It has been a long time coming but finally, a star is born.
Matt Dufty starred on his NRL debut as St George Illawarra got their season back on track after thrashing Manly 52-22 on Sunday.
The Dragons had plenty to play for, knowing a loss would have had them slip to the edge of the top eight. They were also without star fullback Josh Dugan with a hamstring strain and lost back-rower Joel Thompson in the warm-up with an ankle injury.
But St George Illawarra rose to the challenge, running in five first half tries in Wollongong to blow away the Sea Eagles to lead 30-0 at the break.
The Dragons looked to be cruising towards their 10th win of the season before Manly briefly breathed life back into the contest. Four quick tries to the Sea Eagles had them trailing 30-22 midway through the second half before St George Illawarra eventually killed the game, scoring a half century of points for the first time in more than a decade.
Manly themselves were decimated. Already without Api Koroisau (calf), Matthew Wright (hip), Jorge Taufua (knee) and Curtis Sironen (pectoral), Sea Eagles coach Trent Barrett decided to rest five-eighth Blake Green and prop Brenton Lawrence. It appeared a strange decision given Manly have tough games against Melbourne and the Sydney Roosters in the next fortnight.
Not that the Dragons will care, as Dugan’s absence allowed former Holden Cup star Dufty to make his first start in the top grade at fullback.
The Penshurst RSL junior was at his electric, elusive best, helping set up two tries before icing the game in the closing seconds with his first NRL try.
The Dragons got off to a good start when Jason Nightingale and Tim Lafai scored from Gareth Widdop kicks. Then, with Manly on the attack, Widdop produced an intercept from a Daly Cherry-Evans pass to run 90 metres untouched to score.
St George Illawarra had their third try from a kick four minutes later, this time with Nene Macdonald climbing above Brad Parker to knock the ball back for Euan Aitken to score.
The Dragons weren’t done, with a Widdop 40-20 giving them more possession which saw Jacob Host crash over from the ensuing set to give the red V an unassailable-looking half-time lead.
Credit to Manly, they refused to put the cue in the rack and had Dragons fans at WIN Stadium more than a little nervous as they flew out of the blocks in the second half.
Dylan Walker scored in the second minute before Darcy Lussick was sent to the sin bin for throwing a punch at Jack de Belin after a minor scuffle with Cherry-Evans. That incident seemed to spark Manly as the Sea Eagles ran in three quick tries through Joey Lussick, Jake Trbojevic and Akuila Uate with Darcy Lussick still off the field.
But just when Manly looked like they might finish over the top of the Dragons, Lussick returned to the field – and normal service resumed. Paul Vaughan charged over after excellent work from Dufty before the 21-year-old threw the last pass for Nightingale to cross for his second try.
Aitken also grabbed his double before Dufty scored the first of what could be many NRL tries, fending off Martin Taupau before holding off Tom Trbojevic to race 35m to send the Dragons fans home with smiles on their faces.
St George Illawarra Dragons 52 (Jason Nightingale two, Euan Aitken two, Tim Lafai, Gareth Widdop, Jacob Host, Paul Vaughan, Matt Dufty tries. Gareth Widdop eight goals)
Manly Sea Eagles 22 (Dylan Walker, Joey Lussick, Jake Trbojevic, Akuila Uate tries. Daly Cherry-Evans two, Jackson Hastings goals)
at WIN Stadium, Woolongong
Leader man of the match: Gareth Widdop (Dragons)
Dragons’ next three: Knights (away), Rabbitohs (home), Titans (home)