ROUND 4: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, 26/3/23, 8-40)

Every match in Round 4 had been decided by twelve points or less, three of them by two points or less, and it looked like we might be in for a similar result when St. George and Cronulla headed to the sheds 8-12 halfway through their local derby on Sunday afternoon. That all changed in that back forty, when the Sharkies put down a whopping 28 unanswered points, casting a pall over the eve of Ben Hunt’s 33rd birthday, and handing more agony to a Dragons side who’d locked up the game until Brisbane scored four straight last Saturday.

Put that down to the return of Nicho Hynes, who not only dispelled any lingering questions about whether he’d be able to recapture his 2022 Dally M form, but delivered a comeback game that was even more impressive than Tom Trbojevic’s return to the fold in Mudgee in April 2021. His vision, ingenuity and courage led Cronulla to a wave of seemingly endless (and endlessly inventive) tries in the second stanza, bringing them straight back to their best moments of last season, and cementing them as serious premiership contenders in 2023.

Siosifa Talakai took the opening carry, dragging half the Dragons defenders five metres forward, and Nicho Hynes fed it out for Jesse Ramien to make the first linebreak up the right, but the no. 3’s offload back inside wasn’t as good, forcing Hynes to really scramble to clean it up. Nevertheless, the Sharkies got six again off a Jaydn Su’A touch, and their first full set in the opposition half, but again it devolved, with Braden Hamlin-Uele dropping it cold while reeling away from a pack tackle. St. George had their first football of the afternoon.

They delivered possibly the worst set of the season, making only fourteen metres in total before a misplaced chargedown got them the ball back, and Moses Suli came close to collecting the high ball the corner. He knocked it on, but relegating Cronulla to their ten was still a good outcome after the disparity in position between the first two sets. Hynes tried to elasticise with a sharp run midway through, up the short side, but with Sione Katoa losing the footy like Hamlin-Uele before him, the Dragons received another letoff.

Add to that a ruck error from Dale Finucane and the Red V had their first full set in Cronulla territory, building to a Jayden Sullivan kick that Zac Lomax bumped back over his head with both hands before Katoa made up for his error by containing it right on the sideline. Hynes had already been firing on all cylinders, and the Sharkies had delivered a potential tryscoring sequence on every set thus far, so it felt almost inevitable when the Dally M halfback launched a pitch perfect twenty-metre pass to catch Ronaldo Mulitalo square on the chest.

Mulitalo’s follow-up was just as good – a mad dash down the sideline that saw him skip over Mikaele Ravalawa and drop the footy of the edge of his boot, at maximum speed, to find Will Kennedy on the chest with just as much aplomb, this time with a bounce that the Cronulla fullback only had to run straight onto to plunge it down directly behind the posts. Hynes added the extras, the Sharks had six on the board, and had scored on their very first foray up the left edge, while they kept making easy position, with about eighty metres on the restart.

Hynes and Mulitalo supercharged the middle on the next set, so it was a big shift in momentum when Ronaldo offloaded straight back to the Dragons, who had a chance to reclaim some of Cronulla’s momentum as their own if they could score right away now. Yet Hynes was as geed up in defence as he had been in attack, storming in to shut down Ben Hunt early in the count, before Suli coughed up a Hunt ball on the last, as Talakai launched back into the defence, and Ravalawa summoned arguably the best two-shot display of his career.

First he downed Teig Wilton, then he came in equally hard on Finucane, burrowing in low to bump each defender clean off the ground, while Wilton copped another tough shot on the final play, after receiving the footy from Matt Moylan out on the right edge, where Sullivan and Suli ensured he didn’t advance a single centimetre towards the chalk. The Sharkies had met their biggest challenge so far, and had to hit back hard on their next set, but instead had their first wobbly moment when Briton Nikora copped some friendly fire from Finucane.

Four tackles into the next set he was ordered off the park, bringing Jack Williams off the pine, who summoned a little too much energy on his first big play – launching into Matt Feagai beneath a Hynes bomb, just before his right boot had returned to earth. This was St. George’s best attacking opportunity in a while, even if a Williams-Ramien combo prevented Ben Murdoch-Masila crossing halfway on the opening play, since the ex-Warrior was at the thirty midway through the count, and Hunt took his bomb from the brink of the Cronulla red zone.

