Luke Keary showed why he is destined to finally wear the NSW No.6 jersey this season after leading an undermanned Sydney Roosters team to a tradesman-like 24-16 defeat of St George Illawarra at WIN Stadium.
Keary scored a try and laid on another for second-rower Sitili Tupouniua as the back-to-back premiers overpowered a Dragons team who lost Kangaroos prop Paul Vaughan due to a biosecurity breach on Thursday and NSW forward Tariq Sims with a shoulder injury.
The loss leaves St George Illawarra needing to win all six of their remaining matches to make the finals but they are also likely to be without lock Jackson Ford for next weekend’s match against Parramatta after he was placed on report for tripping.
Despite being without nine topline players, the Roosters have managed close wins in successive weeks against Canterbury, Gold Coast and St George Illawarra to remain within in the top four.
The key was Keary, who has played for Australia, won three premierships and was the Clive Churchill Medal winner for the Roosters in 2018 but is yet to play State of Origin.
"You could see he really loved running around there tonight," Roosters coach Trent Robinson said. "He was like that little kid who runs around all the big guys looking for opportunities to play. That's what he looked like tonight. It was nice to watch him."
Already reeling from the loss of Vaughan, the Dragons had the worst possible start when Sims lost the ball in the opening set of the night.
Match: Dragons v Roosters
Round 13 -
Venue: WIN Stadium, Wollongong
Roosters centre Joey Manu made the home team pay when he dived over from dummy half in the ensuing set and prop Siosiua Taukeiaho converted to give the visitors an early 6-0 lead.
When rookie halfback Lachlan Lam put Mitchell Aubusson over for a try in his 300th NRL match after just 14 minutes it looked set to be an easy night for the Roosters.
However, Zac Lomax had other ideas and scored two tries before half-time to prompt NSW’s most successful coach Phil Gould and current Blues mentor Brad Fittler to suggest he was a future Origin centre.
Lomax’s first try in the 22nd minute followed quick hands by five-eighth Ben Hunt, hooker Cameron McInnes and fullback Matt Dufty before he powered his way over to score.
There were claims that Roosters winger Ryan Hall had twisted Lomax’s heavily strapped left knee after he scored but he recovered to take the conversion attempt from out wide and combined with Hunt to drive Hall into his own in-goal five minutes later.
The injection of Tristan Sailor into the game nine minutes before half-time coincided with Hunt shifting to dummy half and McInnes to lock, and the move paid almost immediate dividends.
Aubusson scores in his milestone match
With just his second touch of the ball, Sailor grubbered behind the Roosters defence and Lomax beat Dufty to ground the ball in the in-goal and draw the scores level at 10-10.
Another Sailor grubber almost resulted in a third Dragons try before half-time but Roosters winger Matt Ikuvalu beat Jordan Pereira to the ball.
The second half started in a similar fashion to the first with Tupouniua scoring in the 43rd minute after Keary combined with Aubusson to send Hall racing down the western touchline and then regathered a loose pass from the winger to put the second-rower over.
Lomax beats several Roosters to score
"We gave away 12 points - six in the first five minutes of the first half and then again in the second half - under no fatigue, which is disappointing," St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor said.
Dragons halfback Adam Clune gave his team their best opportunity of the second half with a 40:20 in the 48th minute but they were unable to breach the Roosters defence.
Manu claimd the line.ed his second try in the 66th minute to give the Roosters a 20-10 lead and Keary put the result beyond doubt when he scored, despite being tripped by Ford as he crossed.
Dufty scored a consolation try in the 80th minute but the Dragons paid the price for being unable to complete their chances.