Canberra forward Hudson Young admitted the NRL's 10-week shutdown due to COVID-19 may have been a blessing for him after turning in a career-best performance to help the Raiders power to a 37-8 defeat of St George Illawarra on Saturday at WIN Stadium.
After missing last year’s grand final due to an eight-match suspension for eye-gouging that carried over into the opening four rounds of 2020, Young suffered a knee injury in a pre-season training mishap that would have sidelined him for another 14 weeks.
Instead, he was able to return in Canberra's round six match against Manly on June 21 and has established himself as a valuable member of the Ricky Stuart's squad by playing on the left edge as well as the middle.
"COVID actually turned out to be a good thing for me," Young said.
“Before our first trial I tripped over Whitey [assistant coach Brett White] at training and did a bit of cartilage damage. That led to bone bruising so I think it was about 14 weeks I was in rehab."
Young scored a try and laid on another for English star John Bateman as he carried the ball for 196 metres from 22 runs in a 61-minute performance that enabled Raiders coach Ricky Stuart to leave prop Josh Papalii on the sideline for the entire second half.
Match: Dragons v Raiders
Round 18 -
Venue: WIN Stadium, Wollongong
“I just had to push through that fatigue barrier there for a bit, but it was probably my best game," Young said.
“Doing an extra pre-season than every one else made me a bit fitter and a bit stronger and I just had to change my mindset.
"Obviously missing [the grand final] last year is always going to eat at me until we win one here at the Raiders.
"Last year was a bit of a write-off and I am just trying to put that behind me and move forward now. I know that is not a part of me or what is in my game so I don’t think about it any more."
While Young was arguably the best forward on the field, Canberra five-eighth Jack Wighton was the best back as the Raiders ensured they remained in contention for a top four spot with the six tries to two win.
Wighton finished the match with two tries and a game-high seven tackle breaks to increase his lead as the top try-scoring playmaker in the NRL with 10 tries, as the Raiders took control in the second half.
The only bright spot for the Dragons was the performance of rookie winger Cody Ramsey, who scored on his first touch of the ball in the NRL, crossed for a second try and had a third disallowed before half-time.
Young answers straight back for Canberra
It took 17 minutes before the ball found its way to Ramsey and he made the most of the opportunity by beating Raiders opposite Semi Valemai to score on his first touch in the NRL after receiving a long cut-out pass.
Before Ramsey’s debut try, the Raiders had appeared to be on top after withstanding early pressure from the Dragons, who had looked set to score in the opening minute after five-eighth Corey Norman burst into the clear only to be tackled short by Valemai.
The Canberra winger almost had the first try of the game in the 13th minute but he was unable to hold the final pass from second-rower Elliot Whitehead with the line wide open.
After putting the home side ahead 4-0, Ramsey made a try-saving tackle on Valemai after the Raiders rookie picked up a loose ball from St George Illawarra centre Zac Lomax.
However, Canberra scored just two tackles later after when Hudson Young crashed over under the posts off a reverse pass from halfback George Williams.
First touch. First NRL try for Cody Ramsey
Wighton then finished a spectacular try after a kick by Williams bounced awkwardly for Dragons winger Jordan Pereira and into the hands of Canberra centre Jordan Rapana, who combined with Tom Starling and Joe Tapine to put the NSW star over in the 26th minute.
When Norman kicked out on the full from the re-start and captain Cameron McInnes lost the ball near his own line after a bone-rattling tackle by Papalii, St George Illawarra fans were fearing the worst.
Yet the Dragons could have been leading at half-time after Ramsey scored his second try from another long Dufty pass in the 36th minute and sprinted 78 metres after snatching the ball from Valemai, only to be called back after referee Adam Gee ruled Lomax was off-side.
Canberra captain Jarrod Croker kicked a penalty goal to give the visitors a 14-8 lead at half-time and there was more drama during the break when Gee succumbed to a calf injury and had to be replaced by stand-by referee Matt Cecchin for the remaining 40 minutes.
The Dragons' only genuine second-half scoring opportunity came in the 43rd minute when interchange prop Josh Kerr was held up by John Bateman and Dunamis Lui.
Raiders left edge creates a try for Croker
The rest of the half was one-way traffic, with Croker scoring in the 45th minute from a perfectly weighted grubber by Elliott Whitehead, fellow English second-rower Bateman crossing 10 minutes later and Wighton getting his second try in the 61st minute.
In between, the Dragons suffered a double-blow when Kerr and interchange hooker Billy Brittain clashed heads attempting to tackle Young from opposite sides and were both forced from the field for HIAs.
Valemai scored in the the 70th minute and Williams completed the scoring with his first NRL field goal two minutes before full-time.
Valemei gets one as Raiders left continues to fire