St George Illawarra will put their season on the line in Brisbane on Sunday, facing the Broncos in an elimination final at Suncorp Stadium.
The Dragons’ fate was sealed late on Sunday afternoon in the last game of the regular season as Brisbane dismantled a hapless Manly side.
Their 48-16 win allowed Brisbane to climb above St George Illawarra into sixth place and give the Broncos hosting rights for their do or die clash in week one of the finals.
The idea of the Dragons facing an elimination final would have been ridiculed as little as nine weeks ago as St George Illawarra sat proudly at the top of the NRL table.
But a devastating end of season fade out saw the Dragons slide out of minor premiership contention, then the top four.
While Ben Hunt has been made to carry much of the blame for the Dragons’ poor form, the truth is the former Queensland and Australia halfback has been playing behind a well-beaten forward pack for a number of weeks.
He has also had to do without halves partner Gareth Widdop, though coach Paul McGregor confirmed the captain would be a definite starter to return from a dislocated shoulder against the Broncos.
Widdop was in line to play against Newcastle on Saturday, but McGregor opted to hold the England international back one week after the Dragons saw their top four hopes evaporate after their 38-0 hammering at the hands of Canterbury in the penultimate round.
The Dragons could also welcome back Euan Aitken (hamstring) and Jason Nightingale (neck) for the trip to Brisbane.
And McGregor said he believed his side were still capable of doing something special in September despite their late season crash.
“I think you saw a fair bit of it [against Newcastle] in our [defence]. We really wanted to get back in to being a strong defensive side which we were for the first 15 or 16 rounds,” he said.
“We haven’t been of late so today was a part of that. We certainly found at different stages we’ve got to be better, there’s no doubt about that.
“We’ve got Gaz back next week so obviously our attack is going to improve straight away. So defensively we need to get that right.
“But next week’s a different competition. She’s knock out footy so both teams are level. We’ve beaten all the teams that are in there. So why not?”
The match will continue Wayne Bennett’s long history with the Dragons.
It is 25 years since he guided Brisbane to back-to-back grand final wins over St George and eight years since he took the St George Illawarra joint venture to their only premiership.