NRL | Dragons in control
Despite being reduced to just two interchange players in the opening minutes, St George Illawarra overpowered the Vodafone Warriors 36-0 in tonight's 22nd-round NRL clash at Westpac Stadium.
The Dragons did the job - scoring six tries to none - despite losing influential halfback Benji Marshall (hamstring) and centre Will Matthews (shoulder) inside the first 17 minutes.
For the Vodafone Warriors, the disappointment was all the more acute with this being the second time they've been held scoreless in four games.
The ultimate ignominy hadn't seemed conceivable as they started promisingly through a long Sam Tomkins last tackle which pulled up just inside the dead ball line.
Soon after there was a real scoring chance when Manu Vatuvei soared for a Chad Townsend bomb to the left but had the ball stripped from his grasp as he was trying to spin around searching for a way to get it down.
Having survived the scare the Dragons were the first to make an impression on the scoreboard, creating numbers brilliantly on their right edge for wing Justin Hunt to score wide out.
Hunt wasn't meant to be playing at all but came in after Dylan Farrell went down with a back injury in the warm-up. Gareth Widdop couldn't convert and the Dragons were 4-0 up after six minutes.
Soon enough the Vodafone Warriors were seemingly try-bound when they went wide to the left only for the final transfer to an unmarked Vatuvei to be blocked.
Having already lost Farrell before kick-off the Dragons also had Matthews taken from the field for treatment for a dislocated shoulder, causing still further disruption for the visitors.
From the attacking scrum the Vodafone Warriors probed on both sides of the ruck before turning the ball over. The Dragons had another opportunity, their loaded right edge looking dangerous again but Marshall spilled the ball in contact.
In the 16th minute it could have been all square, Nathan Friend scurrying over from dummy half only to held up.
The Dragons' resources were further stretched with Marshall leaving the field with a hamstring strain a minute later. He wouldn't return/
They weren't letting it affect them, though, coming back at the Vodafone Warriors through the middle and finding the ultimate reward with hooker Mitch Rein stealing over from close range. Widdop's conversion had St George Illawarra out to a 10-0 lead after 23 minutes.
There was more concern in the 27th minute when Widdop slipped a grubber into the Vodafone Warriors' in-goal area. Tomkins cleaned up but the ball came loose in contact bringing an appeal from the Dragons for a try. The officials didn't agree and a St George Illawarra knock-on was detected.
Try as they might, the Vodafone Warriors weren't clicking on attack. They had chances but wanted for execution and it was a brave St George Illawarra side which went to the break 10 points ahead.
The opening set of the second half was encouraging for the Vodafone Warriors, a great long kick and superb chase giving them a repeat set backed up by a penalty. The Dragons stood firm.
Not only that they surged downfield, bent the line and put on another try, Jake Marketo climbing to snare a clever Rein chip out of dummy half to score his first try of the season. Widdop made it 16-0.
From the restart it became 22-0 as the Dragons went long range for Peter Mata'utia to score and Widdop to convert.
Ken Maumalo had a shot to score in the right-hand corner minutes later to reduce the damage but astonishingly Widdop denied him as he was getting the ball down.
An already disappointing night took another dip when the impressive Widdop stepped inside and then sped away for his side's fifth try. At 26-0 the Dragons were in total control and the lead soon grew to 32-0 with a converted Tyson Frizell try and then 36-0 with two Widdop penalties.
The Dragons have climbed back into the top eight with the victory while the Vodafone Warriors have a huge challenge now with just four rounds left, three of their last games on the road. The first of them is against Penrith next weekend when the Vodafone Warriors will almost certainly have to do without wing Manu Vatuvei, who aggravated the shoulder injury which kept him off the field for a month.
Head coach Andrew McFadden labelled tonight's effort 'embarrassing' but vowed the team would find a way back from the biggest loss of the season.
Match details | Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Vodafone Warriors 0.
St George Illawarra 36 (Justin Hunt, Mitch Rein, Jake Marketo, Peter Mata'utia, Gareth Widdop, Tyson Frizzell tries; Gareth Widdop 4 conversions, 2 penalties).
Halftime: 10-0 Dragons.
Referees: Gavin Badger and Alan Shortall.
Vodafone Warriors | Sam Tomkins; Ken Maumalo, Jonathan Wright, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei; Chad Townsend, Tuimoala Lolohea; Jacob Lillyman, Nathan Friend, Albert Vete; Ben Matulino, Simon Mannering (c); Sebastine Ikahihifo. Interchange: Siliva Havili, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Charlie Gubb, Sam Lisone.