Widdop stars in high-scoring Dragons comeback
Dragons skipper Gareth Widdop has orchestrated a comeback from 28-10 down after his team conceded five unanswered first-half tries to run out 32-28 winners in a frenetic Sunday afternoon's football at OUW Jubilee Oval.
Dragons players were booed off by the 10,174-strong crowd at half time after disintegrating from an early 10-nil lead to trail 28-10 at the break in the face of a determined and free-flowing Knights assault.
But in a continuation of the year-long second-half woes, Newcastle virtually failed to emerge from the sheds for the second half as the Dragons rediscovered their mojo and piled on four straight tries of their own.
Skipper Widdop was the conductor of the orchestra with his wide array of passes and kicks causing havoc, with a hand in virtually every Dragons try of the match and finishing with four try assists and three line breaks. Winger Jason Nightingale was a key beneficiary with his third hat-trick of the season.
Backing up from State of Origin, Josh Dugan was immense with match-highs in metres gained (234) and tackle busts (11) and one of the few Dragons players able to hold his head high even in a horror first half.
His fellow blue Tyson Frizell (four busts, 124 metres) added plenty of sting during the comeback while Leeson Ah Mau (157 metres, five busts, 35 tackles) put in a huge stint in the absence of the suspended Jack de Belin and injured 100-gamer Paul Vaughan, who went off early in the contest.
For Newcastle, popular winger Nathan Ross made the most of his shift to fullback with three first-half tries and 220 metres for the game while rookie forward Lachlan Fitzgibbon was excellent early on.
The unconvincing win sees the Dragons arrest a worrying two-game losing streak in which they scored just two tries in two weeks and consolidates their top-eight standing while Newcastle missed a chance to put a gap on the last-placed Wests Tigers.
Dragons prop Paul Vaughan's 100th NRL game ended after just three minutes due to a calf strain but it seemed to matter little in the early stages with the Dragons running rings around the 15th-placed Knights.
Nightingale scored his 99th and 100th NRL tries inside of 10 minutes as he first cashed in on an overlap against some ragged right-side Newcastle defence then profited from a Tim Lafai offload to Widdop, who grubbered ahead for a 10-nil lead.
From there, though, it was all Newcastle as Nathan Ross – moved to fullback with Maroons winger Dane Gagai shifted to centre – bagged a hat-trick in the space of 11 minutes.
His first came from a dummy half scoot after a quick Lachlan Fitzgibbon play-the-ball in the 20th minute, his second just three minutes later from an awful Lafai defensive mis-read and his third in the 33rd minute when he scooped up a Hame Sele dropped ball 20 metres from his own line to run the length and score.
In between Fitzgibbon charged over for one of his own from a flat ball at the line and the team's fifth of the half came when the Dragons allowed a bomb to hit the ground and an astute Sione Mata'utia flung it out to Brendan Elliott to gallop away and score.
A penalty goal shortly before the break made it the margin three converted tries at half time.
That was as good as it got for the Knights as a re-energised Dragons made all the second-half running. A try to Joel Thompson in the 47th minute, running onto a deft Widdop grubber, kicked off the comeback.
It was on in earnest five minutes later when a huge set with the ball featuring plenty of offloads finished with Dugan carrying four defenders over from dummy-half.
Nightingale completed his hat-trick in the 58th minute running onto a lovely Widdop cut-out with the skipper's sideline conversion locking up the scores.
When Kurt Mann jinked his way through the line in the 67th minute the Dragons finally reclaimed the lead 32-28 and almost went further ahead shortly after but Nene Macdonald's try was disallowed due to an offside player.
With the clock running down the Knights almost stole it at the death but Mitch Barnett couldn't handle a sharp face-ball from Lamb at the Dragons line and the Dragons held on for a four-point win.
St George Illawarra 32 (Nightingale 3, Thompson, Dugan, Mann tries; Widdop 4 goals) defeated Newcastle Knights 28 (Ross 3, Fitzgibbon, Elliott tries; Lamb 3 goals) at UOW Jubilee Oval. Half time: Knights 28-10. Crowd: 10,174
NRL unofficial points: 3 Gareth Widdop. 2 Josh Dugan. 1 Leeson Ah Mau.