A red-hot Dragons outfit has moved – at least temporarily – into first place on the NRL ladder with a convincing 35-10 win over a sloppy Manly side at Lottoland on Saturday afternoon.
Things started going wrong for Manly in the warm up, losing winger Akuila Uate to a hamstring strain with coach Trent Barrett forced to call on veteran Matt Wright barely an hour after the utility bac finished almost a full game of reserve grade for Blacktown Workers.
It got worse two minutes in with a controversial call handing Gareth Widdop first points of the afternoon; he dived over through a big gap in the defensive line.
Manly skipper Daly Cherry-Evans argued he'd been taken out by Jason Nightingale trying to get back to dummy-half but it looked like the captain had initiated the contact and the NRL Bunker was unable to rule on the contact in any event as it occurred prior to the play the ball.
The remainder of the six-tries-to-two romp saw Manly frequently struggle badly for execution with the ball, taking a number of poor options, while the Dragons pack continued to punch its way through the middle as it has all year so far – despite the early loss of Tyson Frizell to a rib injury.
Manly also lost a forward to a rib complaint with Marty Taupau being taken from the field late in the game.
The Dragons continued their strong start to the game as a powerful Jack de Belin charge set the scene for Josh McCrone to fire a short-side cut-out ball for Aitken's first try in the ninth minute.
The centre, in his comeback from a hamstring strain, had his second in the 17th minute when he showed incredible speed and footwork to wrong-foot Brian Kelly and beat Tom Trbojevic in a race to the line.
Both Cam McInnes (who was held up) and Addin Fonua Blake (who lost the ball over the line) came close later in the half and it wasn't until two minutes before the break that Manly winger Jorge Taufua showed incredible strength to mow over in the corner that the home side got on the board.
The Dragons however reasserted their dominance early in the second half and McCrone earned his third try assist of the afternoon when he shrugged through the line to send de Belin over under the sticks.
A Widdop penalty goal for a Darcy Lussick face slap on Joel Thompson made it 24-6 with half an hour to play.
The Sea Eagles desperately needed to be next to score to have a hope of clawing their way back but looked bereft of ideas on last-tackle plays and handed over possession cheaply with passes into touch or poor kicks straight to the defence.
Next points instead came through a wonderful interchange of passing from the Red V, finished by a skilful Tim Lafai offload to put winger Kurt Mann over in the corner.
Another Red V attacking raid come undone after Widdop ran behind a teammate and the penalty put Manly in range to finally earn a second try through Taufua, who was on the end of a lovely cut-out ball from Blake Green.
That was the end of the good news for the 11,654 home fans though; Widdop iced some field goal practice in the 78th minute then put in a stunning chase off a McCrone kick (the halfback's fourth try assist of the day) to beat a lackadaisical effort from Tom Trbojevic attempting to shepherd the ball dead.
His incredible put-down and conversion sealed the convincing 35-10 win.
St George Illawarra Dragons 35 (Widdop, Aitken 2, de Belin, Mann tries; Widdop 5 goals; Widdop field goal) defeated Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 10 (Taufua 2 tries; Walker goal) at Lottoland. Half-time: Dragons 16-6. Crowd: 11,654.