The St George Illawarra Dragons had it all to play for coming into the last round of NRL fixtures yesterday.
They were poised in ninth place, just out of the finals series, and faced a regulation fixture against the Bulldogs in Sydney.
The day beforehand all the results they needed to make the top eight had fallen perfectly into place. The North Queensland Cowboys had obligingly fallen to the Broncos and Manly had given Penrith a sound thrashing.
St George enjoyed a far superior points differential to both the Cowboys and the Panthers so a win by any margin would have seen them leap frog both of them into seventh spot and a match up with Manly in the first week of the finals.
And it was all going pretty smoothly midway through the second half as centre Tim Lafai found fullback Matt Dufty who strolled over to pinch the lead. The conversion made it 18-14 with half an hour to play.
The lead could have been even greater as the Dragons crossed the line again minutes later but bad boy Josh Dugan was somehow held up under the black dot by a determined man of the match Will Hopoate.
Hopoate’s tackle was one of the trysavers of the year and although the next set the Bulldogs gave away a penalty and five-eighth Gareth Widdop slotted the penalty to make the lead six points, the momentum started to swing.
More than almost any other sport rugby league is all about momentum and now it was flowing all the Bulldogs way. Tries to prop Aiden Tolman in the 66th minute and hooker Michael Lichaa in the 73rd minute turned it around and although the Dragons threw everything they had at Canterbury’s line in the final moments, the Bulldogs held firm to run out 26-20 winners.
The disappointment after the final whistle was palpable for the St George players (below) and fans, scarcely able to believe their season had come to an end.
Dugan for one was choking back tears as he was comforted by team mate Nene Macdonald. The loss completed another disappointing season for the once proud Dragons who still remain one of the most successful clubs in Australian rugby league history, with 15 premierships to their name.
But since the Super League war and the merger with the Illawarra Steelers in 1998 to form the new NRL entity, St George Illawarra Dragons, they have won just one premiership, in 2010, when they were coached briefly by the legendary Wayne Bennett, now back with the Broncos.
The pressure will start to build on head coach Paul ‘Mary’ McGregor with the Dragons finishing out of the finals for a second year in a row. Okay if you are the Newcastle Knights, who picked up their third successive wooden spoon, and would dream of finishing anywhere around the eight. But not the once mighty Dragons.
“It shouldn’t have come down to today” said a sullen McGregor at the post match press conference, “but it did, and we let a team who couldn’t score points score 26 on us. Not good enough.” Not the most gracious of losing speeches.
But it was the sort of match where no one won. The winning coach Des Hasler wasn’t in a much better mood as he reflected on what could have been as the Bulldogs, who began the year as one of the premiership favourites, missed out on the finals for the first time in six seasons.
The pressure is also on Hasler with Doggies’ fans and management holding high expectations for the club and there has already been calls for his head.
Hasler flat-batted enquiries about his job security. “I’ve got a contract for (the next) two years” he said, “why wouldn’t I expect (to be coach next year).”
He then rounded on the insistent journalist: “You asked me that earlier in the day. Ease up.”
At the top of the table the Storm continued their imperious form with a 32-6 win over the Raiders and are heavily favoured to win just their third legitimate premiership on October 1. But then this is the NRL – upsets are bound to happen.
Kristian Stinson admits the majority of Dubai Exiles players “let themselves down” last season, but the club captain revealed everyone is hungry and determined to right the wrongs of a disastrous campaign.
After several years in the wilderness, the UAE’s oldest club rampaged to the UAE Premiership and West Asia Premiership double two years ago under the guidance of Jacques Benade.
But Exiles flopped in defence of both titles as they slumped to fifth and fourth-placed finishes in Asia and domestically respectively in 2016/17 – a malaise that would have been an even bigger disappointment as they celebrated their 50th anniversary.
But pre-season has been positive, with the acquisitions of Jaen Botes and Lehan Koekemoer, among others, from Abu Dhabi Saracens bolstering the ranks, while Munster’s former Heineken Cup-winning centre Denis Hurley has come on board as assistant coach.
And, with Stinson heading into his final season after a decade of playing in the UAE, the skipper is determined to go out on a high.
