Rookie St George Illawarra winger Mikaele Ravalawa saved centre Tim Lafai the heartache of missing two penalty goals by scoring a 78th minute try to snatch a gripping 12-10 win over Manly at WIN Stadium.
With Lafai failing to land a penalty goal attempt just four minutes from fulltime, the Sea Eagles appeared set to post their first win in Wollongong since 2003 but Ravalawa swooped on a grubber kick from halfback Ben Hunt to secure the Dragons' fourth consecutive victory.
It was the second St George Illawarra try scored from a Hunt grubber after fullback Matt Dufty pounced on a kick for the opening try of the match in the 16th minute and he had a huge influence on the game with his right boot.
Besides laying on both two tries for his side, Hunt forced two drop outs and a number of errors from the Sea Eagles backs, while making 403 metres from his 14 kicks.
“I was really happy with my kicking game," Hunt said. "That was my main focus coming into tonight. We knew that they were defending really well and grinding teams out.
“I just had a big focus on trying to kick well. We got a few repeat sets and they did too so both teams defended a lot of sets on their own line."
With Greg Inglis’s shock retirement during the week, Manly halfback Daly Cherry-Evans has been touted as the likely Queensland captain but Hunt still harbours ambitions of regaining the Maroons No.7 jersey he lost to the Manly skipper in the final game of last year’s series.
Match: Dragons v Sea Eagles
Round 6 -
Venue: WIN Stadium, Wollongong
If the match was an audition for the Queensland halfback spot, the selectors would be little wiser as both Hunt and Cherry-Evans played vital roles for their teams in a high-quality clash between two form teams.
Cherry-Evans laid on Manly first try and scored their second, while making three tackle breaks and kicking for 366 metres from 13 kicks - one of which forced a goal line drop out.
“I thought Cherry got the points,” Sea Eagles coach Des Hasler said. “Both played big parts.”
The Dragons dominated the opening exchanges and were almost rewarded with an early try after prop Paul Vaughan momentarily wrestled the ball loose from Sea Eagles fullback Brendan Elliott in the in-goal but he could not ground it.
Manly’s back three were constantly troubled by kicks from the Dragons playmakers and winger Rueben Garrick spilled a Corey Norman cross field bomb in the fifth minute, while Hunt threaded the ball behind the defence to force yet another repeat set.
Yet for all the pressure the home team applied, their only reward was a Tim Lafai penalty goal in the eighth minute after Jake Trbojevic, playing his 100th game for the Sea Eagles, was ruled off-side on his own line.
Hunt lays the match-winner on for Ravalawa
Momentum shifted in Manly’s favour but errors continued to cost the visitors, with hooker Api Koroisau knocking on at dummy half near the St George Illawarra tryline and second-rower Curtis Sironen unable take a pass as a try beckoned.
The Sea Eagles were eventually made to pay for the repeated errors after after Elliott put down a floating Norman bomb near his own line and Matt Dufty swooped on a grubber by Hunt to score in the 17th minute.
A knock on by Vaughan on the first tackle after the re-start again signalled a change in momentum and the Dragon were under siege for a long period as kicks by Cherry-Evans and Kane Elgey forced the Dragons to make four line dropouts in the first half.
Eventually the weight of possession took its toll on the St George Illawarra defence and Cherry-Evans put centre Brad Parker over for Manly's first try in the 34th minute.
Lafai had a chance to extend the Dragons’ 8-4 lead before halftime but he failed to land a 37th minute penalty attempt and it looked like being a costly miss when Cherry-Evans scored under the posts to give Manly the lead for the first time in the 59th minute.
The try followed a stunning turnaround in the possession stakes after the interval, with St George Illawarra conceding six penalties and committing six errors after a disciplined first half in which they had completed 18 of 20 sets of possession and were penalised just twice.
Interchange forward Corey Waddell, who was making his first NRL appearance at the ground his father Steve called home during his career with the Illawarra Steelers, laid on the try for Cherry-Evans with a pass between his legs and it appeared set to be the decisive play of the night until Ravalawa’s match-winner.
“He is a quality young player, he has still got a lot to learn but he is improving with every game and e works hard at training," Hunt said of Ravalawa. "He doesn’t mind doing the tough stuff, he is a big body and he brings the ball off our line, and he can finish."
The Dragons had a chance in the 76th minute to level the scores at 10-10 but Lafai, who has taken over the goal kicking duties after the shoulder injury sustained by skipper Gareth Widdop, missed his second penalty goal attempt.
“When you lose your main kicker in Gareth that can happen," Dragons coach Paul McGregor said. "Laf has been good the last couple of weeks. He was a little bit off.”
Cherry-Evans scores off tunnel ball