RABBITOHS 26 DRAGONS 6
Bemused Dragons coach Steve Price and skipper Ben Creagh have questioned how their side could be so penalised after South Sydney stormed out of an early-season rut.
St George Illawarra copped a caning in the penalty count - and on the scoreboard - as the Bunnies eased to a 26-6 win over the Dragons at SCG on Saturday night.
Creagh waged a running battle with the officials all night - in particular Gavin Badger - even resorting to confronting the primary referee as the teams headed for the sheds at half-time.
The hosts eventually succumbed 11-6 in the penalty stakes - which read 8-1 at one stage - a tally which went a long way to explaining the lopsided scoreline.
While refusing to go over the top of his criticism of the refereeing, a measured Price made it clear he was none too happy with the mountain of defending his side was forced to do.
"It was a 7-1 penalty count in the first 40 minutes and I definitely thought there were parts of our discipline which let us down and I didn't understand a couple of those other penalties," Price said.
"We were up in the box with Sports Ears and there was over 30 times the second marker was called not square. Penalise him. Our discipline over the first four rounds as a footy club has been pretty good. And there were times where we deserved it. And there were times where it was a bit tough out there."
To compound the Dragons' misery, international wingers Brett Morris (shoulder charge) and Jason Nightingale (high tackle) were both placed on report for second-half offences.
Creagh was a little more animated than his coach in the press conference, describing his teammates as "confused" over the reasons for the litany of penalties.
"A lot of the boys were confused at times with the penalties we were giving away," he said. "They were looking back at me and saying, 'go and ask what this is about' because they thought they were unfairly penalised.
"It's hard, too, when the captain can't speak to referees and get an explanation. I've just got to wait there until there's a stoppage in play. At times I had to wait until a try is scored.
"We were playing against a good side and were on the back foot the whole first half. And when the penalties were given the referees were getting us back 12 to 13 metres."
The Dragons' brains trust were particularly seething over a disallowed Josh Dugan try in the first half as the video referees ruled Dugan hadn't regained control of the ball while grounding it.
Souths marched up the other end of the field and scored on the next set through Jason Clark, which padded their lead to 14 at half-time.
"A big turning point was the Josh Dugan disallowed try," Price said after Dugan fielded a Gareth Widdop banana kick and wrestled three defenders over the line. "It clearly showed he had two hands on the ball when he grounded it."
The result consigned the early table toppers to back-to-back losses after coasting through the first three rounds of the season unbeaten.
Next up? A task no less daunting with the Storm waiting for them in Melbourne.
Souths' win was a welcome relief for Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire, who has been forced to deny rumours of a rift in the playing group after the premiership heavyweights plunged to surprise losses against Manly, Wests Tigers and Canberra.
And John Sutton's record-breaking appearance, in which he eclipsed Bob McCarthy's mark (211) for most caps for the Rabbitohs, added a little more cause for celebration.
If only Nathan Merritt could have crossed in one of two gilt-edged opportunities to break the club's try-scoring mark then it would have been a real red letter night for the pride of the league.
"The way they got around each other during the week and the way we worked hard during that period allowed us to get that performance," Maguire said.
The Burgess brothers tormented the Red V in the Charity Shield and again provided the Dragons with headaches, both Luke and Sam crashing over for tries close to the line after sustained periods of possession.
In truth, the Dragons were never really in the contest after trailing 14-0 at the break despite several backs-to-the-wall defensive sets. And most of those came in the opening quarter of the match.
It needed an Adam Reynolds penalty goal to end a drab opening 20 minutes, leaving the main first half talking point to be the officiating.
So infuriated with the 7-1 penalty count at half-time, the normally mild-mannered Creagh admonished whistleblower Gavin Badger as the teams left for the sheds.
A visibly upset Creagh waved his arms and pointed directly at Badger, an exchange a little more theatrical than the one the pair engaged in when the Dragons were penalised for a sixth time only 15 minutes earlier.
"It's unbelievable," Creagh remonstrated with Badger over the 6-1 count at the time, to which the referee snapped back: "It's up to you to fix it."
The only joy for the Dragons came when Jack de Belin stormed over from a neat Mitch Rein pass seven minutes from the end, sandwiched in between two second-half tries.
Coach Steve Price, as expected, demoted Michael Witt to the NSW Cup and handed utility Adam Quinlan the starting halfback spot. Quinlan became the third No 7 used by Price in the first five rounds.
SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS 26 (Luke Burgess, Jason Clark, Sam Burgess, Greg Inglis tries; Adam Reynolds 4 goals) defeated ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS 6 (Jack de Belin try; Gareth Widdop goal) at SCG. Referee: Gavin Badger, Alan Shortall. Crowd: 24,368.