St Illawarra were rewarded for their eagerness early on, keeping more than their fair share of possession and getting several repeat sets through smart, pinpoint kicking by Jamie Soward.
Matt Cooper was the man to get the Dragons on the board in the 11th minute, after plenty of ball the Dragons worked it through the hands and went to their left, having immediate success against the Titans right hand defence. Cooper had plenty to do, getting the ball around 17m out from the Titans line and with the attention of two defenders he had enough speed and shimmy to get through and take the defenfers with him to touch down in the corner. Mark Gasnier potting a long range conversion from the sideline in tough conditions to get his team to a 6-0 lead. Cooper obviously enjoying WIN Stadium, the classy centre now bagging 8 tries from his last 8 games at the Wollongong Stadium.
It looked like it could be a runaway game for the Dragons, with so much ball and the forwards getting big metres on several occasions. Beau Scott was particularly busy during this early part of the game. The kicking game was also A1 for the Dragons, Jamie Soward getting nice reverse spin on his kicks and trapping the Titans defenders in goal several times. Even the kick chase was enthusiastic for the Saints, 4 and 5 defenders chasing every ball – on one kick chase, Dean Young chasing hard and slamming rookie Jordan Aitkens into the turfÂ – topping it off with a shove and a heavy verbal sledging spray that showed how pumped the Dragons were.
The Gold Coast Titans eventually started to get some possession around the 20 miunte mark and were fortunate to only be 6-0 behind, after a line ball forward pass call against Gasnier stopped what was a certain try to the evasive centre.
Jason Ryles was injected into the game by coach Nathan Brown in the 21st minuteÂ – with all eyes on the under pressure Dragons forward. His intent was immediately clear, the big forward taking a fearless hit up at full speed and collecting old team mate Luke Bailey in a big collision. Bailey fouling Ryles with a high shot and the Dragons getting a penalty from the play.
As the possession continued to even out, the Titans finally got some good field position around the 23rd minute mark and the St Illawarra defence made their first mistake – letting a high bomb bounce and the Titans getting their first set back to back in good position.
The Titans immediately made good on their chance, scoring a hot try after throwing it through several sets of hands, with Nathan Friend smashing over from short range. Preston Campbell and Anthony Laffranchi heavily involved to set this try up. All of a sudden we have a ball game. 6-6.
The back end of the first half developed into an arm wrestle. While the game wasÂ fast paced and handling was fairly good considering the wet conditions, each side hurt themselves with some silly plays – flirting with the sideline on several occasions and getting slid into touch. Highlighted with Mark Gasnier running from a scrum play on tackle 1 and while getting his opposite 1 on 1 – Gasnier failed to beat Luke O’Dwyer and was slid into touch on the first play with coach Nathan Brown about to jump out of the box.
Gasnier hurt his team again, giving away a holding penalty on a livewire Preston Campbell. Campbell playing solidly and looking dangerous with the ball in hand.
The teams going into half time still locked at 6-6 and the game remaining anyones for the second half.
Nathan Brown must have had a good talk with his team at half time, the Saints coming out full of energy from the restart of play and were over the line in minutes. Jason Nightingale scoring, as the Titans let a Soward bomb bounce and paid the ultimate price. Jordan Aitkens getting lost in the traffic and caught up with Rangi Chase as the bounce sat up nicely for Nightingale.
The Dragons got the confidence start they needed and remained in control, as Mark Gasnier was next to cross – scoring off a nice deep attacking kick play from the Dragons. After a quick play the ball the Dragons swung it deep to the right at speed and Rangi Chase stabbed through a nicely angled kick for Gasnier to sprint through and ground untouched.
Things looking tragic for the Titans at 24-6 in arrears. To their credit the Gold Coast Titans didn’t fold, they remained busy and the likes of Ashley Harrison kept busy centre field with plenty of tackles. While busy, they were failing to wrap the ball up at times – the Dragons as they remained confident, stood in tackles and off-loaded far too easily.
The unusually quiet Scott Prince burst to life for the Titans in the final quarter of the game, running some nice attacking plays with Matt Rogers for the Titans to threaten – culminating in Anthony Laffranchi being held up in the 60th minute. The raids paid dividends, the Titans scoring off a Prince pin-point kick seconds after the Laffranchi charge.
At 24-12 and still 20 minutes to go the Titans got a bit of a sniff and suddenly had some momentum and with both sides boasting 100% completion rates up until this period of the half – it was still an open game.
A 64 minutes in, the Titans really hung themselves with a brain-snap penalty in front of their own posts. The defence rushing from the goal line, led by Matt Rogers – the Titans were clearly inside the 10m. The penalty kick giving the Dragons the advantage at 26-12, meaning the Titans had to score three times to grab a miracle win.
When you look at the stats, the missed tackles were where the Titans lost this one. Sure, the possession favoured the Dragons and thus taking petrol from the Gold Coast tank – but at 27 missed tackles the Titans were off the pace in defence. Matt Rogers in particular looking shakey in defence, a week after personally sledging Jonathan Thurston about his tackling in the media.
The Saints rounding out the game with some impressive defence, Chase Stanley looking particularly safe in the line and pulling off a nice late him on Matt Rogers to snuff out a possible try. Stanley looking like he has bulked up for NRL season 2008 and could prove a handy utility for the Dragons this season.
Capping of the good night off for the Dragons was a late Matt Cooper try off a magic kick from Jamie Soward. Cooper flying through under pressure from Jordan Aitkens to ground a tough chance and then amazingly slipping into a concrete wall at the back of WIN Stadium due to the wet grass. Luckily Coops getting up ok after what looked like a horror collision with the wall – WIN officials needing to install pads in that dead ball area urgently.