“We know we let ourselves down last year and really didn’t kick on from the success of the previous year,” said Northern Irishman Stinson, 32.
“There were perhaps a lot of boys who let themselves down last year but in many respects it’s going to be better for us in the long run as we don’t want another year like that again.
“Last year was such a damp squip for so many reasons and to be fair to the Quins, they were incredible. Even if we were at our best, we probably still wouldn’t have got close to them. They played some excellent rugby as did the other clubs.”
Stinson started his career in the Emirates with Exiles in 2007. He spent two years with Dubai Hurricanes between 2010-12 before returning to Exiles, having also earned four UAE caps along the way.
He and wife Emma welcomed daughter Ayla into the world this summer, the main reason why the veteran prop is deciding to call it a day at the end of the term – albeit in the hope the finale of the season is a happier one than the last.
“I’m still club captain and want to go out on a high,” added Stinson.
“I’ve started every game for the last two years that I’ve been available for and this year I’m having to fight every session to keep my head
In the frame, because competition is outstanding.
“There’s about 25 new boys in total for us but very few of us oldies left.”
Although Exiles’ summer recruitment drive has been largely fruitful, they have also said goodbye to some key players. Veteran winger/full-back Matt Richards has gone to Jebel Ali Dragons, scrum-half Ed Armitage has returned home to the UK, while captain Glenn Moore, who got married in his native Northern Ireland at the weekend, has retired, with winger Ed James forced to call it a day following a nasty injury suffered last season.
Hurley came into the club in May with Exiles beginning pre-season training at the beginning of June. A large squad of players has been training consistently since then, with the return to fitness of classy fly-half Durandt Gerber and flanker Danny Waddy – one of the few standouts from last season – meaning confidence is high within the camp.
“We have worked really hard for the last eight weeks and really put a lot of effort in,” added Stinson.
“We’re looking seriously competitive in terms of numbers and quality.
“The atmosphere is incredible at the moment, there’s so much positivity about the squad. A lot of bonding off the pitch has been paying dividends on it. We had 25 boys out paddle boarding (earlier this week) and have got a pre-season trip to Al Ain this weekend too.
“So now the focus is on doing the reps in training, building a full senior squad that shares the same core values and beliefs and wants to go out and challenge for the championships.
“With the players we’ve recruited so far and the coaching set up of Jacques and Denis and the facilities we have as a club, it now really comes down to us, the players, to decide what we want to achieve this season.
“And so far it’s all very positive, but we’re not taking anything for granted. We have to train hard, put in the reps and hope for a bit of luck along the way. Either way, it’s going to be a tough season. But we’re looking to be much more competitive than last year.”
Two of this season’s three Western Clubs Champions League matches will be hosted by Sri Lankan champions Kandy, with the full backing of Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Bahrain it has been revealed.
The Asia Rugby-organised tournament has acted as a curtain-raiser to the Gulf rugby season the past two years and will do so again, ahead of the 2017/18 campaign kick-off on September 22.
Sri Lankan champions Kandy will participate for a third straight year, with Mike McFarlane’s Quins back to defend the title they lifted 12 months ago. Louie Tonkin’s Bahrain will feature for the first time having finished runners-up to Quins in the West Asia Cup last term.
Quins and Bahrain kick the tournament off this Friday as the two teams clash at Zayed Sports City – with the other two games both being played in Sri Lanka as the tournament goes abroad for the first time.
“Kandy travelled the last two years and expressed a desire to host games this year, so to be fair to them and to share the costs they are not travelling, and both of the other clubs will travel,” said Ghaith Jalajel, Asia Rugby’s development consultant for the Gulf region.
“It’s also what the other clubs asked for last year. They wanted to travel away for team building purposes.”
This year’s tournament will be played over a longer period of three weeks to accommodate the travel being undertaken by Quins and Bahrain – who will play both games away.
Jalajel added: “All fixtures have now been confirmed. Abu Dhabi are hosting Bahrain on September 8, then the following weekend (September 15) Abu Dhabi are away to Kandy in Sri Lanka, then Sri Lanka host Bahrain on the 22nd, which is the opening weekend of the season here, but Bahrain have a bye.
“This will give each team two good warm-up games before the season starts.”