On the face of it, this was simply another loss. St George Illawarra’s 11th of the season and one that could prove fatal to their top eight hopes.
But look past the score – the Dragons went down 24-12 to Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night – it was a spirited display from the undermanned red V. While they may have been outclassed by a quality Brisbane side, St George Illawarra refused to give up. They were still in the game with 15 minutes to play.
The Dragons remain two points outside the top eight with the three teams above them on 28 points – Penrith, Manly and North Queensland – all yet to play this weekend. Wins for any of that trio would see them open up a gap on St George Illawarra. Though the Dragons will particularly have an eye on the Panthers’ clash with 10th-placed Canberra (24 points), with St George Illawarra to take on Penrith next weekend in what could still be a play-off for a finals place.
The Dragons were without Hame Sele and Nene Macdonald, with Euan Aitken returning from a shoulder injury. Tyson Frizell passed a late fitness test to take his place in the side.
It was a horror start for Josh Dugan, who gifted the Broncos the opening try after four minutes. The NSW centre failed to mark an Anthony Milford kick as he attempted to place a foot in the in-goal area, only for Alex Glenn to dive on the loose ball.
Dugan then bombed an almost certain try five minutes later thanks to a Corey Oates try-saving tackle after Dragons halfback Kurt Mann had produced an excellent run and offload.
Luckily St George Illawarra didn’t have to wait long for their first points, with Darius Boyd gifting the Dragons possession after failing to catch a high Widdop kick. Dugan earned some redemption from the next set, placing a tidy grubber kick into the in-goal for Paul Vaughan to charge through and score.
But the Dragons failed to complete their set after scoring points and were punished by Milford, who turned Gareth Widdop inside out to score out wide.
Brisbane could have been further in front when St George Illawarra put their kick-off dead on the full. The Broncos charged downfield, only for Mann to produce a superb try-saving tackle on Glenn.
It wasn’t until just after the half hour mark that Brisbane extended their lead. Dragons fans would have watched with mixed feelings as 2018 recruit Ben Hunt came off the Broncos’ bench to produce a moment of magic. On the second tackle, Hunt ghosted towards the defensive line and put in a deft crossfield kick in behind Jason Nightingale, hitting Jordan Kahu on the chest for the winger to touch down. It was the sort of creativity and vision Paul McGregor will hope to see from the 27-year-old in the red V next season.
The Broncos took a 14-6 lead to half-time and appeared to be cruising 10 minutes after the break when Glenn extended the advantage. It was the same play as the first half, only this time Mann was unable to stop the back-rower from scoring out wide.
But the Dragons refused to quit. They were back in the game with 20 minutes remaining when Tim Lafai crossed after Kahu had failed to deal with a Widdop kick.
It was a superb finish from Oates that would seal the result for Brisbane in the 70th minute, with the giant winger holding off two Dragons defenders as he dived over in the corner.
There was injury added to insult for St George Illawarra, with Aitken appearing to suffer another shoulder injury during the final play of the game.
St George Illawarra’s dismal record in Brisbane may have continued – this was their 10th loss in a row at Suncorp – and their finals destiny may be now out of their own hands. But if this performance is anything to go by, the Dragons won’t give up on 2017 without a fight.
Brisbane Broncos 24 (Alex Glenn two, Anthony Milford, Jordan Kahu, Corey Oates tries. Anthony Milford two goals)
St George Illawarra Dragons 12 (Paul Vaughan, Tim Lafai tries. Gareth Widdop two goals)
at Suncorp Stadium
Leader man of the match: Anthony Milford (Broncos)
Dragons’ next two: Panthers (away), Bulldogs (home)