Round 10: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Canberra Raiders (UOW Jubilee Stadium, 13/05/16)

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While last night’s match at Kogarah Oval may have brought a much-needed win for the Dragons, it was the venue itself that was the main character of the evening. After a nearby power outage took out one of the four spotlights, venue lighting and wi-fi – as well as the scoreboard every now and then – the entire southwestern corner of the field was left shrouded in darkness. Not only did that make it inscrutable to footy fans at the venue, but it rendered it all but invisible to anyone watching it on television, as well as to the video refs at the bunker.

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With football coverage having evolved so much over the last twenty years, we’ve grown used to having more access to the game than the players themselves from the safety and comfort of our living rooms. Last night, however, was a throwback to an era where the live experience more than outweighed the televised experience. Indeed, for long portions of the game even front-row spectators would have been left more or less in the dark, with only the players really knowing what took place in the southwestern corner.

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Although playing in the dark is a bit of a grind, there was nevertheless something empowering about the way in which last night’s blackout freed both teams from the kinds of scrutiny that have come into existence this season as a result of the introduction of the bunker. Time and again, players have been faced with decisions that are so far from their intuitive experience of the play concerned that it has unsettled them for the remainder of the gam, with the result that a bad bunker call – or even an opaque bunker call – has been a turning point for several big matches.

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Last night, however, the bunker had to concede its limitations in an unprecedented way. When Joey Leilua broke through the Dragons defence in the first couple of minutes of the game to plant the Steeden over the try-line, it seemed as if he might have fumbled the ball, but in the absence of any clear visibility the most that the bunker could do was to award the most cautious and least committed verdict, coming down with a No Try ruling that could easily have seemed ludicrous if the corner had been properly lit.

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Of course, there’s no guarantee that on-field refs won’t show the same arbitrariness as the bunker refs, and there can’t have been a Raiders fan in the house prepared to accept that Joel Thompson’s high hit on Blake Austin deserved to go unpunished. Blood streaming down his face, the usually placid Austin was on the verge of abusing the ref, but wisely channelled his energy back into the game, in what retrospectively felt like a bit of a turning point for the Raiders effort.

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Speaking of the Raiders, while the media may have given them a pretty bad wrap in the aftermath of the game, I was actually fairly taken with how they managed to turn the match around in the second half. Not managing to score until Jordan Rapana crossed the line in the 55th minute, they nevertheless levelled with the Dragons by the final siren, thanks in large part to Jarod Croker, who kicked and converted his own try at the 78-minute mark to become the greatest try-scorer in Raiders history, sending the game into Golden Point in the process.

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While he’s far from a perfect player, Croker has to be one of the most consistent kickers out there, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it was his skill with conversions, more than anything else, that won the game for the Raiders. Without a lucky penalty goal from Gareth Widdop in the 50th minute, Croker’s kicking consistency would have won the game, especially since Widdop himself only managed to convert the first of the Dragons’ three tries. Sure, Croker’s kicks were probably easier than Widdop’s, but his consistency across Raiders games goes above and beyond any single conversion or set of conversions.

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Nevertheless, you couldn’t doubt the strength of the Dragons effort either. While the Red V need to rack up wins, they also need to build a sense of camaraderie around flagship players, and last night’s match featured the kinds of inspired moves and decisions that signify a team getting back into gear. With a brilliant opening try, Tyson Frizzell made yet another argument for Origin eligibility, while Jordan Nightingale put in one of his signature freaky flick passes to set up Tim Lafai for a try at the 65th minute. Almost as deft was Lafai’s dexterity in picking up and planting the ball, in what has to be one of his most understated moments of brilliance since making the move from the Dogs at the beginning of the year.

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However, it was young gun Euan Aitken who was the star of the show. Fresh off a great Country performance at centre, he would already have had a little bit of star power last night, but the fact that he managed to clinch Golden Point with an intercept try from Jack Wighton really cemented his celebrity status within the Dragons, as well as his potential to reinstate the Dragons as an exclusive team within the NRL at large. Catching the ball from Raiders fullback Jack Wighton, he put in an even more impressive Golden Point victory than Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s four-pointer against the Roosters at Central Coast. While 2016 may have provided us with Golden Point at its most anticlimactic and irrelevant, it’s also provided us with a few object lessons in how to win Golden Point with integrity and panache, and Aitken’s performance last night was one of those treats.

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In fact, coming off the heels of Gareth Widdop’s failed field goal – one of the unluckiest since the 2016 Grand Final – as well as a series of botched efforts from Aitken himself, last night’s Dragons victory had the kind of double or even triple relief we saw in the Cowboys’ epic win last year. Certainly, it wasn’t nearly as epic, but it nevertheless felt like a more convincing argument for a renewed St. George-Illawarra presence that any match since their disastrous run against Brisbane and North Queensland earlier in the season. With the Rabbitohs next on their list, it’ll be interesting to see whether they make or break their momentum, since both teams have a lot to prove at the moment.

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