Canberra overcame the second half send-off of NSW winger Nick Cotric to leapfrog Sydney Roosters into third place on the NRL ladder after a 36-14 defeat of St George Illawarra at WIN Stadium on Sunday night.
Cotric became the first player sent off since Melbourne’s Curtis Scott was dismissed for punching in round 11 of last season’s Telstra Premiership after a lifting tackle on Dragons centre Tim Lafai midway through the second half.
The Raiders centre was also the first player given his marching orders for a dangerous throw since South Sydney forward Peter Driscoll in 1995, while Canberra prop David Shillington was the previous player sent off before Scott for head-butting Wests Tigers front-rower Aaron Woods in 2015.
It was Cotric’s first match back since suffering a syndesmosis injury in the round-12 match against Cronulla, which sidelined the 20-year-old from Origin II and III after making his Blues debut in the series opener.
Lafai quickly jumped to his feet after landing on his neck but referee Ashley Klein had little hesitation in sending Cotric for an early shower for the 59th-minute tackle.
"I didn't quite see it but I remember my head just spinning," Lafai told Fox Sports in an interview straight after full-time. "It is what it is. It happens in footy, it's all part of the game I guess."
The incident overshadowed an impressive performance by the Raiders, who needed to win by 14 points or more to move ahead of the Roosters after their 15-12 defeat by North Queensland earlier in the day.
Canberra scored two tries in the 21 minutes they were forced to play a man short to put paid to a second half comeback by St George Illawarra.
“They were gathering some momentum and playing some good footy to get the crowd back in the game so for us to nullify that and actually put points on with 12 blokes was very pleasing," captain Jarrod Croker said.
The signs were ominous for the Dragons from early on, with Cotric beating four defenders to force his way over for the opening try in the 12th minute.
St George Illawarra appeared set to hit back soon after but winger Mikaele Ravalawa slipped as he received a pass from centre Euan Aitken and Croker bundled him into touch just short of the try line.
Croker then followed up his try saving feats by fending off Aitken to claim a try of his own in the 16th minute and become the greatest try scorer in Raiders history after eclipsing the previous record of 120 tries held by namesake Jason Croker.
“Just to be mentioned in the same sentence as some of our club legends is very humbling and very pleasing," said Croker, who also became the youngest player to reach 1900 points in the match.
Things went from bad to worse for St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor after veteran prop Jeremy Latimore had to be assisted from the field in the 20th minute with a knee injury and Aitken was forced off for a HIA two minutes later, along with Raiders forward Elliott Whitehead.
Croker appeared set to claim his second try in the 36th minute but was taken high by Ravalawa after the former Canberra under 20s player of the year was wrong-footed by halfback Aidan Sezer.
Ravalawa was placed on report and Raiders lock Joe Tapine forced his way over a try from the ensuing penalty. Croker converted the try before leaving the field for an HIA.
Stuart: People who think it was a spear tackle are new to rugby league
Leading 16-0 at half-time, Canberra piled on two quick tries after the interval through winger Bailey Simonsson and fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad but the Dragons got their way back into the contest when Korbin Sims crashed over in the 50th minute.
Corey Norman’s conversion attempt from next to the posts rebounded off the left-hand upright but the home team had more points three minutes later when the Queensland Origin five-eighth put lock Luciano Leilua over to reduce the deficit to 26-10.
Despite being reduced to 12 men after Cotric’s dismissal, Canberra scored two tries through interchange forward Siliva Havili and Nicoll-Klokstad before St George Illawarra fullback Matt Dufty raced 80 metres to touchdown in the 79th minute.
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart singled out halfback Aidan Sezer and hooker Josh Hodgson for special praise.
“I am always proud of the boys but the way they rallied and defended in the back end of that second half was wonderful," Stuart said.
“I had a big week with Aidan Sezer and I think that was his best game for the club and I think that was Josh Hodgson’s best game for the season. Those two controlled proceedings so well."
Match: Dragons v Raiders
Round 17 -
Venue: WIN Stadium, Wollongong