Dragons find a way to prove a point, captain Gareth Widdop’s inspirational display, Titans struggle with poor ends to sets and St George Illawarra claim top honours in bench warfare.
Dragons' drought breaks after 171 minutes
More than two games without posting a point and three games on the road without scoring a try puts pressure on any team but the Dragons were finally able to release the valve when captain Gareth Widdop crashed over after eight minutes against the Titans. Given the Titans’ slow starts for the past five weeks first points were always going to be telling and St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor was understandably pleased that it was his team who struck first.
"When you're losing you get criticised a fair bit which is everyone's job out there," McGregor said post-game.
"You get a bit of self doubt and confidence is down and you over-tighten as a player and I think we've been guilty of that a little bit.
"To get a win and put some points on the board is nice."
With the Titans failing to complete two of their opening four sets the Dragons were handed every opportunity to find their groove and even before Widdop’s four-pointer looked threatening, particularly attacking the Titans’ right-edge defence.
"I thought we started quite well and that's where we need to get better, everyone doing their role within the team," said Widdop.
"I think we're slowly getting better at that but it certainly did feel a lot more fluent.
"Obviously we scored a few points there which was good but we certainly can get even better."
Widdop way better and Dragons win
This was a different Gareth Widdop to the one who led his team out against the Broncos nine days earlier. He played with purpose, intensity and was invariably at the heart of everything good that the Dragons did.
He took it upon himself to break his team’s point-scoring drought, he covered in behind the try-line on Titans’ attacking kicks and even in the final minute was throwing himself whole-heartedly into his defence in order to get his team over the line.
The captain himself said he was merely doing his job for the team but the coach was a little more effusive in his praise.
"He was excellent," said Paul McGregor. "The guys have been challenged a little bit and Gareth as our captain and our marquee player is challenged the most.
"The only people that didn't have any doubt were the people who know what Gareth's like. He takes things pretty hard and he works very hard at his game so it was good to see him go out there and play so well today."
Bench warfare goes way of the Dragons
Both coaches fiddled with their interchange bench prior to kick-off but it was the Dragons who reaped the greater rewards. Prop Mike Cooper responded to his promotion to the starting team with a haul of 180 metres and Russell Packer provided plenty of go-forward when he was introduced from the bench to contribute 171 metres.
Will Matthews filled in superbly for Euan Aitken after the centre left the field with a hamstring complaint, keeping Josh Hoffman at bay out wide despite the Titans attacking that left edge mercilessly.
"Will's probably one of the best interchange players in the game because he can play back row, middle or an outside back," McGregor said.
"He's done it a number of times, played in the centres for us and every time he's done a real quality job."
Titans coach Neil Henry experimented by starting both Daniel Mortimer and Leivaha Pulu in place of Nathan Friend and Chris McQueen but his planned rotation was disrupted by injuries to Mortimer, Pulu and Eddy Pettybourne.
"Just a tactic there," explained Henry. "’Morts’ has been playing well so thought we'd throw him out there early in the piece and just swap it around. Chris has played every game and big minutes, lots of 80-minute games and he's played a lot off the interchange bench at Souths previously and bit of an impact coming on and then we can do a rotation that way.
"That's how I planned it given ‘Birdy’ [Greg Bird] was out as well and we were happy with that."
Unsatisfactory endings to Titans sets
Truth be told, the Titans had enough ball deep in Dragons territory in the second half to win two games of football but an inability to mount pressure proved to be their undoing.
With Tyrone Roberts making a comeback from injury, his halves partner Ashley Taylor came up with a couple of poor kicks and on a handful of occasions the wrong Titans player ended up with the football in their hands on the last tackle.
While two of the Dragons’ three tries came from clever kicks into the in-goal the Titans playmakers were unable to operate with the same precision.
"We had a couple of errors from passes in the first half and then a couple of kicks that went too deep," Henry lamented.
"It's a real pressure release when you drop it into the in-goal on the full and they come back with seven tackles. It's very hard to stop teams rolling down the field with that extra tackle and a 20-metre start.
"We got a bit lateral [in attack] when we wanted to punch away a bit more direct. In the second half when we started doing that, our kicks were on the money and we really had a lot of territorial advantage but we still didn't drive another nail in the coffin.
"We had a few opportunities to grab the ball and score some points and we didn't so the game got away from us in the end."
Dragons happy to be heading home
A three-week Queensland road trip may have only yielded the two competition points but Dragons coach Paul McGregor believes his side is in position to make use of an extended stint close to home.
In the first seven weeks of the season the Dragons have been handed difficult assignments on the road in Melbourne, North Queensland, Brisbane and the Gold Coast but other than a Round 9 trip to Auckland, they don’t leave New South Wales for the rest of the season.
They may have been on the wrong end of a 62-0 scoreline from their opening two games in Queensland but McGregor was adamant that the win against the Titans gives his side a platform from which to build.
"It's been a real busy three weeks for us to be honest," said McGregor. "We've been on the road a fair bit so to come away with a win from the Titans, they've been playing very well, is a very good result.
"You go to North Queensland, the last three games Souths have had 44 put on them, before that the Roosters got 40 put on them and we got some points put on us as well. It's not a good place to play footy at the moment with the form they're in.
"We've got one more away trip to New Zealand in the next two weeks and then the finish to our season is in Sydney and the furthest we have to travel is to Newcastle."