Kennedy stepped up now, leaping a metre off the ground to steal the Steeden from Sloan’s trajectory, while winning an offside from Jack Bird to bump his men back down the field again. Blayke Brailey contributed a ten metre run and a late offload to focus attention on the left edge, where Talakai and Mulitalo combined to pivot it back in field, for what looked like the beginning of a sublime team try until Ramien lost it forward. Again, the Dragons had a shot of absorbing all this adrenalin as their own, when Moylan found himself offside within the ten.

They quickly accelerated into their best field position of the night, as Su’A drove it into the ten up the right, Hamlin-Uele charged down Sullivan’s kick, and Hunt rediscovered his 2022 form by taking the bounce without a beat, showing a massive dummy for Murdoch-Masila, and giving himself just enough space to twist away from Hynes in the process, before banging over on the left edge for a 4-6 scoreline once Lomax lobbed the kick away past the left upright. It had been the first battle of the halfbacks on the chalk, and Hunt had come out the victor.

With only a two-point differential, and Hunt in the spotlight, the Dragons had found their flow, and received an augmented restart, off a Williams flop, that got them back in the Cronulla ten with two tackles left. Bird took the kick, and while he only made minimal contact, Hamlin-Uele knocked it on to gift the Red V a scrum from the ten, and the most dramatic accumulation of position for either team so far. Mbye tried to put Lawrie over beside the post, then took a crack himself, before Hunt soared the footy across to test the left edge attack.

With Lomax cleaned up, the Dragons shifted it right, where Su’A continued his charge up the wing from a couple of sets before, but this time crossing over, thanks to a deep run and beautifully timed cut-out ball from Sullivan. For the first and last time this afternoon the Dragons were in front, as the home crowd went wild, and yet these would be the final points they scored today, as Lomax banged another one away from the posts, and the Sharkies proceeded to put down 36 unanswered points over the next fifty-four minutes of football.

It didn’t feel like it would unfold that way now, though, since this try had been a real statement of purpose from the Red V, who had methodically explored their way from centre to left to right until they found the chink in the Cronulla armour. Yet the hosts hit back immediately, as Wilton combined with Talakai to get his revenge on Ravalawa with an absolute bone-rattler on tackle one of the restart, and a committed Sharkies defence meant that Hunt wasn’t able to get beyond his own forty by the time he put boot to ball.

Cronulla got a much-needed penalty early in their next count off a slow peel from Mbye, but lost some momentum when play paused on the second for Lawrie to receive attention after copping the full brunt of Oregon Kaufusi’s first carry of the night straight in the forehead. A Red V of blood was pouring from his scalp with such ferocity that he had to make way for Josh Kerr as Hynes ended with a chip for Ramien that Feagai took clean and calm in the corner. The arm wrestle had reached its peak, and for a moment this felt like a truly equal contest.

Cameron McInnes was on the field for the next set, and contributed a hard run immediately off the back of some skittering Brailey footwork, while this time Hynes aimed it for Mulitalo, and Ravalawa was the man to clean it up, but right on the ground, and right on the line this time, and only then after Sloan had knocked it back. Sensing the vulnerability, Finucane followed Wilton with a revenge shot straight into Ravalawa’s shoulder, before Hunt saved the set with a brilliant boot from thirty to ten, as a red and white wall surged up in the chase.

All in all, this was also the most exciting part of the game, especially since the next try was both the most spectacular and the most contentious of the afternoon. It started with a Hynes bomb that appeared to end with McInnes obstructing Sloan, leaving space for Ramien to scoop it up and shift it out to Mulitalo, who barged along the sideline and popped it back inside for his fellow backliner to crash over and score. Everything about this combo was spectacular, with Ramien and Mulitalo putting in arguably their best displays of the season.

Mulitalo’s brilliance came when he slipped and skidded back at an awkward angle just as he was shaping to pass, but without deflecting the trajectory, while Ramien was just as terrific at getting back on his feet after the flick pass and then busting through Lomax and Liddle to plant the footy down as Dragon after Dragon piled on. Yet the whole thing had started with a poor call, making it a bitter pill to swallow for the Red V when Hynes sailed through another conversion, especially since a Liddle-Wilton strip didn’t pay any dividends either.

