Jamie Soward puts the boot in after Panthers beat Dragons: photos

PANTHERS 18 DRAGONS 14

Jamie Soward kept the guns in the holsters, but the Panthers only need to reach for so much ammunition these days. Something's different at the foot of the mountains this year.

Even when they're only fair, like against a spirited St George Illawarra on Saturday night, it's more than often still enough for the NRL's most unlikely table toppers.

Not even Jason Nightingale's 79th-minute try, which set up a grandstand finish, could spoil Ivan Cleary's night as they squeaked home for a fifth straight win.

More solid than spectacular, Soward's first clash with the club he led to a premiership in 2010 and then divorced last year, had the only thing that mattered to him - a win. Yet try telling Dragons coach Paul McGregor his struggling side didn't have a "win" of their own.

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"Sometimes you lose, but you win," McGregor said. "Half our salary cap is at home sitting on the lounge with rep duty and injuries. I thought some of the football we displayed was really good attacking footy. I thought sometimes you lose, but you win and I thought we had a win tonight.

"When I started all I said is I wanted improvement week to week. That's the best game we've played this year. We've just got to make sure we back it up next week."

Unfortunately for Soward's new legion of fans, there were no gun-toting try celebrations. Instead there was a bit of push and shove with Dragons English brute Mike Cooper, who no doubt was incensed Soward had the gall to handle twice in the lead-up to Josh Mansour's second-half try which put the visitors to bed.

His boot was flawless as always. Three conversions from as many attempts, including two from the touchline in the first half, proved the difference in the end after both sides finished with three tries.

Put simply, Soward doesn't need to be the conductor any more. He just fits into the orchestra, pulls a few strings when he needs to, and the rest of the men in black sing off the same hymn sheet.

As for the Dragons? The man who is perhaps St George Illawarra's new headline grabber, Benji Marshall, seemed like everything had to be about the conductor.

"Probably the intensity of the game got to him tonight," McGregor said. "It got to a few of us. The speed it was played at and when you're playing against a team that's running first, it was much harder than what Benji's been involved this year.

"I'm the lucky man to be coaching a player of his talent. If you see Benji Marshall at training and what he's like in there now he's got a real will to do well."

They had their chances, but the Dragons couldn't quite claw back a second-half deficit.

And there was hope too. Adam Quinlan's miraculous around-the-corner pass to send Nightingale darting over for the first of a second-half double cut the margin to two points. That would be as close as they would get, consigning them to the bottom four for another week before a testing trip to the Gold Coast.

They still haven't beaten a side inside the top eight this year with their five victories coming against the Warriors (twice), Sharks (twice) and Tigers.

"When I first took over we needed to win eight from 14," McGregor said. "We won last week and lost this week. Each week we reassess it. We've broken the season up as a group and we know where we're at."

For all the hype about Soward's reunion with his St George Illawarra teammates, it was a lesser-known former Dragon who stole the show in the first half.

New Zealand international Dean Whare, who spent time in the Dragons' lower grade system, bagged a first-half double as the table-topping Panthers quickly built an early buffer against the struggling St George Illawarra.

Soward converted both tries from the touchline, the second one via a deflection off the inside of the upright.

Frizell added to the Dragons' availability woes, limping off with an ankle injury after 13 minutes and not returning. It only added to McGregor's strain as he rues the loss of Trent Merrin and Josh Dugan to State of Origin duty, while Brett Morris, Dylan Farrell, Jack Stockwell and Dan Hunt remain on the injured list.

And they all knew what Soward was going to be capable of.

"There's no doubt when you play your old club, it's there," Cleary said. "Familiar faces, and I guess with Jamie's case, it was highly publicised, a lot of talk about that.

"But to his credit, I didn't really see too much different in terms of how he prepared for the game. Obviously had it been there it would've been a bit of an issue, but I thought his performance tonight was pretty solid and he came up with a couple of crucial plays and touches in the try for us in the second half. His goalkicking was excellent as well."

PENRITH PANTHERS 18 (Dean Whare 2, Josh Mansour tries; Jamie Soward 3 goals) defeatedST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS 14 (Jason Nightingale 2, Charly Runciman tries; Gareth Widdop goal) at Sportingbet Stadium. Referee: Ashley Klein, Adam Gee. Crowd: 13,768.

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