Finals come early in a quality clash
DRAGONS 17 SEA EAGLES 6
Striding out ... Michael Weyman of the Dragons breaks the Sea Eagles defence to score the opening try. Photo: Getty Images
This is the sort of game you could have watched in September - very late September, for that matter - and not have felt short-changed.
It's rare for the vanquished coach to be as satisfied with the efforts of his troops as that of the victorious, but such was the case when the past two premiers met last night.
There were moments that were sublime, ridiculous and controversial. Jason Nightingale was involved in most of them. The Kiwi winger, who moonlights as a fullback when Brett Morris needs a breather, scored two tries, prevented another and was on the end of a late shot from compatriot Kieran Foran. This was a game that must not be overshadowed by an officiating decision, but we must make mention of Nightingale's first try, scored just before half-time. The ungainly winger - ''He's probably as quick as B Moz is, he just looks a little bit different,'' offered skipper Ben Hornby - was given the benefit of considerable doubt when he regathered a kick and spun out of a tackle to touch down. Sea Eagles coach Geoff Toovey wasn't convinced he did so without either knocking on or producing a second - and illegal - effort.
''You can't say too much because you get in trouble,'' Toovey said.
''I'd be very interested in hearing their explanation tomorrow. That will be very interesting.'' The man himself, naturally, believed the right decision was made.
''I was trying to figure out what [the video referee was looking for], because I knew I didn't touch it, I knew I didn't knock it on,'' Nightingale said.
''I dunno exactly what they were looking at. Probably the whole try was in slow motion … but I'm glad it sorted it out in the end.''
That decision allowed the home side to skip out to a 12-0 half-time lead but Manly fought back. This was riveting stuff.
There was little dropped ball - both teams completed their sets at above 80 per cent - and it wasn't until Nightingale's second four-pointer late in proceedings that the contest was decided.
''I thought it was a good standard of footy,'' Dragons coach Steve Price said. ''We were expecting a tough game tonight and we certainly got that …
''That's what we've prided the Dragons trademark on, being ruthless. I thought we were definitely that tonight.
''It's been a positive start but it is only round four.''
The Dragons have dropped just one of their opening four games, and knocked off two of the fancied teams, under their rookie coach.
The other newbie, Toovey, can also be well pleased with the latest hit-out despite walking away without competition points.
''It was much improved from last week, our guys tried really hard,'' Toovey said. ''A couple of crucial errors at certain times, which happens in a match.
''Really, really proud of their efforts. I thought they were quite on top of them for a period there in the second half and we were unlucky not to come up with a couple of tries.
''Both sides have got quality players and they showed that.''
The teams are scheduled to meet once more this year.
But given what they showed last night, a third meeting remains a tantalising possibility.
ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA 17 (J Nightingale 2 M Weyman tries J Soward 2 goals J Soward field goal) bt MANLY 6 (D Williams try J Lyon goal) at WIN Jubilee Oval. Referee: Shayne Hayne, Adam Devcich. Crowd: 17,893.