The hosts did get a dropout from it, but the Sharkies survived, and Wilton made up for the strip by running a hard line to collect a Hynes ball and bust through the defence, only to pop the footy forward a beat later to deny his fullback a try on the brink of half time. Cronulla might have been four ahead, but the sight of Hynes decelerating towards the chalk on his knees, once he’d recognized the error, was deflating enough to make it feel like this might still be an equal contest once the local rivals returned from the Netstrata Jubilee sheds.

The Dragons got one more shot before half time with a Moylan error that granted them a full set on the Cronulla line. Not only did they fail to score here, but they wouldn’t score again all game, as the Sharkies proceeded to pile on 28 unanswered points after the break. The Red V had the first set back, and ended with a soaring bomb that Mulitalo had to lie down on his back to collect, while the hosts were completing at 91% to the visitors 58%, so the signs seemed good, but things devolved quickly when Sullivan took his eyes off a late Suli offload.

Ramien was outside Lomax and inside the twenty on tackle one, McInnes set up Royce Hunt for a steadier up the middle, and the Sharkies received six again off a Bird ruck error, although they only needed a single play for Moylan to deliver the best ball handling of the night – the most delicate of tap-ons to ferry the footy from Moylan to Talakai, all the more mercurial in contrast to the jam-in of Suli, which was mirrored by Ravalawa on Siosifa to leave space for Mulitalo to glide over for the key Cronulla consolidator, even if Hynes missed the extras.

Talakai was raring for metres on the restart, Kennedy found some wiggle room behind the ruck a play later, and Hynes was over halfway by the time he opted for an early kick, the chase surging up in support to ensure that Feagai could only make a single metre on the return. Anthony Griffin responded by getting ready to bring Frank Molo off the bench, Su’A responded by bustling his way into the line and searching for a break, and Hunt responded with perhaps his most elegant floater of the night, although the Sharkies still contained it.

Four plays later Brailey set up Moylan for some more dexterity, with a searching run up the left and then back in field, laying the platform for the key Cronulla acceleration – so rapid indeed that their reach momentarily exceeded their grasp. Twice in this match there was nobody waiting at dummy half, but this time Kennedy leaped into the vacuum, as if glimpsing the points that Cronulla would use to fill it over the next thirty-five minutes. Chipping and chasing, he only got a thigh to the ball before a Bird touch got the visitors a fresh set of six.

Again, their speed overtook them, as Moylan shifted it out to the left, but Kennedy was unable to mirror the vision of his catch-and-pass, missing Mulitalo with his touch and sending it over the sideline. Hunt’s next kick leaned into that Cronulla chaos by splitting the spine for the first time, as Moylan leaped up to receive it only to find Kennedy coming in from beneath, with the fullback winning the contest but fumbling the footy in the process, and only just regathering it, and getting to ground, as the Dragons’ chase came in a millisecond too late.

The Sharks were now pumping out so much adrenalin that they couldn’t quite surf it, as Hynes lobbed a floater out to the right early in the count that ended up costing them ten metres, before a Lomax offside provided them the brief beat they needed to retighten their control – and everything came together from here. Storming up the park, they were on the St. George line in no time, where Hynes lurked behind the ruck until he had space to swing it out to the right and allow Nikora, who’d passed his HIA, to showcase his full force as line runner.

Tucking the footy under his arm, Briton surged through the defence and curved around to plant it right behind the crossbar, bringing the Sharkies to an imposing 22-8 lead after Hynes added the conversion, although they were only a little over halfway through the tally they would amass at Jubilee tonight. Wilton drove it up to the forty two plays into the restart, and glimpsed a break in the line, while a McInnes offload to Hamlin-Uele added more metres up the field, before Wilton trapped Sloan behind the line with a pitch-perfect chip on the fourth.

The Sharkies had a dropout after points, and were spreading left midway through when Brailey hesitated for a second too long at dummy half, resulting in a forward ball out to McInnes. St. George had to make a big statement on this set, and ideally accrue some extra field position, and they did get a few enterprising moments up the middle, including a risky Hunt offload that travelled backwards and bounced forward, and fifteen metres from a sharp Liddle dummy half dart, so it was deflating when the ex-Tiger fumbled the next play-the-ball.

