St George Illawarra halfback Ben Hunt overcame his State of Origin demons to inspire a great escape by the NRL competition leaders against last-placed Parramatta at WIN Stadium on Thursday night.
The Dragons scored two tries in three minutes to snatch a 20-18 win after it had appeared that Origin and the representative round would take its toll on a team which has been at the top of the Telstra Premiership ladder since the opening round.
Like most of his teammates, Hunt was flat and the Queensland halfback's kicking game was below his usual standards for large parts of the game.
On three occasions, Hunt kicked the ball into opposition players and he also made two handling errors but St George Illawarra's star recruit produced a try for centre Euan Aitken that kick-started the team just six minutes before fulltime.
With Aitken pouncing on the perfectly weighted grubber to put the Dragons back in the game trailing 18-14, fullback Matt Dufty then secured the win when he dived on a kick from captain Gareth Widdop in the 76th minute.
"Criticism hurts, it's just how long it sticks with you for and how you get on with it," McGregor said of Hunt, who was widely criticised after the Maroons loss to NSW in last Sunday night's series-deciding Origin match.
"You probably need to drop the brick and move on. The best way to do that was for Ben to play tonight and he did. The timing of the try was obviously important. It was important for the team and the club. There were other times that Ben would like to have his time again, too."
Hunt and Widdop were among seven St George Illawarra players backing up from the representative weekend, with forwards Paul Vaughan, Jack de Belin and James Graham also playing their second game in five days, while Tyson Frizell and Leeson Ah Mau were rested.
"I couldn't talk any of them out of playing, so that is how important it is to one another," McGregor said. "Leeson turned up yesterday in his training gear to train and his eyes were red, he had slept four hours in two days, so I said, 'look that is not going to happen. We need you next week'.
"Tyson is a little bit different, Tyson through this time of the year his body needs a rest and he got a rest tonight."
Vaughan will have a nervous wait to see how the match review committee views the NSW prop's tripping of Eels forward David Gower.
Vaughan was placed on report and a grade one charge would be a $1,500 fine but grade two would mean two matches. The Blues team for Origin III at Suncorp Stadium on July 11 will be named next week.
The Eels dominated the opening exchanges but failed to capitalise after inexcusable errors by forwards Nathan Brown and Daniel Alvaro, who both lost possession attempting to play the ball metres from the try line.
The first time the Dragons got near the same position they came away with the first points of the game after Widdop kicked a 14th minute field goal.
Parramatta had another missed opportunity when winger Bevan French knocked on attempting to intercept a pass from Widdop to centre Tim Lafai midway through the first half, while hooker Cameron King had to dodge three teammates to kick out of dummy half.
Widdop also failed to finish an early try-scoring opportunity, when he put down a pass from Nene Macdonald with the line wide open. But the Dragons kick-chase game kept the Eels under pressure and it appeared only a matter of time before the home team scored.
Instead, it was Parramatta who got the first try of the match in the 24th minute after veteran prop Tim Mannah beat Jeremy Latimore and pushed off Jack de Belin to make a long-range break before drawing Dufty to send French racing away off a pass that appeared forward.
Brown crossed six minutes later after running into a hole created by five-eighth Corey Norman to put the Eels ahead 12-2.
However, Dufty put St George Illawarra back into the game by finishing a spectacular try three minutes before halftime after Lafai made a break on his own 40-metre line and linked with Macdonald, who kicked infield.
Widdop outleapt Eels fullback Clint Gutherson to tap the ball back to Lafai, who passed to Dufty and the Dragons fullback raced over the try line to score.
If St George Illawarra fans, who had braved the wet and cold conditions in Wollongong, had expected their team to kick into gear in the second term they would have been disappointed as mistakes crept in the Dragons game.
A Jarryd Hayne try in the 48th minute extended Parramatta's lead to 18-8 and a huge upset was suddenly on the cards.
Interchange forward Luciano Leilua appeared to have got the Dragons back in the game 12 minutes before fulltime when he forced his way over the Eels line. But video referee Ashley Klein ruled that he had failed to ground the ball - due to Jarryd Hayne's hand underneath - and disallowed the try.
However, the Dragons couldn't be denied when Aitkin pounced on the Hunt grubber and Dufty scored his second for the game and ninth for the season.
News & Notes: St George Illawarra had six players backing up from representative games last weekend.... forwards Tyson Frizell and Leeson Ah Mau were rested... Bevan French has now scored six tries in his past four games against the Dragons... Prop James Graham played his 150th NRL game.