The Roosters gave Dragons fans 40 anxious minutes at Kogarah before Wayne Bennett’s table-toppers gave Brad Fittler’s cellar dwellars a rugby league lesson in composure and execution.
In one of the games of the season the Roosters made all the play in the opening exchanges and had the Dragons back on their heels when captain Craig Fitzgibbon crashed over under the posts off a Jake Friend short ball from close range to lead 6-0 after 14 minutes.
The Dragons struck back when Neville Costigan finished off a sublime backline move that saw Matt Cooper hit space and dazzle with his feet.
The game then swept from one end of WIN Jubilee to the other, with Roosters half Mitchell Pearce cranking up big Willie Mason often and sending him thundering at the opposition out wide like a runaway truck.
In the 35th minute Pearce nailed a 40-20 by centimetres; with a repeat set of possession following a penalty the Dragons were again defending from close range. But they failed to respect Roosters no.17 Nick Kouparitsas, who despite being wrapped up by three players slipped a wonderful offload to a startled and flat-footed Craig Fitzgibbon, who after a moment’s wondering what the hell he should do put his dead down and barged over to make it 12-6 at the break. The Roosters had more than a sniff in their nostrils.
But the second half belonged to the Dragons, with halves Ben Hornby and Jamie Soward masterminding a 28-point red-and-whitewash.
After some of the dour struggles of the past month this was a Friday night treat. It was a brilliant, enthralling and entertaining game played with consummate skill and great pace.
The Game Swung When… The Dragons ran out for the second half with a tweak in their gameplan. In the first stanza the Dragons forwards were getting hammered one-off the ruck by a committed and enthusiastic Roosters defence.
But when they returned from the sheds Bennett employed a series of decoy runners to confuse the Roosters around the ruck – and it worked. Suddenly the Dragons were making territory with less effort – and with more depth and space Soward, Hornby, Cooper, Ben Creagh and Darius Boyd (166 metres) ran riot.
Certainly fans were breathing easier when the no.6 followed though a Hornby chip under the crossbar and won the contest in a juggling effort that made it 12-all just two minutes after the resumption.
Who Was Hot… Jamie Soward had arguably the game of his career – and he’s a played a few blinders this season. He scored two tries, fed Wendell Sailor a spectacular try assist and fed Matt Prior two deft try assists. He kicked five from six. He offloaded four times. Everything he tried was gold. He kicked and regathered like it was on a string. And he didn’t just make the plays, he ran (197 metres) and was tackled too. And he was tough in defence (13 tackles).
They have a wonderful chemistry, the Dragons, and it’s like Soward and Ben Hornby are dictating telepathically. Hornby’s scheming continues mesmerise and break defences, and his late offloads after his numerous scurries keeps the momentum going.
Given more space Matt Cooper (114 metres, three offloads) showed he is a venomous rep-quality centre.
Wendell Sailor (21 runs, 180 metres) played above his weight (we mean that as a compliment) and scored a great try after being bundled into touch metres short twice in the first half.
Ben Creagh (four offloads, a line break and 140 metres) showed his devastating worth – and all the forwards were superb.
Can’t say a bad word about the Dragons, who despite being up against it at halftime, kept their bottle and played to the plan. They’re ice-cold killers, this crew.
The Roosters did not play like team no.16. They played like winners most of the night. But the Dragons played like world-beaters.
Fitzgibbon (19 hit-ups, 134 metres) scored two tries and motivated the troops.
Willie Mason (124 metres) made a series of Willie Mason charges not seen since 2003. And Nate Myles made 19 hit-ups and 42 tackles in just 47 minutes.
Jake Friend gave great service from dummy-half and will make things interesting for selectors when no.1 rake James Aubusson returns from his season-ending injury.
Pearce was probing and kicked well.
Who Was Not… Criticism of any player would be out of order; all players performed brilliantly.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… The Dragons’ first try was poetry. Ben Hornby headed left on the Roosters’ 40, passing to Creagh who straightened and gave it back to Hornby on the run-around before the no.7 fed Cooper into a gap. As he streaked towards fullback Sam Perrett the centre stepped right, then left, then right again before the cover converged – but not quickly enough to stop Cooper from spiralling an offload to Jason Nightingale who popped a quick inside ball to Neville Costigan who trampled 10 metres to score.
In the 29th minute Willie Mason made a 30-metre charge down the left fringe after swatting five defenders who seemingly had him covered. Ah, what nostalgia. He made some other determined runs too. But they seem too few and far between.
In the 43rd minute Jamie Soward threw a 25-metre left-to-right spiral pass that hit Wendell Sailor’s bread-basket on the right sideline 10 metres out. Incredible skill and precision to pull it out when required.
Other highlights? Sailor paying homage to Michael Jackson with a moonwalk try celebration. And Sailor high-fiving the St George Bank dragon after his 70-metre sprint to score the game’s final try.
Refs Watch… It’s official – lying on a player in the tackle and staring at the ref is a penalty offence. It’s been standard practice all season as players literally looked to referees for instruction on whether they’ve made a dominant tackle and might therefore be allowed a little lazy latitude in the wrestle. But Tony Archer wasn’t having any of it here, pinging Ben Creagh in just the third minute with a curt: “Don’t just look at me – get up!”
NRL.com Best & Fairest…
3 points – Jamie Soward (Dragons): Close to the perfect game; 2 points – Ben Hornby (Dragons): Toyed with the opposition when given space in the second half; 1 point – Matt Cooper (Dragons): Put NSW Origin selectors on notice with a polished display.
Dragons 34 (J Soward 2, M Prior 2, N Costigan, W Sailor tries; J Soward 5 goals) def Roosters 12 (C Fitzgibbon 2 tries, 2 goals) at WIN Jubilee Oval. Crowd: 12,472.