St George Illawarra have scored one of the gutsiest wins in the club’s history to keep their season alive with a 48-18 win over Brisbane on Sunday.
The Dragons traveled to Suncorp Stadium with their season on the line. It appeared Mission: Impossible. St George Illawarra, who led the competition up until nine weeks ago, had suffered a deflating end of season slump to finish seventh.
They had been hammered from all angles over the last month. Experts. Pundits. Some of their own fans.
The Broncos, meanwhile, were touted as the form team of the competition. The team who could challenge the top four for the title. On their home patch, in front of a big crowd. The Dragons were supposed to be a speed bump for Brisbane on their way to week two of the finals.
St George Illawarra had to do it the hardest of ways. They lost James Graham to a failed head injury assessment during the first half. They lost Jack de Belin to an ankle injury in the second half.
And, in what appeared was going to be a fatal blow, then lost captain Gareth Widdop to a dislocated shoulder in his comeback from the same injury.
But the red V refused to quit. They almost blew the Broncos away in the second half of the first period. They then weathered the storm when everything was going against them.
They will now face another elimination semi-final against South Sydney. Who would write them off now?
The Dragons opened the scoring through a Widdop penalty goal before a sickening head clash between de Belin and Joe Ofahengaue. The Broncos prop left the field for a head injury assessment which he failed and did not return.
A pair of Jamayne Isaako penalty goals gave Brisbane the lead before the Broncos appeared to blow the game open.
A poor read in defence from Tim Lafai and de Belin allowed Kodi Nikorima to burst through a yawning gap untouched 20 metres out from his own line. The halfback raced down field before drawing Matt Dufty and finding David Fifita, with the young back-rower celebrating his first finals appearance with a try under the posts.
The more pessimistic Dragons fan might have worried the flood gates were about to open. But St George Illawarra hit back against the run of play through a pair of huge plays from Sims.
Firstly, he rocked Broncos hooker Andrew McCullough to force an error with a tackle to gift the Dragons possession. Sims then benefited from a Ben Hunt shift to the left to beat Nikorima one on one to score.
Just when they had got themselves back in the game, if they were to go on and win they would have to do it the hard way after the Dragons lost Graham.
Broncos forward Korbin Sims charged with the ball close to the Dragons’ line with Graham appearing to be knocked senseless after wearing a forearm to the head. The Englishman failed his head injury assessment and was unable to return.
But if there was any doubt about the Dragons’ fighting qualities they answered them strongly.
Firstly Leeson Ah Mau barged over from close range for just his second try of the season just before the half hour mark.
Korbin Sims then gave away a pair of silly penalties, the first for a clear two on one strip, the second for a lifting tackle on Blake Lawrie.
Sims wasn’t endearing himself to his future teammates and, if this game was the tale of two brothers, Tariq was to write his next chapter shortly after with his second try.
He then had the first hat-trick of his career just before half-time. This time Tariq isolated his brother on the goal line one on one and stormed his way over.
Another Widdop penalty goal gave the Dragons a 28-10 lead at half-time, meaning Brisbane would need to equal their biggest ever comeback to keep their season alive.
But it only took nine minutes of the second half for the Dragons extend their lead when Lafai isolated James Roberts in a simple scrum play to score after a dangerous run from Dufty.
St George Illawarra then had another set back, losing de Belin to a lower leg injury. The NSW representative had been in a moon boot earlier in the week. With Paul Vaughan already missing for the season, the Dragons will be hoping de Belin can prove his fitness for the clash with the Rabbitohs.
Twenty-four points down with 27 minutes to play, the Broncos needed an urgent response. Darius Boyd, who won the Clive Churchill Medal with the Dragons the last time St George Illawarra won a finals match, provided it. The fullback sliced through to score from close range.
The Dragons then endured what appeared their fatal blow. A Roberts break gave the Broncos field position before Nikorima scored from a scrum. But Widdop fell awkwardly attempting to tackle the halfback, appearing to dislocate his shoulder again on his return from the same injury.
With the Dragons now without Widdop, Graham and de Belin and the Broncos missing Ofahengaue, the match started to look like a casualty ward when Brisbane lost Fifita to an ankle injury.
With a huge home crowd behind them the Broncos pushed and pushed. Their season on the line, they threw everything they had at the Dragons.
But St George Illawarra refused to yield. They finally sealed the result when Luciano Leilua touched down from a deft Cameron McInnes grubber kick close to the line.
And they weren’t done. A Hunt 40-20 added gloss. A long-range Dufty try kicked off the celebrations.
The experts have written them off for weeks.
Can you hear them now?
No. The Dragons are still breathing fire.
St George Illawarra Dragons 48 (Tariq Sims three, Leeson Ah Mau, Tim Lafai, Luciano Leilua, Matt Dufty tries. Gareth Widdop seven, Zac Lomax three goals)
Brisbane Broncos 18 (David Fifita, Darius Boyd, Kodi Nikorima tries. Jamayne Isaako three goals)
at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Leader man of the match: Tariq Sims (Dragons)
Dragons’ next game: South Sydney, elimination semi-final, ANZ Stadium, Saturday.