Dragons hold on in Anzac Day thriller
St George Illawarra have withstood a valiant Sydney Roosters comeback to edge a memorable Anzac Day thriller 20-18 at Allianz Stadium.
The Dragons bounded out to a commanding 18-0 lead by half-time but could add only a penalty goal in the second half as the Roosters clawed back one, then two, then three tries to have all 34,483 fans on the edge of their seats in a grandstand finish.
The Roosters threw the ball around with abandon as they searched desperately for late points to claim an unlikely win after being completely outplayed in the opening 40 and the boilover was on when Dragons debutant Taane Milne was flattened by Dylan Napa and Boyd Cordner and lost the ball in his own half with two to go.
However while Milne was unfortunately the victim of a head clash with Cordner, the referees also deemed Napa's challenge to be too high and the ensuing penalty effectively closed out the contest despite a frantic final play from the Roosters that extended well after the full-time siren.
That challenge left Napa one of three Roosters on report, joining Sam Moa (shoulder charge) and Eloni Vunakece (pressure on neck).
Debutant playmaker Ryan Matterson – nephew of Brisbane great Terry – had a debut to remember, tossing an intercept pass in the first half for a Dragons try but setting up one try and scoring one of his own in a memorable fightback.
But the steady work of Paul McGregor's men and in particular Gareth Widdop in a disciplined first half allowed them to hang on – just – to their second win in a row, a result that pushes them level with eighth-placed Manly and keeps the Tricolours mired to the foot of the ladder.
Widdop went on to be awarded the Ashton-Collier medal as man of the match.
The Dragons' six offloads to three and 19 of 23 sets completed (versus just 12 of 18) in the opening 40 helped them to 55 per cent of the first-half possession and they made it count.
It started with an almost-obligatory early penalty goal to Gareth Widdop before the Saints skipper chased through on his own bomb to put himself in range to capitalise when Roosters fullback Latrell Mitchell spilled the chance backwards, making it 8-0 after 20 minutes.
An uncharacteristic error from Shaun Kenny-Dowall and a high tackle penalty against Mitchell Frei handed the Dragons another chance and Widdop's pinpoint cross-field kick early in the set found Jason Nightingale outside his opposing man. The ball yorked him but he slid on his knees to shepherd the Steeden in and ground it.
With not much going right for the Roosters – who had to manage without both Aidan Guerra and Mitch Aubusson at times in the opening 40 due to concussion checks – a neat catch-and-pass from debutant Matterson was pickpocketed by Kalifa Faifai-Loa who streaked 65 to score under the posts right before the interval to make it 18-0 at the break.
The Tricolours desperately needed some better ball handling and a change of luck to start the second half; the first deserted them but they landed the second in spades.
A loose carry from Mitchell off their first touch of the half handed the Dragons an attacking set but when Mitchell gambled on Widdop's grubber going dead and won – just – you started to winder if it may be the Roosters' turn.
Shortly after, the on-field officials didn't spot a dummy half pass from Jake Friend that sailed at least a metre forward and Friend was on hand a couple of plays later to complete a wonderful team try that included two right-arm flick passes from Kenny-Dowall and Matterson to get it back to 18-6.
A questionable late tackle penalty against Kane Evans allowed Gareth Widdop to push it back to 20-6 in the 50th minute despite strong protests from Roosters skipper Friend, before debutant Matterson's busy day continued when his attacking grubber deflected off a Dragons defender to sit up for Mitchell to score.
Panic started to set in for the Roosters as the clock wound down with two scoring plays still required and it ended up being the least experienced man in the 17 who found the piece of magic that revitalised their hopes.
A quality high bomb from Matterson came down in front of the Dragons posts with Blake Ferguson, and Matterson was in place to receive the pass and charge over under the posts to cause the Dragons a late heart flutter.
But from there, through a final frantic six minutes, the Dragons were able to find the scramble in defence to protect their two point lead for a much needed win.
St George Illawarra Dragons 20 (Widdop, Nightingale, Faifai Loa tries; Widdop 4 goals) def Sydney Roosters 18 (Friend, Mitchell, Matterson tries; Hastings 3 goals) at Allianz Stadium. Half time: Dragons 18-0. Crowd: 34,483. On report: Sam Moa, Eloni Vunakece, Dylan Napa.