St George Illawarra have climbed back to the top of the NRL table after scoring a hard-fought 18-16 win over Canterbury on Monday.
Coming off a break of 16 days since their heavy loss to Penrith, the Dragons looked refreshed early on after their bye and exploded out of the blocks with two tries in the opening eight minutes at ANZ Stadium.
Coach Paul McGregor made the surprise decision to start veteran Jason Nightingale off the bench, with Kurt Mann taking the former New Zealand international’s place on the right wing.
But the Dragons, who had lost 11 of their last 12 matches against the Bulldogs heading into the contest, were given a boost with all four of their State of Origin quartet – Ben Hunt, Tyson Frizell, Jack de Belin and Paul Vaughan – declared fit to start.
It took less than two minutes for St George Illawarra to open the scoring with Euan Aitken strolling over untouched before NSW 18th man Tariq Sims doubled the Dragons’ advantage six minutes later when he crashed over.
Just when it looked as though the Dragons might go on with the job, the Bulldogs hit back through Adam Elliott.
St George Illawarra took a 14-6 lead to half-time when Nene Macdonald provided an acrobatic finish to touch down after a slick set play involving Hunt and Tim Lafai.
Canterbury needed to start the second half strongly and had charged to the lead within nine minutes after tries to Will Hopoate and former Dragon Brett Morris.
A Gareth Widdop penalty goal pulled the Dragons level before another put them back in front with 14 minutes to play after Bulldogs prop Aaron Woods had hit fellow front-rower James Graham, playing against his former club for the first time, with a late tackle.
Canterbury produced a late surge as they chased victory but some strong Dragons goal line defence, and a desperate try-saving tackle by Matt Dufty who dragged Marcelo Montoya over the sideline, was enough for the Dragons to sneak home.
The win saw the Dragons draw level with Penrith on 22 points, with the red V top of the table by a solitary for and against point.
St George Illawarra host struggling Manly at WIN Stadium in Wollongong on Saturday night.
St George Illawarra Dragons 18 (Euan Aitken, Tariq Sims, Nene Macdonald tries. Gareth Widdop three goals)
Canterbury Bulldogs 16 (Adam Elliott, Will Hopoate, Brett Morris tries. Moses Mbye two goals)
at ANZ Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park
Leader man of the match: Tariq Sims (Dragons)
Dragons’ next three: Sea Eagles (home – Wollongong), Eels (home – Wollongong), Storm (away)