The struggling Tigers turned up at the SFS with passion, flair and commitment – but were behind on the scoreboard in just the second minute when Brett Morris slid over in the left corner after some slick passing involving Dragons captain Ben Hornby and Darius Boyd.
If Tigers fans dropped their heads and thought that that was it for the night they were sadly mistaken. Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall took control, generating three good scoring chances during a 20-minute passage of dominance that also saw their opponents lose star prop Michael Weyman with an ankle injury.
In the 6th minute Farah threw a lovely long ball on halfway that found centre Chris Lawrence on the outside of Dragons five-eighth Jamie Soward. Lawrence offloaded to damaging winger Taniela Tuiaki who swatted Soward away before the promising move broke down with a forward pass short of the Dragons’ line.
Minutes later, in a sweeping play down the left, Marshall hit Lawrence scouting wide inside the Dragons 20-metre line – again on the outside of the defence. But the centre spilled the ball and certain points were lost.
The Tigers kept coming, with big Daine Laurie monstering into a half-gap 30 metres out – but he spilled the pass. That was at the 20-minute mark and finally a few Tigers’ fans heads – and indeed that of their coach Tim Sheens’ – dropped.
Having weathered the storm the Dragons swung into action, scoring three tries in 10 minutes to lead 20-0 after 34 minutes. First Ben Creagh was fed a lovely ball from Ben Hornby; the redhead back-rower piggy-backing centre Blake Ayshford over the line to score. Then Hornby beat Tim Moltzen to a precise Matt Cooper left-foot infield kick into the in-goal. And six minutes later Wendell Sailor plucked a Soward cross-field chip and out-wrestled Tuaki, Moltzen and Lawrence to plant the ball on the tryline.
The Tigers opened the door ever so slightly just before halftime, with Beau Ryan scoring after a nice in-and-away and pass from Ayshford that made in 20-4.
Sustained pressure from the home side stretched the Dragons’ defensive limits but they held fast for the first 30 minutes of the second stanza before Marshall finally busted them open to score under the posts and make it 20-10.
Brett Morris appeared to have sealed the victory with a 75th-minute try but referee Jason Robinson was quick to rule him held up.
The match closed out with a 40-metre Soward field-goal that no doubt added a few zeroes to the “pick the scoreline” betting option.
The Tigers now need to win pretty much every game to advance to the finals, while the Dragons consolidated their spot at the top of the table.
The Game Swung When… The Tigers couldn’t convert even one of their early opportunities into points.
This is a serious St George Illawarra side and while they were pressured there’s nothing like points to put a side under real pressure. Would the Dragons have held fast with a level scoreline? We’ll never know.
Who Was Hot… Jamie Soward (17 kicks, a try assist) and Ben Hornby (89 metres and 2 line breaks) directed the attack superbly. Soward’s clearing kicks were always deep and to open space, while his array of attacking kicks resulted in points.
Ben Creagh (a try and 104 metres) was a threatening presence. Dan Hunt powered through the ground to gain 167 metres from 18 hit-ups. Big ‘Dell” gained a heap of ground and scored a determined try. Justin Poore was hard to contain. And a nice cameo from newboy Jon Green (one super offload).
For the Tigers, Farah (11 kicks, 5 dummy-half runs) and Marshall played expansively to create plenty of chances. Centres Lawrence and Ayshford (3 offloads including a try assist) had their moments. Dene Halatau (105 metres in 45 minutes) and Gareth Ellis (11 hit-ups, 33 tackles) tried hard.
And Tuiaki (159 metres) was always a threat, even when seemingly cornered.
Who Was Not… Tough to criticise any players on a night when skilful play was in abundance. Although for all his attacking flair Jamie Soward missed eight tackles, as did team-mate Justin Poore. That contributed to the usually watertight Dragons’ defence leaking 48 missed tackles to the Tigers’ 38.
Had To Ben Seen To Be Believed… Dragons prop Michael Weyman buckled backwards in a tackle, rose slowly to his feet, grimacing, and started limping around. A trainer rushed to his side but he waved him away with a mixture of anger and disdain. Gutsy stuff; but the big fella succumbed shortly afterwards.
The Tigers threw three passes into touch, including a whopper from Benji Marshall that was fired a full six metres forward and travelled 20 metres sideways.
And who said forwards were meatheads? Ben Creagh proved that a myth in the 16th minute when he thought about, and then elected not to, fall on a Benji Marshall miss-kick that struck one of Creagh’s team-mates before bouncing his way near the Dragons’ 20-metre line. Creagh realised he would be penalised for being offside if he picked it up so he sized up the situation and allowed a team-mate to clean up the spoils.
A breathtaking play by Brett Morris in the 53rd minute, fielding a Soward chip a metre in from touch, shimmying around Beau Ryan before Soward spilled the inside ball with points on offer.
Bad boys… Brett Morris copped a coat-hanger from Tim Moltzen and was awarded a penalty. Same with Justin Poore, penalised for a high shot on John Skandalis. Neither had a case to answer later.
Dragon Matt Prior’s elbow made contact with the face of Moltzen while the bench prop was trying to defuse a confusing Marshall flick pass in the final minutes. But he escaped charge by the match review committee.
Refs watch… Thank God Jason Robinson and Tony Des Las Heras didn’t officiate the second State of Origin game. These guys were pedantic. Bootlace tackle and hold on the legs a fraction too long? Penalty. Offside by a millimetre? Penalty.
And Robinson will rue his rush of blood in ruling Morris held up. “I’ve made a decision!” he barked at protesting Dragons. Yep – a wrong decision: replays clearly showed Morris grounding the ball. You could hear video ref Sean Hampstead groaning.
NRL.com Best & Fairest…
3 points – Ben Hornby (Dragons): Ferreted out opportunities in the midfield, reading play to perfection; 2 points – Dan Hunt (Dragons): A huge game in defence (40 tackles) and attack. Stood up big time when Weyman went off; Wendell Sailor (Dragons): Dependable as ever with 188 metres gained, hustled in defence and scored a good try.
Dragons 21 (B Morris, B Creagh, B Hornby, W Sailor tries, J Soward 2 goals, field-goal) def Wests Tigers 10 (B Ryan, B Marshall tries; B Marshall 2 goals) at the Sydney Football Stadium. Crowd: 15,211.