St George Illawarra are one step closer to locking in a Sydney final after coming from behind to down Newcastle 24-14 on Saturday.
The Dragons traveled north to the Hunter with their season on the line. A loss to the Knights, who were celebrating their Old Boys’ Day at McDonald Jones Stadium, would have left them facing an elimination final away from home, an unthinkable scenario nine weeks ago as St George Illawarra led the competition.
St George Illawarra did it the hard way, behind 10-2 at half-time before just doing enough to down the brave Knights.
It was an unconvincing win at best. Still a shadow of the team that were the dominant force in the competition for most of the season, the Dragons did little to allay the fears of fans worrying whether they face an abrupt first round finals exit.
The victory kept St George Illawarra in sixth place on the NRL table for now. Should Brisbane, who are two points behind the Dragons, fail to beat Manly by 24 points or more on Sunday, the Dragons would host the New Zealand Warriors in week one of the finals.
Should the Broncos score a big win over the struggling Sea Eagles, the Dragons could even find themselves playing in Brisbane next weekend.
Dragons coach Paul McGregor handed an NRL starting debut to Zac Lomax in place of the injured Euan Aitken.
Captain Gareth Widdop did not appear for the red V after failing in a mooted comeback bid from a dislocated shoulder, with Kurt Mann continuing to deputise at five-eighth.
A Lomax penalty goal, the centre’s first points in the top grade, gave St George Illawarra the lead after six minutes before Ken Sio crossed for Newcastle five minutes later.
The Dragons failed to deal with a Mitchell Pearce cross field kick just before half-time, with Shaun Kenny-Dowall pouncing on the loose ball to give the Knights an eight-point lead at the break.
With their season slipping away St George Illawarra desperately needed a response. They got it seven minutes into the second half when Jeremy Latimore barged over from close range.
The match was turned on it’s head midway through the half when Nene Macdonald raced 60 metres to score after excellent offloads from Tim Lafai and Cameron McInnes.
Matt Dufty looked to have sealed the result for the Dragons when he also scored a long distance try after St George Illawarra had scooped up a loose ball with Newcastle on the attack.
But the Knights refused to quit, with Sio scoring his second with nine minutes to go to set up a nervy finish.
St George Illawarra held off Newcastle’s final charge and eventually secured the points through Jordan Pereira’s late four-pointer.
St George Illawarra Dragons 24 (Jeremy Latimore, Nene Macdonald, Matt Dufty, Jordan Pereira tries. Zac Lomax four goals)
Newcastle Knights 14 (Ken Sio two, Shaun Kenny-Dowall tries. Nick Meaney goal)
at McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle
Leader man of the match: Jack de Belin (Dragons)