CRONULLA Sharks skipper Wade Graham, the man of the match in most critics’ eyes despite his side’s 18-10 loss to the St George Illawarra Dragons, wandered slowly towards the team bus in fading light.
He was shirtless, despite it being bitterly cold — only because no shirt could go over the top of the large bandages straining to hold the ice taped around his sternum.
‘‘Mate, this is killing me,’’ he said as he struggled forward.
He wasn’t complaining about the ice.
Or the cold.
Graham, a try-scorer in both halves and dangerous every time he ran, was punished for his brilliance by the Dragons’ defence in the second stanza as he and his Origin ‘‘sidekick’’, Todd Carney, threatened to take the game away from the Dragons in front of an 18,000 crowd.
Already without injured internationals Paul Gallen and Jeremy Smith, the 21-year-old chose to play on with a battered sternum and other injuries.
But against an improved Dragons’ defence, the Sharks just lacked the class to get them home — and lacked the rub of the green on a ground that has been friendless to them since their last win there, way back in 1989.
A much-needed win for Steve Price’s Dragons, the game was completed in near darkness due to a power failure just before kick-off, and lifted them to within two points of the top eight.
While the Sharks were down on class, the red-and-whites lost five-eighth Jamie Soward (back) before the game, and replacement Kyle Stanley soon after the start.
There was some controversy, especially in a 10-minute period of the second half after Graham’s second try got the Sharks back to within two points (10-12), after Brett Morris ‘‘flew’’ 70 metres off a loose Todd Carney pass right on half-time.
First, Graham looked to have capitalised on a big run from centre Ben Pomeroy when he held up his pass to send Anthony Tupou racing over — only for the try to be disallowed for an apparent forward pass.
So play went down the other end, the Dragons forced the Sharks behind their line and from the drop-out, it appeared Dragons’ skipper Ben Hornby had knocked on, but there was no stoppage.
Dragons centre Matt Cooper then fumbled a ball, the Sharks claimed forward, and from that play Dragons prop Trent Merrin showed a surprising step and pace to score what was the match-winning try.
A mostly positive Sharks coach Shane Flanagan later couldn’t help but air some frustrations with the rulings, and especially the sideline officials who he claims ‘‘go under the radar.’’
‘‘That Anthony Tupou pass went directly out of the back of the hands,” Flanagan said. ‘‘We’ve done that move three or four times this year to score, it’s part of how the move works; it looked like it went backwards from where I was.
‘‘And there was another knock-on from Ben Hornby which I have no idea why it wasn’t called forward.
‘‘It’s not easy out there for the referees, it happens so fast, I actually thought they handled the game very well today.
‘‘But those decisions decide careers. Coaching careers, playing careers and top four. I know it’s hard in the spur of the moment; it’s just hard to handle when you’re sitting on the sideline, I guess.
‘‘We have to take the blame on ourselves, we didn’t recover well from those decisions, we made a few simple errors and they were a little better than us today.’’
The Dragons have been knocking at the door for a while, but without success.
On Sunday they broke through, allowing Steve Price the chance to smile — at least for the time being.