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.