St George Illawarra are a long way from where coach Anthony Griffin wants them to be, but he was pleased with their resolve and resilience in beating a bashed-up Newcastle on Sunday.
Dismissed as wooden-spoon candidates by many punters and pundits during the pre-season, the Dragons posted their third straight win after victories over the Cowboys and Sea Eagles in the previous two weeks to be sitting sixth heading into next Sunday’s game against Parramatta.
Griffin acknowledged Newcastle’s crippling injury toll, which included losing Mitchell Pearce (pectoral muscle), Kurt Mann (concussion) and Tex Hoy (hamstring) on Sunday, but the Dragons were without Ben Hunt and Jack Bird and lost Cameron McInnes before the season kicked off.
The visitors also had to stay composed enough to recover from a 13-6 deficit early in the second half in front of a parochial pro-Knights crowd of 21,770, but they did exactly that to enhance their remarkable record in Newcastle to 18 wins from 23 games.
Adam Clune looked sharp as Hunt’s replacement alongside Corey Norman in the halves and Brayden Williame, filling in for the suspended Bird in the centres, scored the match-sealing try from a Norman stab kick in the 67th minute.
Match Highlights: Knights v Dragons
"Our blokes have just got a real will to compete at the moment … I just like the way they’re competing and they keep coming to the game," Griffin said.
"We were really messy in the first half but the second half we were 16 from 18, and obviously a lot more direct, and I thought Cluney did a real good job.
"The Knights were really brave – they had a lot of problems – but at this level you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do. It wasn’t pretty from us for long periods but defensively, they just refused to lose in the second half.
"Again, it’s only four weeks and the opposition were down on troops, but we had to come in without our halfback and captain and Jack Bird, and McInnes is gone for the year, so we had a fair hole in our salary cap today.
"They’re just really enjoying their footy at the moment, and it’s come off the back of all the hard work they did in November, December and January, and we’re finding a way to win at the moment."
The Knights thrashed the Dragons 42-18 in the corresponding game last September amid a string of heavy losses that highlighted St George Illawarra’s lack of effort in defence.
Griffin said the Dragons still had some work to do to fine-tune their attack as "we left a few points out there today" but, after he had identified the need to improve their resilience in defence, he was pleased with their progress in that department.
Sims charges down a Green kick and he has a double
"I’m very respectful of what’s happened in the past at this club but obviously we needed to improve and change a lot of things that we did as a club and one of them is defence, and you don’t get defence without attitude," he said.
"There’s a lot of things, but I think the main thing is attitude. They’ve got a real desire to want to play, and want to play for each other, and that’s the most important thing.
"Again, it’s round four, but we’ve done a good job up to this point to put ourselves where we are."
Griffin said Tariq Sims, who scored two tries against his old club in an eight-minute burst midway through the second half to turn the game, had recovered well after a slow start to the season.
Sims steams onto a Clune pass
Sims charged down attempted clearing kicks by Pearce in the first half and Blake Green in the second, and he regathered his chargedown of Green’s kick to score his second try.
"Last week against Manly he was very good and he was in everything today," Griffin said of the former NSW Origin forward.
"He’s got his physicality back on both sides of the ball, and I thought his chargedown was obviously something that turned the game, and that’s an effort play.
"He’s just enjoying his football like most of them, and it’s good to see him in that form again."