By Stuart Honeysett
St George Illawarra Dragons are only one game away from the Canterbury Cup NSW Grand Final after Darren Nicholls landed a penalty goal in extra time to set up a thrilling 24-22 win over Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs at Campbelltown Stadium today.
The highly entertaining match finished in dramatic circumstances after Bulldogs replacement Kayne Kalache was penalised and placed on a report for a shoulder charge on Nicholls.
The Dragons skipper was able to shake off the effects of the hit and step up to land the match-winner to send the Minor Premier straight through to a Preliminary Final. Last year’s champions the Bulldogs will face Wentworthville Magpies next week in a sudden death Semi-Final.
The Dragons were best served through fullback Jai Field, who scored two tries and set up two more in a dominant display. His only blemish was coughing up a ball just before fulltime which paved the way for the Bulldogs to land a penalty goal and lock the scores at 22-all.
It was a pass from Field which set up the opening try of the match to Eli Levido and he stepped up again when his side was trailing 16-6 to lay on another try for centre Charly Runciman.
He reduced the deficit to 20-16 after stepping his way back infield until he found a hole in the ‘Dogs goal line defence but it was his final try that really caught the eye and put the Dragons on track to snatch an unlikely win.
With the Bulldogs attacking the Dragons line, a grubber kick was picked up by Runciman who threw an around the corner pass for a flying Field. The former beach sprinting champion exploded away from the chasers to streak 80 metres upfield and score underneath the posts.
“It was a real end-to-end game and that wind played a big factor,” Field said.
“It was tough to come out and grind it out of our own end going into the wind but we held on which was good.
“After 90 minutes everyone was thinking is it going to be golden point. You just had to get your head around playing an extra ten minutes which our boys did well.
“Our forwards really dug in deep at times because they had all the momentum so we had to try and get it back. Our middle got us on the front foot which made it easy out wide.”
Field downplayed his own performance and said coach Mathew Head had told the team at halftime to focus on getting back into the grind.
“They had all the momentum at the back end of that first half and it was hard for us to stop,” Field said.
“They’ve got some big boys and they roll forward really well so he just said get back in the grind and compete and give it our best crack.”
The Bulldogs got off to a shaky start but recovered midway through the first half to take control of the match. Five-eighth Jesse Marshcke and his brother Ben Marschke both laid on tries with kicks for replacement Kayne Kalache, who caught the Dragons goal line defence napping on both occasions.
The Bulldogs luck changed when five-eighth Fa’amanu Brown was forced from the field in the 32nd minute with a knee injury. Brown was treated on the field and tried to run it off but eventually succumbed and played no further part in the match.
Despite his absence, the Bulldogs still came up with a strong contender for try of the season after the halftime siren sounded. The ball passed through 12 sets of hands and went from one side of the field to the other before John Olive finished it off to extend the halftime lead to 20-10.