Dragons overcome half-time deficit to defeat Sharks
It was proof of the self-belief and resilience within the current St George Illawarra Dragons team that they were able to overcome a howling first half wind and the second half sin-binning of winger Jason Nightingale to record a gritty 20-16 win over the Cronulla Sharks.
While the Sharks slipped back into old habits in the second half after a dominant and near faultless first half, the Dragons are unlikely to have won this match in recent seasons.
Exhausted after a first half in which they had to make 214 tackles to 132 by the Sharks, who had 67 per cent of possession and most of it in good field position, the Dragons then had to withstand being a man short for 10 minutes late in the game.
To cope with the gale, which was blowing up the field at more than 30kph in the first half, and then the sin-binning of Nightingale, took mental toughness and game management, as well as grit in defence.
Dragons coach Paul McGregor had told his players before the game that they needed to limit the Sharks to 16 points to win and he was proven right.
But it was the composure and determination the Dragons showed in the face of adversity which was most impressive.
For most of the first half, they just focused on the task of trying to hold out the Sharks and when Nightingale was sin-binned for a professional foul Widdop and Dragons halfback Ben Hunt cleverly limited the amount of time the Sharks had with the ball through their kicking game.
In contrast, the Sharks made 11 second half errors and conceded eight penalties, enabling Widdop to kick two penalty goals during the period Nightingale was in the sin-bin.
After leading 14-4 at halftime, the Sharks didn't score another try but fullback Josh Dugan went close in the 54th minute and winger Sosaia Feki had the tryline in his sights eight minutes later after intercepting a Matt Dufty pass near his own line.
Only the hand of Euan Aitkin prevented Dugan from grounding the ball for a try and the Dragons centre ran down Feki to prevent him from scoring.
In between, Aitken scored himself to help put the Dragons in the lead for the first time in the match after captain Gareth Widdop's sideline conversion.
The Sharks loss raises questions about the decision to shift Dugan to fullback and Valentine Holmes to the wing, after the NSW Origin and Australian Test centre had spent little time training in the custodian role since joining the club after the World Cup.
Dugan was heavily involved and ran the ball more than any Sharks player except prop Andrew Fifita, making 113 metres from 18 carries, but Holmes had little impact.
Under pressure, it was the Sharks big name players who committed the second half errors which put them on the back foot, with five-eighth Matt Moylan being responsible for three and Dugan, Holmes and Fifita two each.
For the Dragons, winger Nene McDonald ran 197 metres, while six other players - Nightingale (105m), centre Tim Lafai (103) and forwards Tariq Sims (153m), Paul Vaughan (118m), Leeson Au (114m) and Tyson Frizell (108m) all carried the ball more than 100 metres.
The stirring victory was only the third time in the 20 seasons since the joint venture was formed that the Dragons have won their first two matches and they now face Gold Coast Titans, Newcastle Knights and South Sydney Rabbitohs before meeting the Sutherland Shire outfit again in round six.
While their 34-12 defeat of the Brisbane Broncos in the opening Telstra Premiership fixture demonstrated class and style, the Dragons had to dig deep to overcome the Sharks and the howling southerly wind in the first half added another degree of fascination to the contest.
For the opening 40 minutes, the Dragons had to endure a relentless onslaught from the Sharks and there was little they could do about it.
Match: Sharks vs Dragons
Venue: Southern Cross Group Stadium
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The Sharks forced four goal line drop outs in a near faultless first half, in which they completed 21 of 22 sets-of-possession to pile the pressure on the Dragons defence.
In comparison, the Dragons completed 12 of 16 sets and compounded their errors by conceding five penalties to ensure they spent most of the half tackling.
With the Sharks having 67 per cent of first half possession, the Dragons were forced to make 214 tackles to 132 by their opponents.
Yet remarkably, the Dragons trailed just 14-4 at the interval after Nene McDonald scored a freakish 34th minute try when he caught a Gareth Widdop chip kick above his head and planted the ball before his feet touched the ground.
Until then, the Sharks had totally dominated the match but their second half completion rate was just 47 per cent as they turned over possession in eight of their 15 sets.