In 1974, before he was a star, 25-year-old Bruce Springsteen opened for Bonnie Raitt at the Harvard Square Theatre in Cambridge. Among the audience was the influential music critic Jon Landau, who wrote: “I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen."
Many who saw St George Illawarra trounce Manly at WIN Stadium on Sunday may well have had a similar epiphany. Something along the lines of: “I saw the 2009 premiers and their name is the St George Illawarra Dragons.”
Wayne Bennett’s men have produced a number of fine performances since March, but this effort against the defending premiers was their apogee. In a nutshell, it combined lethal attack with really smart tactical play and enviable discipline. While the visitors were under-strength, there can be no doubt anymore the Dragons are the real deal. Bennett has done what few thought he could within the space of a season: transform the ever-underperforming red-and-whites into the best team in the comp.
Manly were blown away on the paddock and on the scoreboard, but they absolutely came to play, produced some terrific football and hung in almost to the end. They were outclassed is the truth of it, and this match marked a changing of the guard – last year’s champions put to the sword by this year’s pacesetters.
It was an enthralling, 11-try match, with St George Illawarra fans especially getting everything they could have wished for.
Brett Morris in full flight?
The comp’s form player, Jamie Soward, at his very best?
Dell getting a try?
And for everyone else, it was fun to see big George Rose crash over for Manly’s first try.
St George Illawarra scored first within two minutes and were never headed, though the Sea Eagles came armed with a tactic of attacking the Dragons with inside passes close to the ruck, and this yielded a decent dividend in the first half. They got close to the Dragons a few times during the afternoon, but the home side seemed capable of scoring at will. And by the end, once Manly accepted they were cooked, the late afternoon became a Dragons carnival, three tries coming in the last 12 minutes.
The Game Swung When… Manly still looked threatening early in the second half, trailing 24-12. If they could be next to score, anything was possible. Then Soward earned his side a repeat set with one of his ball-on-a-string left-footers that Manly had to run dead. In the next set, it was Soward again who took off from dummy-half and linked with Chase Stanley running a deadly angle. The centre’s four-pointer, converted by Soward, put the Dragons out of reach.
Who Was Hot… Soward is the man of the moment. And this was his most complete display yet. His kicking, passing and running all came together in a sublime performance. And his goal-kicking! He landed eight from nine attempts, including some tracer bullets from near the sideline. He has a good thing going with hooker Luke Priddis, who’s throwing him beautiful, long passes to clear the ruck and give Soward a few extra moments to ignite the backline.
St George Illawarra are hoping for the fairytale finish on October 4, and Matt Cooper resembled Cinderella fleeing the ball sans a slipper after seven minutes. But what looked like a worrying foot or ankle injury didn’t stop the big centre from returning to the fray and making some storming bursts as the Dragons broke free.
Wendell Sailor was very good again on the right wing, but no-one needs him to tell him that.
For Manly, hooker Matt Ballin was a standout orchestrating those raids based on turning the ball back inside to big forwards running on the angle.
And the youngster Kieran Foran impressed again with flawless tackling and some lively running. More sustained efforts in attack will come with time.
Who Was Not… After such a spirited and entertaining game, it would be churlish to suggest anyone failed his team.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… Brett Morris thrilled the fans with his 100-metre try in the 12th minute. Swooping on an awkward Matt Orford kick at the foot of his own goalposts, Morris took off and might not have been touched as he bamboozled a fatally staggered line of chasers. And is speed genetic or what? He looked so much like his lightning-quick father Steve on his way to the other end of the field that old St George fans may have felt they’d been thrust back 25 years in time.
Bad Boys… Manly’s Steve Matai was placed on report for dropping his knees into Soward on the stroke of halftime. But the Match Review Committee also hit Matai with a Dangerous Contact charge following a 43rd-minute incident. All up he’ll serve a fortnight on the sidelines with an early guilty plea.
Also, new Dragon Nathan Fien was charged with a Careless High Tackle but will be free to play next week.
Refs Watch… Gavin Badger and Ashley Klein did a great job allowing this spectacle to flow, blowing into their whistles just five times during the 80 minutes.
NRL Best & Fairest… 3 points – Jamie Soward (Dragons): A try and eight goals for a 20-point haul was only the half of it; 2 points – Brett Morris (Dragons): Covered a massive 247 metres in 15 runs; 1 point – Matt Ballin (Sea Eagles): Made 45 tackles and still found the energy for some smart attack.
Dragons 48 (W Sailor 2, B Morris 2, M Lett, J Nightingale, C Stanley, J Soward tries; Soward 8 goals) def Sea Eagles 18 (G Rose, V Mauro, M Robertson tries; M Orford 3 goals) at WIN Stadium. Crowd: 16,792.