St George Illawarra continue to defy their critics, maintaining their footing in the NRL top-four with an impressive 26-12 defeat of the Warriors on Sunday night.
The Warriors suffered a massive blow before kick-off when five-eighth Kieran Foran was ruled out of what was supposed to be his long-awaited NRL comeback due to a hamstring tear suffered during the warm-up.
Pegged as wooden spoon contenders by plenty of pundits before the season, Paul McGregor’s outfit jumped to third with their third win from four games.
Big men Paul Vaughan and Jack de Belin – who have started the year in NSW State of Origin form – once again led the way in front of a 11,608-strong crowd as the Dragons parlayed their middle-third dominance into points.
Off-contract Dragons five-eighth Gareth Widdop became just the third player to join the joint-venture’s 500-point club to only sit behind Jamie Soward (665) and Mark Riddell (517).
The Warriors had 24 tackles inside their opposition 20m zone (compared to the Dragons’ 22) but couldn’t convert it into points as the home side’s resilient defence stood tall.
Foran was set to play his first game in 300 days but will now have to wait at least another week with his 11th-hour withdrawal seemingly shaking his new teammates.
As the half wore on, the Dragons took their foot off the pedal and invited the Warriors down their end before Issac Luke charged over from dummy half to make it 20-8 at the break.
And when Josh Dugan put his foot over the dead-ball line fielding the kick-off to start the second 40, Ken Maumalo dived over in the corner the next set to get the Warriors back in the game.
However the Dragons righted the ship when Gareth Widdop decided to run it on the last tackle and Tim Lafai stepped his way through some lazy defence to score.
The Warriors failed to celebrate Simon Mannering’s milestone game as their skipper notched a club-record 262nd match to go past legendary halfback Stacey Jones.
The Warriors sit in the bottom four after the opening month and the question remains whether Foran can transform them into the top-eight side they appear to be on paper.
Widdop revealed he was involved in a car accident – in which his vehicle was written off – before the game, however, shook off the effects to lead his side to victory.
McGregor said it was foolhardy to consider the Dragons contenders after just a month but lauded their start to the campaign.
“It’s nice to be where we are and the guys have worked really well and they’re creating a really nice environment to be around,” McGregor said
“They’re getting confidence week to week. Footy is strange, seven days can be a long time as we’ve seen before.
“Now we’ve got to play against a desperate team in the Wests Tigers.”
Warriors coach Stephen Kearney said it was too early to tell how serious Foran’s hamstring injury was, however, initial signs were he was not set for a long stint on the sidelines.
Kearney said the loss of Foran – which forced Blake Ayshford to play his second game in two days after turning out for the Warriors’ reserve grade side on Saturday – rocked his team in the opening quarter of the game.
“Particularly early we made a fair few errors coming out of the back field and the Dragons just jumped on us,” Kearney said.
“After that first 15-20 minutes the scoreline was 12-6 (for the remainder of the game).
“We settled ourselves back in to the contest but we just couldn’t mount pressure because our error rate was too high.”