of Manly momentum was over, as  Kaeo Weekes conceded a marker error on debut, Schuster leaked six again with a ruck infringement, and Hunt continued his majesty with the boot, dropping the footy on the left foot for such a fast trajectory that Tuipulotu coughed it up on the trot, leaving it live for Mbye to almost put it down right before the dead ball line. Hunt had now doubled his 2022 forced dropouts in a single game, resuming the red and white flow that would produce the last try. 

They’d have to wait until the closing seconds of the game to score it, but this was the key consolidation period, even if it ended with a second successful Sea Eagles challenge to prove that Mbye, not Koula, had knocked on a deft Hunt chip to the left edge. Again, Manly built on their own left edge, and while Schuster couldn’t put Saab into space this time, he did manage to flick it back inside before going into touch, in a distant echo of the Garrick sideline play that had ushered in the Sea Eagles’ most promising burst of position since Aloiai’s putdown.

Still, the Dragons were drawing on some of their strong spots too, as Mbye harkened back to his brilliance under the high ball with a staunch take beneath a DCE banger now, reaching out both hands to take it clean while curving around to elude Paseka, who’d returned from the bench for the last five minutes. It capped off a terrific stint at fullback after the disappointment of Ramsey’s early departure, and proved as important in steeling the Dragons’ belief over these last few minutes as Hunt’s kicking vision a few minutes before.

Amone lost the footy midway through this set, but the death knell came with a Foran cough-up midway through the next – an unforced error, a slip on the turf, that ushered in the last burst of St. George position, and the final try right on the siren. Everything happened quickly now, as McCullough left the park, Jayden Sullivan came on for the last two minutes and Hunt, ever the organiser and visionary, slotted into the dummy half role in the brief beat between hookers, tempting the high shot from Schuster that set up the Red V’s last bump up field.

The Dragons would have scored a play later, when Amone received a shot ball from De Belin and slammed into a Manly pack right on the line, if Schuster hadn’t come up with the trysaver of the night to get himself between the St. George backliner and the ground at the final second. Yet this was the Sea Eagles’ last hurrah, as Bird reined in his recent impulsivity with a beautifully timed wide ball to put Feagai across on the other corner, setting up Lomax for some closure to his own spotty night with a pinpoint sideline kick right on the siren.

Both halves of footy were a testament, then, to the resilience of the Dragons, even with some key Manly players off the park. They’d found their flow in the first stanza, and defended consistently enough in the second to only let in one try, while maintaining enough control to have the last – the very last – word. Still, they’ll be looking for a more prolific back forty when host North Queensland next Sunday, while the Sea Eagles will be without another crop of players, albeit for very different reasons, when the Roosters come to Brooky on Thursday.

About Billy Stevenson (724 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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