Just when it seemed as if nothing could top the upset of the Tigers-Titans loss, the Dragons-Rabbitohs clash at the SCG on Sunday afternoon seemed to confirm that this round – maybe this season – is going to be about messing with everyone’s expectations. High off their pummelling of the Knights last weekend, I didn’t necessarily expect that Souths would be able to retain the same lead against that Dragons, but I did expect a fairly comfortable win, especially since Josh Dugan – arguably St. George-Illawarra’s strongest asset – still seems to be finding his form as he negotiates the shifting space between centre and fullback in the modern game. It was incredible, then, to see such a static score and such a grinding defeat for South Sydney, something that was all the more dramatic for me in that I didn’t watch the game from start to finish but instead glimpsed it on various televisions and social media devices across the afternoon. Each time, the score was still 8-6 and each time I was still surprised.
If that wasn’t enough, the showdown at the SCG took place against the most dramatic weather this season. Whereas Round 1 was characterised by unseasonable, blistering heat and humidity, last weekend saw the first real deluge of autumn, with the rain seeming to hit in droves just as the Bunnies and the Dragons entered the stage. For most of the game, conditions were so bad that there was barely any visibility on the field, let alone from the stands or from the cameras, with massive puddles and slimy patches of mud putting the burden of the game on the forwards, who put in a grinding, gritty efforts on both side. This was Rugby League as a water sport, and Alex Johnston’s try in the 13th minute and Jason Nightingale’s in the 22nd, there were no more four-pointers, with a solitary penalty goal from Gareth Widdop before the break representing the last points up for either side. Neither team scored in the second half, with the Dragons holding on grimy for dear life and Nightingale celebrating his 200th game with one of his gutsiest efforts in some time.
Adding to the intensity were two big moments for Souths supporters. After charging into a tackle in the 58th minute, Sam Burgess was grounded with what initially appeared to be a severe neck injury, sending a hush across the stadium as he was stretchered off. While it now seems as if he’s going to make a full recovery, it was a pretty desperate situation at the time for the Rabbitohs, who were forced to imagine the worst about their greatest asset less than two games into the competition. Given how instrumental Burgess was to last weekend’s clinical dismantling of the Knights’ forward line, it’s not surprising that his absence and injury cast a pall over the second part of the game.
At the same time, Greg Inglis made a good case for one of the best bloopers of the season with a brainsnap field goal from 35 metres out in the last couple of minutes of the match. Even if he hadn’t copped a knee injury from Jack de Bellin in the 19th minute, his general condition would have made the goal unlikely. In any case, the score was 6-8, which meant that the goal wouldn’t have levelled things anyway. While the presence – or absence – of Burgess may well have put Inglis in a Union mindset, it seems more likely that the sheer extremity of the conditions made him forget the score, especially since by this point in the game nobody had scored for a good half hour, and nobody had converted for over an hour. Given that Inglis also urged Luke Keary to go for a field goal, it’s likely the weather messed with his head, giving the chaotic proceedings a tinge of comedy as well as making me wonder just how that brainsnap would have gone down with Rusty if Keary had been responsible.
Still, if there was ever a game for a Souths brainsnap it was this one, since it was clear from the outset that St. George-Illawarra weren’t prepared to concede a thing. Even Johnston’s try was a matter of serendipity, and not especially reflective of the game, with the Dragons much stronger with possession in the first half, and only notching up four penalties to Souths’ seven. Central to that effort was Dugan’s move to fullback – while he was still playing like a centre at times, it does feel as if this is his natural home, making me wonder whether James Tedesco is really such a lock for Origin after all. With Dugan watching the back, the Dragons were able to return to the defensive strategies they do best while Gareth Widdop and Josh McCrone gave it shape and structure in the halves, with McCrone putting in an especially memorable understudy for Benji Marshall. Watching them play was a reminder that, for all their inconsistencies, St. George-Illawarra are one of the best teams in the competition for just grinding it out, something that should stand them in good stead when they take on the Panthers this weekend.