Raiders coach Ricky Stuart was steaming in the big Wollongong wet after St George Illawarra grabbed two crucial points in their quest for the finals, defeating Canberra 12-10 in a controversial match marred by torrential rain.
The game ended controversially with the Raiders screaming for a penalty under the posts that would have allowed an easy two points to send the game to extra time.
Ben Hunt was clearly not square at marker when making a tackle as Canberra looked to shift the ball on the final play of the 80, but ref Peter Gough blew full-time rather than in the Raiders’ favour.
Gough had signalled for a six again – it was difficult to see if it was for the Hunt tackle, or the tackle before – when, obviously, Canberra would have much preferred a regular penalty and a shot at goal.
“I’ve only seen it once,” said Stuart. “I only needed to see it once. Tomorrow I’ll get an apology or justification of maybe it not being a penalty.
“We set ourselves up to win that game. It was a tough grind in the first half, but we let ourselves down in the second half.
“When you’re in the high-performance business, there’s always going to be pressure. And when there’s pressure, you need to have courage. And there needed to be courage on the last play of the day.”
In a game defined by horrendous conditions, this was always likely to be a game of attrition and defence, and it was the Dragons to seemed to cope better in the match marking the Illawarra Steelers’ 40th anniversary.
They banked their points when the breeze blew in their favour and then backed their defence to keep the Raiders at bay. Chasing the game, it was always going to be a tough ask.
The wind blew from north to south at 65km/h, giving St George Illawarra the chance to build their lead in the first half, and while 12-4 didn’t look like it would be enough, it proved to be sufficient.
“It was a big game, they were right up for it,” said Anthony Griffin. “Even though we had the wind, they had the better of it in the first half. We had to get two points today and got those, so we move on.
“In the first half, at times, we got a few penalties and field position from their errors, but we didn’t respect the conditions as much.
“We were a little bit lateral and didn’t have enough physicality. But, to our credit, in the second half against the wind we played the type of football we need to play.”
“We killed ourselves with errors but through our kicking game and defence we kept them down their end of the field for long periods, which is how we won the game. If they’d have had more good ball they might have got us today.”
The Raiders struggled particularly badly in kicking: they made two crucial errors from short drop-outs when playing into the wind, while in the second, they kicked dead and missed touch from a penalty as the breeze took the ball long away from the sideline.
Cody Ramsey, the St George Illawarra fullback, fared little better was ultimately reprieved by his defence and, with time expiring, the referee.
The Dragons are rarely scintillating in attack, and given the conditions, there were never likely to chance their arm too much early on. Both sides made it to half time with completion rates above 80%, but at the premium of attacking footy.
The three tries that did arrive were the result of errors and bargeovers. The first was farcical: Canberra attempted to take a drop-out short, but it barely broke the plane of the 10m line.
Jack Wighton batted backwards, but directly into the hands of Junior Amone who couldn’t believe his luck.
Lomax missed the conversion, though was given another chance to add two points soon after. The Raiders hasn’t learned their lesson of the previous short drop-out and tried another, with this one not making it the 10-metre line.
It presented an easy chance from the tee: though in keeping with the gale, the ball fell off and the tee blew away as Lomax lined it up. After Andrew McCullough got down on his hand and knees to assist, the ball flew through the posts.
The Raiders had been more than charitable, and it was time for the Dragons to repay the favour. Aaron Woods dropped one in contact and allowed a good ball set, which Canberra did not waste.
Wighton, stung by his gift of a try to Amone earlier, was able to make amends by laying one on for his fullback Xavier Savage, who split winger and centre and slid low to get over the line.
On the brink of the break, Nick Cotric struggled to catch a bomb in the breeze and offered St George Illawarra another chance at the line, which saw Moses Suli crash through a poor attempt from Savage for a 12-4 lead at half-time.
With the switch of ends, so came a switch of momentum. After spending a few sets in the Dragons end, Joseph Tapine broke the line, only to be felled by a high tackle from Ramsey.
The Raiders complained it should have been 10 minutes and were denied, but found themselves celebrating just two tackles later as Hudson Young rattled through a poor defensive effort to get back within two points.
There were errors aplenty: Jordan Rapana offered the Dragons a chance, but they coughed the ball back, before Ramsey spilled a kick himself and gave the Raiders good ball, which Wighton dropped on the first play.
The scoring chances were few and far between and with the clock ticking down, that suited St George Illawarra fine. Both sides were completing south of 70%, but only one side needed to score.
Another Ramsey error presented one final shot, from which the Raiders could not capitalise: though, they would say, they were never given the chance by either the Dragons’ offside defence or the referee.