St George Illawarra have edged back to the top of the NRL table by the barest of margins – for now – with a 24-10 win over North Queensland on Saturday night.
With South Sydney’s loss to the Wests Tigers earlier in the night, the Dragons needed to win by 14 points to return to the summit.
Much like their performance, the Dragons did what they had to do. While not at their best, St George Illawarra were much-improved on the side beaten by the Tigers at Kogarah last weekend.
Without Nene Macdonald and Tyson Frizell, Luciano Leilua and Jordan Pereira came into the team as the Dragons took the lead inside four minutes.
Matt Dufty showed great footwork at pace to breeze past Johnathan Thurston before he found Jason Nightingale with a cut out pass for the winger to score out wide.
The Cowboys hit back with a Thurston penalty goal after 10 minutes before a bizarre piece of play ended with Jack de Belin in the sin bin.
Another Thurston attempt at penalty goal hit the post with the Cowboys securing the loose ball. But de Belin was removed from the field after holding down the Cowboys player for too long, allowing Thurston another chance to add two points.
Despite their strong start the Dragons were self destructing with five penalties and three errors inside the opening 20 minutes. A Leilua forward pass 30 metres out from his own line gifted the Cowboys possession, with Gavin Cooper eventually barging over from dummy half to give the hosts the lead.
But with nine minutes before half-time Dufty stole the lead back for the Dragons.
Gareth Widdop held up a pass beautifully to put the fullback through a hole. Te Maire Martin looked to have made an outstanding try-saving tackle, only for Dufty to jump up and score under the posts.
And the Dragons had time to extend their advantage before the break when Widdop sliced through to allow Tariq Sims to crash over.
St George Illawarra pushed out to a 24-10 lead 10 minutes into the second half on the back of some Widdop magic.
The Cowboys failed to deal with a Ben Hunt bomb, with Nightingale batting the loose ball back to Widdop.
The five-eighth summed up the situation in an instant and put in a kick for the corner with his left foot, allowing Pereira to mark his NRL debut with a try.
The win saw the Dragons regain the competition lead by a solitary for and against point.
St George Illawarra could fall back to second on Sunday should Melbourne beat the New Zealand Warriors.
But this result was important regardless of the Dragons’ position on the table. They may not be breathing fire just yet, but the Dragons are marching in the right direction again.
St George Illawarra Dragons 24 (Jason Nightingale, Matt Dufty, Tariq Sims, Jordan Pereira tries. Gareth Widdop four goals)
North Queensland Cowboys 10 (Gavin Cooper try. Johnathan Thurston three goals)
at 1300 Smiles Stadium, Townsville
Leader man of the match: Gareth Widdop (Dragons)
Dragons’ next three: Roosters (away), Warriors (home – Wollongong), Eels (away)