The Dragons have won their first ANZAC Day clash since 2018 with a gritty defensive performance that lifted them above the Sydney Roosters but coach Anthony Griffin was fuming after the game about a shocking tackle from Daniel Tupou which only earned a penalty.
St George Illawarra, $4 outsiders going in, produced one of the great rearguard actions to limit the Roosters to just two tries, enough to win 14-12.
The talking point, however, was a high shot from Tupou that left Mikaele Rawalava in a heap but a mere penalty was deemed sufficient by referee Adam Gee. NRL CEO Andrew Abdo conceded the Rooster should have been marched.
“He had 30 metres to decide where to tackle him. It was direct contact with the head,” Griffin said.
“I don’t understand the rules. At least in the bin. He would have got two years in jail for that in Magic Round last year.
“I’m not here to bag anyone or make that the story of the night. But it’s just black and white. It’s not even a question.
“I feel for the players and coaches. If you’re not going to put that in the bin for some of the things that have been in the bin over the last four or five weeks, I don’t know where we go now.”
Abdo told 2GB Radio that it should have resulted in 10 minutes off for Tupou.
“From where I was sitting, to me it was a sin bin,” he said. “Direct contact on the head. We’ll see what the review comes up with tomorrow. I was very surprised it wasn’t sin-binned I think it should have been.”
Griffin hailed his team’s ANZAC-style spirit in fighting for the win. “We honoured the theme of the day with the way we played,” he said. “We had every reason to lose that game in the last 20 minutes, but we refused to lose.
“They got what they deserved in the end. They just hung in really tight when we needed to.”
Ben Hunt was the star, marshalling the attack and turning up in defence to take the Ashton-Collins Medal, but this was a major team performance that saw the Dragons turn the Roosters away time and again.
“It’s definitely up there (as our best) as a club,” said the halfback. “I said we’re going to win this on our defence and that’s what happened in the end.”
For Trent Robinson, it might be that this upset had been in the works for some time. The Roosters have been winning spite of performances and on this occasion, the slow start cost them. The Dragons didn’t score a point after half time, but didn’t need to.
The 67% completion rate tells one story, but this was also a performance where they looked clunky and often failed to ask enough questions.
“We had a lot of opportunities; we created enough field position,” said Robinson. “You need to convert that field position into execution of plays to score those tries.”
There were injuries to Jack Bird (arm) and Jaydn Su’A (ankle), too.
The pattern was set early. The Dragons withstood waves of Roosters attack and got their reward. When it arrived, it was also simple, as Hunt sent Francis Molo careering through a huge hole between Sitili Tupouniua and Siosiua Taukeiaho and under the posts.
It was a curious pattern: the Roosters would attack and attack, be repelled and the Dragons would go up the field and score. The second was even simpler than the first, with Paul Momirovski dropping a kick straight to Su’A.
It might have been more. The Chooks couldn’t help but drop the ball in their own end – eight errors in the first half for a 65% completion rate – and were by a Dragons attack that was not as clinical as it might have been either.
There was a crucial moment due before half time. Zac Lomax broke into the backfield and got the ball to Bird, only for the five-eighth to be rattled by a cover tackle from Joseph Suaalii. Not only did it stop a certain try, it also left Bird with a suspected broken arm.
Lomax would add a penalty before the break, and few could argue with the 14-0 score.
It’s been the Roosters’ fashion of late to fire up after the break, and they repeated the trick. There was another momentum-shifting injury – this one to Su’A, a nasty-looking ankle knock – followed by an excellent break from James Tedesco.
The fullback didn’t make to the end, but the play was recycled through hands for Tupouniua, as he so often does, to get the try.
Again, however, errors struck. Momirovski struggled under a kick again, and as Ravalawa raced clear, Tupou clattered him with a clothesline tackle that the bunker deemed accidental enough not to merit a stint on the sidelines. The judiciary may feel otherwise.
Eventually, the breakthrough came. It was hardly on the back of exhilarating attack, but the Dragons thought they had Suaalii tackled on the last, only for a late offload to send Joey Manu over.
Tupou shouldn’t have been on the field, but the Dragons were glad that he was. With Hunt aiming a 40/20 at the sideline, the winger inexplicably let the ball roll out and gifted St George Illawarra field position.
The set came to nothing, but left the Roosters with 95m to go and a minute to play. They had a red hot crack, with Walker bounding down the touchline in free space, but a Hunt hand came in to deflect the pass aimed at Luke Keary and win the Red V the ANZAC Cup.