Almanac Rugby League – Shaken but not stirred

It was 9.20pm on Saturday 24 September 2005 and I was shaken to the core as the siren at the Sydney Football Stadium rang out. Not that I could actually hear it above the din of thousands of West Tigers fanatics writhing with ecstasy across the concourse and grandstand of the Sydney home of rugby league. On this evening the Tigers fans were louder and crazier than any group of fans I’ve seen. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

I had travelled from my apartment in Port Melbourne expecting (as only a Dragons fan can!) to witness my team sailing resolutely into our first grand final since the devastating outcome of 1999. (Six years later Jamie Ainscough was still “He Who Shall Not Be Named” to me.) We were searing hot favourites and we were smashed by 20 year old Benji Marshall and 21 year old Robbie Farah at the very beginning of their ascension.

The Dragons lost their tight grip on the premiership having had one hand on the silverware for most of the year. Captain Trent Barrett saw fit to genuflect and hold his head in his hands. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Notwithstanding the historical significance of Wests and Saints, the modern rivalry shared by these two great merged clubs (a rivalry shared within my household) was born on this evening and it is a rivalry that makes every showdown between the two great clubs all the more special.

The rivalry continued in last year’s preliminary final where the Dragons succeeded in reversing the result of 2005 by knocking the Tigers out of the Grand Final by a solitary point. It was also the evening I learnt of the futility of consoling a loved one who has lost their premiership dream but simultaneously celebrating yours being very much alive. Impossible but unavoidable.

To the delight of many, the Tigers and Dragons qualifying 4th and 5th provide the perfect opening match of the NRL 2011 Final Series. The Tigers are coming off an amazing 8 game streak. Meanwhile, the mighty red V enter the game off having won their final 2 regular season games after suffering a late season form slump that looked like closing down our chances of a title defence.

I have the good fortune of watching the clash from the comfort of the NRL Centre Line suite. Meat pies and beef stroganoff washed down by half a dozen Crownies. The crowd is equally chuffed with the prospect of this clash but as the sides take the field it is clear that the Tiger fans are louder and crazier than ours. Is this 2005 all over again?

The Dragons start poorly with Mick “Everybody Loves” Weyman dropping the ball carting it up deep inside our half. Field position and possession are both in Tiger-town.

There has been a lot of talk about the first try of this match. Whatever it was it was scored by Benji and the Tigers lead 6-0. I’m pondering whether the same try would have been awarded in 1963 without video. If it looks like a knock-on and its smells like a knock-on then it probably is. This is a try in the technical sense only.

Benji’s debacle try seems to have fired up the Dragons unit and The Red V shifts into the grafting mode which earned them the 2010 title. Into the 15th minute of the match and the Dragons are kick returning to their 40 m line. Gasnier is treating Utai like the speed hump that he is.

The dragons convert their field position with rookie hooker Mitch Rein darting from dummy half to score our first try of the match exposing the Tigers poor goal line defence. 6-6 18th minute.

The Dragons continue their ruck dominance and the tigers are looking more toothless as the game progresses.

In the 23rd minute an aborted left side play is reversed back towards J Soward who dummies runs across field, straightens (somewhat reminiscent of Walter J Lewis) and runs for the corner. Finding Tim Moltzen in a perfect position to “George Gregan” him into touch, he flings the ball inside to the juggling hands of Jason Nightengale who dives into the sacred turf of his two grand final tries. Soward misses and its 10-6. Dragons fully fired up and running free. Ronnie, my wife is not interested in discussing this game right now.

Soward lands a penalty goal 12-6 half time.

The Tigers start the second half with enthusiasm, using every inch of the field with deep dynamic energetic backline plays. The Dragons are instantly under goal line pressure as result of this. The Tigers are using the whole field without the benefit of piggy back penalties. They are simply on fire. This is the Tigers we have come to know. I’m shaking in my boots.

Robbie Farah runs a series of dummy half darts turning the Dragons around. On the last of these he finds Lui who finds the flying Tim Moltzen who cuts through the pathetic dragons defence. With Boyd approaching fast from fullback and the Dragons well renowned cover defence swarming fast, Moltzen must somehow link up with Blake Ayshford who is 12 metres back and 12 metres wide. Moltzen needs a miracle Hail Mary pass to connect with Ayshford. It has to be made under pressure as Boyd is fast approaching. As we watch the ball fly on its loopy trajectory time seems to slow down and BAM! the ball is caught. I’m distraught. 12-all but the tide wasn’t turning; it had already turned.

The Dragons long and short kicking game collapses; their superstar backline receives little ball, little opportunity. The Tigers attack continues with the energy of the opening minutes of the half. The Tigers defence turns into a pile-driving force.

In the 65th minute the most basic of backline plays results in a try to Heighington. The Dragons defence seems to have no answer for the relentness energy of the Tigers second half. The match belongs to the tigers now

This is clearly a flash back to the tumultuous day in 2005 with the enthusiasm and smarts provided by B. Marshall and R. Farah holding sway providing ample inspiration for ruthless, crushing defence.

With this performance against the Tigers surely deserve premiership favouritism and as I said last month they are my pick for the title.

The Dragons demonstrated a glimpse of their premiership performance in the first half of this game; enough to give me hope that they can will themselves back into contention for a premiership defence. The $64m question is whether it will be enough to derail the Darren Lockyer farewell party on Saturday night. My heart says yes and my head says no. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.


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