Benji fires as Dragons shut out Sharks
They may have been playing a team missing a dozen first-graders, but St George Illawarra's big guns unloaded all their barrels with a 30-0 shut-out of Cronulla in front of 12,079 people at WIN Stadium on Saturday night.
Under-pressure mid-season buy Benji Marshall blew off all the rust in his attacking cylinders by involving himself in five of the Dragons' six tries, while centre Josh Dugan gave NSW coach Laurie Daley food for thought ahead of Game II with a timely hat-trick, and lock Trent Merrin made a game-high 268 metres.
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- Dugan takes centre stage
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- Relive our live commentary
- Full match stats
- WATCH: Benji's magic pass puts Dugan over
- WATCH: Dragons v Sharks highlights
- WATCH: Dragons press conference
- WATCH: Sharks press conference
The win was caretaker's Paul McGregor's first as head coach and arrested a worrying four-game slide for the Dragons, but for last-placed Sharks their second consecutive shut-out was also their fourth straight defeat.
From the moment halfback Daniel Holdsworth dropped the ball from the kickoff, Cronulla were on the back foot – and they never got onto the front one all night.
The home side had all the running in the opening stages but didn't cross until the 13th minute, when a wandering Marshall put fullback Adam Quinlan into a hole in a move that ended with winger Peter Mata'utia going over in the corner.
It was the first sign of life from the failed union convert since returning to rugby league a month ago, but it was just a preview of things to come.
The ex-Tiger went some way to justifying coach Paul McGregor's experiment with Dugan in the front line as he twice put the NSW centre candidate over the line with classy passes.
The first was a rather simple 22nd minute cut-out that said more about the Sharks' frail defence than the play itself. But Marshall's 33rd-minute no-looker for his new teammate was a pleasant reminder of his once-bottomless bag of tricks.
It was beginning to look like that kind of night for the visitors, who also conceded a 37th-minute Gerard Beale try in the corner despite Widdop's pass finding the grass. If it wasn't for Widdop's off night with the boot, the Red V would've had more than an 18-0 lead at the break.
The opening portion of the second half was a non-event until the Marshall-Dugan combination again resurfaced in the 60th minute, with the halfback piloting a kick across field for the centre to leap out of the air and record his second career hat-trick.
The Dragons completed the rout with Beale's second try of the evening in the closing minutes that came from a Widdop offload.
Cronulla entered the match with a host of first-choice players on the sideline, including late-game omissions John Morris (neck) and Luke Lewis (knee).
St George-Illawarra 30 (Dugan 3, Beale 2, Mata'utia tries; Widdop 3 goals) defeat Cronulla-Sutherland 0. Crowd: 12,079.