On a night when Kieran Foran's debut was dramatically put on hold the Vodafone Warriors slumped to a 12-26 loss to St George Illawarra in their fourth-round NRL clash at UOW Jubilee Oval in Sydney on Sunday night.
The 26-year-old Foran was scratched just minutes before kick-off after he picked up a hamstring injury in the team's warm-up, a major setback for the Vodafone Warriors who had trained all week with Foran in the halves.
The extent of his injury is yet to be determined but it forced a late, unwanted shuffle for Vodafone Warriors head coach Stephen Kearney, followed by a poor start to the contest which wouold dictate the outcome.
Kearney brought Blake Ayshford - who had been named as 18th man - into the centres for his first NRL start this year with David Fusitu'a moving onto the right wing and Tuimoala Lolohea switching from that wing to standoff. Ayshford had already played 80 minutes for the club's Intrust Super Premiership side on Saturday and would go on to make it 160 minutes in the space of little more than 24 hours.
The Vodafone Warriors conceded first points through a Gareth Widdop penalty before levelling up 2-2 with a Shaun Johnson two-pointer from 30 metres out.
The penalties were the prelude to what proved to be a fateful 10-minute period as the Dragons rocked the Vodafone Warriors with three tries.
The first went to prop Paul Vaughan, cruising over easily off a flat ball from hooker Cameron McInnes in front of the posts. Widdop's conversion had the home side 8-2 up after 12 minutes.
Three minutes later halfback Josh McCrone went over wide out after centre Solomone Kata lost possession in contact 10 metres out from his line (the try awarded after much deliberatrion by the bunker). Widdop converted superbly from touch for a 14-2 advantage.
The Vodafone Warriors' predicament became grim after 22 minutes when fullback Josh Dugan split them up the middle of the field, Widdop converting again to enable the Dragons to lead 20-2.
At last the Vodafone Warriors settled down, found some rhythm and composure and forced an error in striking distance. James Gavet, also having his first NRL outing of the season, was stopped just short but hooker Issac Luke then immediately burrowed over from dummy half. Johnson's conversion ensured the Vodafone Warriors had at least stemmed the flow of points going to the break 12 points adrift.
They kicked off the second half needing nothing less than a perfect start - and they got it to order when Dugan botched taking the kick-off in-goal resulting in a goal-line dropout.
The Vodafone Warriors probed to the right, fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck bending the line and threatening to go all the way. He was stopped short, the attack went back towards the middle and then to the left edge where quick hands gave Kata time to put left wing Ken Maumalo over for just his third career try and his first of the season.
Johnson hooked the conversion but at 12-20 the Vodafone Warriors definitely were back in the battle.
Another chance was in the offing when Mannering, playing his club record 262nd game, skipped into the open but traffic prevented him connecting with an unmarked Johnson on his inside.
Instead the Dragons went downfield the next set, hit a short side and centre Tim Lafai stepped inside off his left foot twice to score. Widdop's conversion opened up a 26-12 lead leaving the Vodafone Warriors with a steep hill to climb again.
They pressed through a couple of Johnson dabs and then his angled kick just eluded Fusitu'a as it went into touch in-goal.
A night which began disastrously with Foran's much-anticipated comeback being shelved was showing no sign of producing fruit despite plenty of effort.
And when the Vodafone Warriors had a shot on attack off a repeat set after a penalty another pass went down, their 17th error of the night. There would be 19 errors in total.
The performance was all the more disappointing on a night when the non-stop Mannering deserved so much more. Instead the Vodafone Warriors will return home tomorrow with yet another loss to the Dragons to reflect on before preparing for back-to-back home games against Gold Coast and Parramatta.
UOW Jubilee Oval, Sydney
St George Illawarra Dragons 26 (Paul Vaughan, Josh McCrone, Josh Dugan, Tim Lafai tries; Gareth Widdop 4 conversions, penalty).
Vodafone Warriors 12 (Issac Luke, Ken Maumalo tries; Shaun Johnson conversion, penalty).
Halftime: 20-8 Dragons.
Referees: Dave Munro and Chris Sutton.
Vodafone Warriors | Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c); David Fusitu'a, Blake Ayshford, Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo; Tuimoala Lolohea, Shaun Johnson; Charlie Gubb, Issac Luke, Jacob Lillyman; Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman; Simon Mannering. Interchange: Sam Lisone, Bunty Afoa, James Gavet, Ligi Sao.