By Stew Moses
It was the battle of two v three but it was a star studded St George Illawarra side that prevailed over a fast-finishing Canterbury Bulldogs outfit n for a 24-22 win at Belmore Sports Ground.
With a backline boasting the likes of Matt Dufty, Jai Field, Mikaele Ravalawa and Charly Runciman, and steered around the park by Darren Nicholls and Adam Clune and well served by hooker Reece Robson, the Dragons have stamped themselves as one of the competition’s favourites for the title given their guaranteed top two, possibly minor premiership finish to the regular season.
The win was built on a rock-solid defensive effort as the Dragons repelled wave after wave of early attacking raids inside their own 20 by the Bulldogs before that NRL experienced backline opened up an eighteen-point lead by half time.
But the Dragons almost saw their 24-point second half lead evaporate before their eyes as the Bulldogs mounted a frantic comeback, scoring 22 unanswered points in less than 20 minutes to set up a grandstand finish in the latter stages of the second half, before holding on for the win.
The Bulldogs’ second consecutive loss could be crucial given they were looking to maintain their spot inside the top four but instead face the real risk of being leapfrogged by either Mounties or Penrith, pending results.
It was all Bulldogs in the opening 15 minutes but the second placed Dragons were able to defend their line time after time.
Their defensive efforts were rewarded with a try in the north-west corner to Dufty in the 15th minute, the result of a big shift left with Robson and Clune instrumental in the lead up with some cut-out passes that created the overlap for the winger to score and give his team a 4-0 lead.
The try lifted the Dragons; confidence considerably and they soon scored their second try in as many sets, built off plenty of second phase play with numerous offloads and multiple hands ending in enabling centre Steven Marsters out wide to score and with the conversion by Nicholls, the Dragons took the lead out to 10-0 midway through the first half.
The Bulldogs thought they had opened their account five minutes through a spectacular put down in the corner by Tuipulotu Katoa only for the match officials to deny the winger.
The home side were made to paid for that missed opportunity with the Dragons marching downfield and scored two sets later, with the fullback Field, putting his centre, Runciman on a great line to score out wide to put the Dragons further in front 14-0.
Another long cut-out pass from Clune that evaded three Bulldogs defenders enabled Marsters to notch up his double gave the Dragons an imposing 18-0 lead at half-time, which could have been more had Nicholls found his kicking radar.
The Dragons continued where they left off the first half, scoring early in the second half through a simple dart from dummy half by Robson, who was one of the Dragons' best on-field performers, pushing the lead out to 24-0 after 49 minutes.
The Bulldogs finally got on the scoreboard in the 55th minute with a try in the corner to winger John Olive, the beneficiary of an overlap created by the double pump put on his inside by the fullback, Toa Mata’afa, but still trailed 24-4.
Bulldogs prop Ofahiki Ogden scored a barnstorming try with 13 minutes remaining to reduce the gap to fourteen, trailing 24-10 with Jesse Marschke’s simple conversion.
The Dragons defensive line off the back of a late tackle penalty inside their own 20, fell asleep yet again, when a short ball from Jack Nelson enabled Bronson Garlick to score from close range and with the successful conversion, the Bulldogs were suddenly back in the game, trailing by just eight with seven minutes remaining.
When Katoa scored in the corner, converted brilliantly by Marschke, a grandstand finish was on the cards with the Bulldogs trailing by just two points with six minutes remaining.
Despite the best endeavours of the home side, the Dragons were able to see off the Bulldogs by two points. The Rabbitohs' loss later on Saturday afternoon allowing for the Dragons to seal the minor premiership.