St George Illawarra built on a solid 12-0 halftime lead to beat the Vodafone Warriors 20-10 in tonight's seventh-round NRL encounter at WIN Jubilee Stadium in Sydney.
First half tries to Jason Nightingale and Mike Cooper had the Dragons on track for their 10th straight win over the Vodafone Warriors.
The Vodafone Warriors were back in it with second half tries to Sam Tomkins and Manu Vatuvei but Josh Dugan's 69th-minute touchdown proved the match winner, handing the Vodafone Warriors a third consecutive loss since beating Wests Tigers in Wellington.
Lining up for St George Illawarra were two familiar faces in former Vodafone Warriors Michael Witt and Leeson Ah Mau; Ah Mau confronted his old club in the second-round encounter between the two sides at Eden Park but Witt, back in the NRL after a stint in the English Super League, missed the match through injury.
The contest was eventful from the outset, end-to-end sets, lots of offloading - especially from the Dragons - and both sides trying to get to their edges regularly.
The favoured last tackle attacking option was the aerial one for both sides in the first 20 minutes, each team cleaning up well.
The unlikeliest first scoring play appeared to be a penalty judging by the frantic opening exchanges but when the Dragons had the opportunity they used Gareth Widdop to give them a 2-0 lead.
It took 34 minutes before the first try was scored, Kiwi winger Jason Nightingale given space and finishing spectacularly with a near head-first landing. Widdop missed the conversion attempt and the Dragons had an important 6-0 lead in the shadow of halftime.
When the Vodafone Warriors lost possession near halfway, the Dragons had another shot at points and they again made the Vodafone Warriors pay with English prop Mike Cooper ploughing through for his first NRL try. With Widdop's conversion, the Dragons were 12-0 up at halftime.
The Vodafone Warriors were desperate to find some spark in the opening stages of the second half and joy came in the 51st minute as the Wigan combination of Thomas Leuluai and Sam Tomkins stepped up. With Dominique Peyroux running a perfect decoy, Leuluai went out the back to Tomkins and he simply scorched through for his fourth NRL try. Shaun Johnson's conversion cut the deficit to 6-12.
There were problems in the following minutes, though, as the Vodafone Warriors were hit with three consecutive penalties marching the Dragons downfield and giving them another shot at two points via Widdop. With 57 minutes gone the lead was out to eight points at 14-6.
Inside the last 20 minutes it was critical the Vodafone Warriors scored next and they did so in stunning style, spreading left 70 metres out through Leuluai, Tomkins (Peyroux the decoy again) and onto Dane Nielsen. With a sweet flick he unleashed Manu Vatuvei and he powered 50 metres down the left-hand touch, ploughing through Josh Dugan's last-ditch effort to score his 123rd career try. Johnson couldn't convert from out on the touchline but the difference was only four points at 14-10 with 17 minutes to play.
When they needed to the Vodafone Warriors couldn't come up with the next key moment, though. Instead the defining moment came through Witt's fifth tackle kick, Mitch Rein's pick-up and then another kick ahead which finished in a try for Dugan. With Widdop's conversion and the lead out to 20-10 the Vodafone Warriors had it all to do but there was no magic ending for them. Their grim record continues against the Dragons.
Completions rates and possession were again the defining difference, as they are more often than not. The Dragons had 38 sets in possession and completed 28 (74 per cent) while the Vodafone Warriors had 34 sets but completed just 22 (65 per cent); it’s a challenge to win games with just 22 completed sets.
Also battling a penalty count which ran 9-5 in the Dragons’ favour, the Vodafone Warriors had just 143 runs in total compared to St George Illawarra’s 186. Despite that the Vodafone Warriors still made an impressive 1414 metres while the Dragons made 1705.
In the individual stats, the leading metre gainers were Vatuvei with 167 from 10 runs, Ngani Laumape (155 from 16), Jacob Lillyman (142 from 15), Johnson (121 from 11), Tomkins (115 from 13) and David Fusitua (109 from 12).
As usual Nathan Friend topped the tackle count with another whopping 54 while Simon Mannering made 41, Ben Henry 28, Lillyman 25 and Sam Rapira 25.
The Vodafone Warriors return home today and are then back on game day duty for their annual Anzac Day encounter with Melbourne at AMII Park on Friday.
At WIN Jubilee Oval, Kogarah
St George Illawarra Dragons 20 (Jason Nightingale, Mike Cooper, Josh Dugan tries; Gareth Widdop 2 conversions, 2 penalties).
Vodafone Warriors 10 (Sam Tomkins, Manu Vatuvei tries; Shaun Johnson conversion).
Halftime: 12-0 Dragons.
Referees: Jared Maxwell and Chris James.
Vodafone Warriors: Sam Tomkins; David Fusitua, Dane Nielsen, Ngani Laumape, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Sam Rapira, Nathan Friend, Jacob Lillyman; Dominique Peyroux, Simon Mannering (c); Sebastine Ikahihifo. Interchange: Siliva Havili, Suaia Matagi, Charlie Gubb, Ben Henry.