Ramien busted through the right edge in no time, tempting a desperate high shot from Murdoch-Masila that saw the Sharks take their next tackle fifteen out. Hynes backed himself with a kick on play two, and the bet paid off, since the ricochet off Liddle found Moylan, who dummied twice and sailed an elegant wide ball out to Talakai. He accelerated into the line and cleared up just enough space for Mulitalo, who swung down at speed to collect the low assist and slammed over in the corner to make it 26-8 with Hynes missing the conversion.  

A brilliant Bailey ball almost put McInnes through the line on play one of the restart, and the Sharks were over again a tackle later, thanks to the most spectacular team acceleration of the season. McInnes started with a rapid play-the-ball to Moylan, who shifted it out for Hynes to put Nikora through the line for a second time, before receiving it back infield, tucking it under his left arm, and popping it from hand to hand, dummying subliminally as both teams curved around behind and tried to match his passage, which felt straight out of his Dally M year.

Finally, Hynes palmed off Sloan in the ten, slid to his knees, and popped a one-handed offload out for Ramien to crash over and score. The entire Cronulla outfit had seemed to move with one motion, one intention, one vision – or to subsume themselves into Hynes’ vision – with Nicho adding the extras this time around to bring his men quadruple St. George at 32-8. McInnes next restart was less impressive, however, as a drop gave the Red V a chance to stem the flow of points, but they looked like they were playing in a different league attack-wise.

In comparison to that incredible Cronulla flow, they felt fragmented and hesitant, and even if Lomax did well to take Hunt’s kick amidst a sea of Sharks jerseys, he didn’t have a chance of doing anything with it. Their next set was also pretty lacklustre, the crowd so quiet they might as well have been playing deep in lockdown, as Hynes hit the opposition thirty midway through the visitors’ following stint, and then got another chance to work his magic when the Sharkies got a scrum from the brink of the red zone off a desperate Sullivan-Kennedy trip.

Wilton and Finucane took the first two carries, and were only just held up by Sullivan and Bird respectively, with Bird holding down too long for yet another bout of Cronulla position and a full set in the ten. Finucane took the next run as well, coming to ground a metre out, and Moylan used it as the pivot for a sudden sweep back to Hynes, who put another big bopper through the line with a short ball to Hamlin-Uele, as Sloan charged in for a David-on-Goliath try, a summoning of St. George pride, and forced the footy free at the very death.

Yet no sooner had Sloan offered up the gutsiest defence of the night than Zane Musgrove was caught napping by a Su’A offload. Again, Cronulla had the scrum, and again they got more position off a Bird penalty, this time a scrum error. Twenty-four points ahead, with eleven minutes on the clock, there was no reason not to take on the line, as Hynes came up with another moment of footy genius, lurking around at the ruck, and counting numbers, until he saw that Bird was going to be too slow to get back, and so popped the cut-out to Mulitalo.

As Hynes slotted it straight through from the sideline, and the Sharkies hit a thirty point lead, this was starting to feel like it might end as an utter catastrophe for the Red V, since the visitors really seemed like they could keep on scoring try after try now until they hit the half century. That St. George managed to restrict them to only two more points was a small victory in itself, especially once Lomax became the next Dragon to make a messy error, with an incomplete play-the-ball that the hosts wasted their Captain’s Challenge trying to save.

Hamlin-Uele was back in the red zone on play two, and Kennedy into the ten on play three, so it felt history must repeat itself here, especially since the Sharkies managed to absorb a Moylan drop as effortlessly as they’d absorbed Hynes’ early kick – with a restart, and then a perfectly weighted boot from Moylan himself that Sloan had no choice but to kick into the crowd. The nadir of the Dragons’ night arrived now, as Hunt, the man who’d steered them through the nightmare of 2022, sent the dropout on the full to concede a full set on the line.

It was a stark contrast to Hynes, who had contributed more than enough tonight and was now resting on the bench to make sure his calf didn’t offer any residual issues for next week’s clash against the Warriors. The game was starting to wind down, and the Dragons were devolving, as errors from Lomax and Ravalawa, and a Sloan penalty for lying in the ruck, paved the way for a final Talakai penalty kick to make it a round 40 – an absolutely barnstorming return from Hynes, and a worrying result for a St. George outfit meeting the Dolphins next Saturday.

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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