For Paul McGregor, St George Illawarra’s finals campaign has already begun.
The Dragons’ top eight hopes remain alive after a dominant first half performance helped St George Illawarra to a comprehensive 42-16 win over the Gold Coast Titans.
The Dragons skipped out to a 22-0 half-time lead at Kogarah before the Gold Coast launched a spirited second half fightback. But the damage was done in the first 40 minutes as the Dragons’ left-side attack tore the Titans apart.
St George Illawarra were without halfback Josh McCrone with a groin injury, with Kurt Mann celebrating his return to the starting side in his place with the opening try.
“Our finals started today,” McGregor said.
“We had to win three of our last four and that was one today. Next week [against Brisbane] is another test.”
It will be some test. The Dragons haven’t won in Brisbane since 2009 and will face an in-form Broncos outfit, fresh from a 54-point thrashing of the Titans and a convincing 22-point win over reigning premiers Cronulla.
But if St George Illawarra can replicate their first half attacking spree over the next three weeks they will be play finals football. The Dragons took the lead inside 10 minutes when Mann and Josh Dugan combined. A lovely cutout pass from Mann put Dugan through a gap, allowing the NSW centre to draw Blues teammate Jarryd Hayne before finding Mann with a return pass.
Dugan could have extended the lead five minutes later, only to be denied by William Zillman who appeared to strip the ball short of the goalline, though the video referee bunker officials ruled Dugan lost the ball.
It wasn’t to cost the Dragons. St George Illawarra didn’t have to wait long for more points, with Jason Nightingale scoring his 14th try of the season midway through the half after a slick shift to the left highlighted by a long, spiral pass from young fullback Matt Dufty.
The Dragons went left again to extend their lead five minutes before the break. This time a short pass from Gareth Widdop saw Joel Thompson slice through and power his way over the line.
St George Illawarra had a fourth and Nightingale a second try before half-time to give the Dragons a 22-0 lead at the break. They were good value for their lead, in truth it could have been more. The Dragons’ faithful gave them a standing ovation as they left the field.
“If you talk about our first half, I thought it was probably the best of the year, to be honest. Defensively and attack wise,” McGregor said.
“We were quite comfortable going in with a nice lead… at the start we attacked aggressively early but [we played] pretty simple. Getting over the advantage line and created a couple of offloads which created second phase. Then we got in our positions really well to play some shape once we’d done that.
“Obviously we put the opposition under pressure, we had high finishes to our sets and every game this year when we’ve started well we’ve been in the game right to the finish.”
Mann’s performance was good enough for McGregor to indicate he would keep the halfback spot against Brisbane. And halves partner Widdop wasn’t surprised with the way they combined despite not playing together since round 17.
“Kurt’s been doing a fair bit there throughout the year. We’ve got a pretty simple game plan which hasn’t changed all year,” Widdop said.
“I thought he did really well today. He’s been in and out of positions all year but every time he’s put on a jersey he’s gone out there and tried his hardest. And today he was good, pretty composed and dangerous with the ball. We’ll be better for the run next week.”
St George Illawarra didn’t look like they were going to slow down in the second half either. It took them less than 10 minutes after half-time to score again thanks to one of the team tries of the season. There were nine passes, they started down the left, shifted to the right, Tariq Sims ran over Nathaniel Peteru, they came back to the left for Cameron McInnes to eventually dive over.
But the Gold Coast gave themselves a flicker of hope, finally getting on the board through Dale Copley despite the pass from Anthony Don appearing forward. They narrowed the gap further shortly after and, if the McInnes’ try was one of the team tries of the season, Don’s must go close for individual skill.
The winger leapt high above Nightingale to catch an Ash Taylor cross field kick. While Nightingale had hold of him, Don somehow managed to twist while in the air to plant the ball down one-handed and give the Titans a flicker of hope.
A Widdop penalty goal had the Dragons back out to a 20-point lead heading into the final quarter of the game before McInnes looked to have sealed the result with his second try, this time from close range, diving over from dummy half.
But the Titans wouldn’t go away. Gold Coast won possession from a short kick-off and marched downfield for Paterika Vaivai to crash under the posts. The Gold Coast went close again shortly after when Don again got the better of Nightingale in an aerial duel, only for Tim Lafai to steal the ball as he was heading to ground.
The Dragons had time for one more, with Mann becoming the third St George Illawarra player to score a double.
It was another disappointing result for the Gold Coast, beaten 54-0 last week by Brisbane and 26-4 by the Wests Tigers the week before. They have now conceded 122 points in their last three matches and look destined to finish their season with a whimper.
The win lifts St George Illawarra back into the top eight, though it may be a brief stay if Penrith down North Queensland. A potential play-off for a finals place against the Panthers in a fortnight follows the trip to take on the Broncos. But the Dragons are still breathing fire for now.
St George Illawarra Dragons 42 (Jason Nightingale two, Cameron McInnes two, Kurt Mann two, Joel Thompson tries. Gareth Widdop seven goals)
Gold Coast Titans 16 (Dale Copley, Anthony Don, Paterika Vaivai tries. Tyrone Roberts two goals)
at Jubilee Oval, Kogarah
Leader man of the match: Gareth Widdop (Dragons)
Dragons’ next three: Broncos (away), Panthers (away), Bulldogs (home)