It was always going to be a tough ask without Brett Finch calling the plays, but the rudder-less Eels displayed a fair bit of fight to push the Dragons most of the way in this encounter at Parramatta Stadium. The Dragons getting the win 22-8.
The St George Illawarra side were expected to put on plenty of points, but it was a fired up Eels side that had the better of the first half – playing in front of a near capacity crowd at the Parramatta venue.
The Eels had the field position early, but without a front line playmaker were made to look very average by the commendable Dragons defence. The St George Illawarra side repelling several raids, as the Eels attacked their right edge defence.
The body language was interesting from both sides early on, the Eels looking very up for the contest and the Dragons may have been too relaxed at times. The mindset evident from an early punch up between Eric Grothe Jnr and Neville Costigan. Both no-nonsense players, the usually quiet Grothe Jnr resenting a push and unleashing a flurry of punches on the bigger man Costigan.
Whatever Daniel Anderson was saying to the troops before the game, it was certainly working. They were up.
The Dragons to their credit did extremely well to weather the early storm, their defence faultless as it turned away plenty of raids. The Saints helped on by a massive away crowd at Parramatta, their chants eclipsing those of the locals at times.
Not helping the Parramatta cause was an off night from Feleti Mateo, the usually flawless Mateo dropping the ball on 6 occasions to let the opponents off the hook and allow the Dragons machine to click into gear. The dropped pill coming in many instances, when the Eels were attacking within 30m.
The Dragons were impressing through the usual suspects, Beau Scott remains a stand-out player – unleashing some punishing defence and causing plenty of headaches for the Eels throughout the match. Scott was aided well by the workaholic Creagh and the evergreen Wendell Sailor who remained extremely busy in last nights game.
It was a low scoring affair for much of the first term, the Eels bombing several chances and the Dragons pinching 2 points from a penalty goal from close range. But things changed with 5 minutes before the break.
The Dragons only needed a sniff of possession and territory and they struck, hoisting up the bomb from 20m out – Ben Hornby racing through to take the high catch, then crashing into the posts and falling down over the line to get first points. A fortunate try, but it was favouring the smart – with St George Illawarra doing most of the little things right and taking their chances when presented.
It was ideal timing before the break, but the Dragons weren’t finished yet – another attacking raid, again with a high kick, helping them build more points only minutes before the break. This time, the high ball was allowed to bounce by the Parramatta side and the Dragons took full advantage. Spreading it from end to end, through several sets of hands they eventually smashed over through Neville Costigan – giving the side a huge boost right on half time.
Going into the break at 14-2, it looked like the eventual tidal wave could come crashing down on Parramatta from the start of the 2nd term.
But it never eventuated, the home side were again fortunate to have plenty of field position and were presented with more chances to post points, but through the combination of poor options and stout Dragons line defence they just couldn’t crack it.
Even a string of penalties, and some luck falling their way couldn’t help the Eels score a try for most of the 2nd half.
Jamie Soward was kicking the Eels into submission. The diminutive half continually kicked to the corners and was extremely precise with his work as his form and confidence continues to rise. There is no doubt Soward has grown under Wayne Bennett, every aspect of his play is coming along.
But a Soward bomb midway through the 2nd half would give his side a massive edge. The no. 6 hoisting up a towering bomb, probably too deep as it was sent back into the Eels in-goal, but a lazy grab from Eric Grothe Jnr saw the ball spill dead for a drop-out.
It was an easy catch for the Eels winger, no pressure around and it should have been a 20m restart. But the error not only saw the Dragons get the ball back, but from the ensuing set grab a short range penalty where they kicked clear to 16-2.
The Dragons smartly ticking the scoreboard over for a 14 point lead, they knew the Eels couldn’t score once, let alone 3 times.
From that point, the home side was always up against it. Wayne Bennetts men were virtually flawless, their only blemish coming when Jeremy Smith overreacted to a late Eels break – elbowing Kris Keating in the head and delaying play, where he was sent for a spell in the sin bin. The call seemingly harsh on the Dragons enforcer, but his reputation doesn’t help him in situations like that.
The bad luck only steeled the Dragons.
The Eels kept probing and eventually scored from a kick with 5 minutes remaining, to make it 16-8 – but the man of the moment Wendell Sailor was not to be denied. After being knocked back on an earlier try attempt. Big Dell was on the end of some late Dragons spread play, the Saints going 60m and throwing it wide to the right edge to give big Dell a late try.
The Dragons continue to improve in 2009, the scary prospect is they have even more to give. Their defence was the key against the Eels tonight, when they finally get every component together, they will be virtually unbeatable. The Eels while going away frustrated, can probably take something away from the fact they had the right attitude in the game. They were lost in attack and had stage fright at various times, but they looked a much better side than in recent weeks.