Almanac Rugby League – Irrepressible Tigers too good for dour Dragon

I arrived home in time for the dressing room shots. Hate missing them.

‘The Tigers have definitely got the best uniform.’ The legendary big red V cuts no ice with Sweetheart.

Coach Tim Sheens, more statesmanlike every week as his beard thickens, and the Saints’ mentor, Wayne Bennett, are rock solid and calm.

‘Who’s the guy with the hat?’

‘Jamie Soward. It’s headgear.’

‘How come they all haven’t got one?’

‘You’re not going to stay for the whole game, are you?’

Sweetheart retreats to her bath. The dog jumps on the lounge.

The Tigers’ five-eighth, Benji Marshall, is the X-factor – it’s no secret. If he is on song the Dragons will struggle. With no-one to match his brilliance, they ‘grind’. It’s the word everybody uses, over and over.

Saints, with first use of the ball, surrender possession but survive early pressure in their twenty. They appear to have rediscovered the composure that had abandoned them for so long after Origin. But genius is an outrageous opponent …

Benji runs to the left, sets himself to chip but has an air-swing.

Unbelievably, he regathers the awkward bounce, escapes his tackler and beats the Dragons’ fullback, Darius Boyd, cold in a thrilling dash to the line. Ray ‘Rabbits’ Warren suggests it may have been a knock on and if I were a St George supporter that is exactly what I’d be howling.

Replays support arguments for and against. The red-and-white section of the crowd gives the video ref the rounds of the kitchen when the green light flashes. It’s the arsiest try I’ve ever seen.

The Dragons are only briefly rattled. Getting into gear, they are a relentless outfit, fearful of flamboyance but ruthlessly efficient.

They’re getting most of the ball and establishing threatening field position. The Tigers are eventually worn down and St George’s young hooker, Mitch Rein, dummies and charges over from dummy half. It’s an alarmingly soft try.

Seven minutes later, Soward makes a probing, diagonal run before slicing through four rubber-necking defenders. He throws a gilt-edged one-hander inside to Jason Nightingale who crosses for the four-pointer. It was spectacular, but not enough so to encourage the Dragons to loosen the straightjacket of their unflinching technique. Rabbits refers to them as ‘a group of pathologists’ – he’s had well-documented medical issues of late, so his odd turn of phrase is understandable.

The Tigers are rattled, but the front-runners, instead of going for the jugular, settle for kicks at goal when awarded penalties. One conversion from two sees them take a 12-6 lead into the sheds.

The dog is on his back snoring, legs spread-eagled as I duck outside for a slash under the Bangalow palm (keeping an eye out for snakes – I saw the first one of spring yesterday), drain the cask of De Bertoli kanga rouge and get back for the punch line of the Byron Services Club ad (‘if you love a steak!’).

The second half starts with the Tigers, though trailing, exhibiting a leader’s swagger. Saints, stricken by a fear of flying, are content to be bottom-line pragmatists. It’s an approach unworthy of reigning Premiers. And, counter-productively, it encourages adventure in the other mob.

‘They’ve gotta get Gasnier the ball!’ Gus Gould is adamant. Gaz is putting it all over his opposite, Matt Utai, but still the Dragons adhere to their tried but tired method.

Suddenly, the St George defence – and the game – is split wide open by Timmy Moltzen, who’s having a blinder at full-back. He throws a long, perfect pass to the centre Blake Ayshford who miraculously gets it to his winger, Beau Ryan, who scores in the corner. From the sideline, Benji’s kick glides between the posts.

We’re still a fair way from the siren, but the conversion has rung a death knell for the morose Dragons.

‘The teams have a totally different demeanour.’ Gus is only stating the obvious.

At last the ref awards the Tigers a penalty, and it’s right in front of the sticks.

Benji makes no mistake. 14-12.

The black-and-golds are surging, so it doesn’t surprise when half Robert Lui finds space to send the stalwart lock Chris Heighington in.

The score is still only 18-12, but Saints are done like a dinner. There is no spark in their play, no in-your-face, champion’s confidence. Victory is in sight for the Tigers and they swarm into tackles mob-hande

‘They smell blood in the water.’ Gus says it with relish.

A Lui field-goal attempt is charged down but, inevitably, Benji hammers one through the uprights soon after. The crucial seven-point buffer is established and the cadaverous face of Coach Bennett, high in the stands, betrays a shattered man.

The guy with the hat, Soward, who has been hot and cold throughout, compounds the Dragons’ misery by putting a line drop-out into touch on the full. The penalty is a throw-over for Benji.

The Tigers have now racked up nine wins in a row. Their charge to the grand final has assumed unstoppable momentum.

The Dragons, sweating on other results, are in disarray.

Wests Tigers 21: Tries: Marshall, Ryan, Heighington. Goals: Marshall 4/5. F/goals: Marshall 1.
St George Illawarra 12:
Tries: Rein, Nightingale. Goals: Soward 2/4.

Venue: ANZ Stadium

Crowd: 45,631

Votes: 3 Robert Lui (Tigers), 2 Chris Heighington (Tigers), 1 Tim Moltzen (Tigers)


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