DRAGONS 27 COWBOYS 24
Much-maligned following his mid-season return to rugby league, Benji Marshall returned as an NRL force as the Dragons edged out North Queensland 27-24 at Kogarah on Saturday night.
The Dragons were widely criticised for reviving Marshall's NRL career after his failed stint in rugby union but, in the absence of regular go-to man Josh Dugan, the former Kiwi test captain showed enough class touches in the tight victory to suggest he may prove the key to the Dragons' finals charge.
A freakish banana kick to produce a try for Adam Quinlan midway through first half was the highlight of an otherwise measured performance from Marshall in a win that could see the Dragons in the top-eight when they return from their round 18 bye.
His halves partner Gareth Widdop was also outstanding, laying on the Dragons' first try and sealing the win with a field goal four minutes from time.
The loss continued a dismal run away from Townsville for the Cowboys who, despite enjoying the bulk of possession for most of the match and leading 20-14 midway through the second half, couldn't seal the victory in the absence of skipper Jonathan Thurston.
Dragons coach Paul McGregor praised his side's effort on a short turnaround from their Monday night match with Melbourne.
"After Monday I thought when they needed to find something they did," McGregor said.
"We're four from our last five now and if we'd suggested that a month ago they would've laughed at us. It's a credit to guys and they've earned a week off this week."
McGregor has been Marshall's staunchest supporter since he joined the club and said his playmaker would be vital to the Dragons' finals aspirations.
"He's a very good player and a very good person and he showed his quality at [key] stages.
"He's been pushed into a side without much footy and he's strung six or seven games together.
"He's growing into that role which is a senior players role and it's what this team needs."
The Cowboys began the match strongly when Tautau Moga celebrated his return to the NRL with a beautiful flick pass to lay on the opening try for Antonio Winterstein, after seven minutes.
Referee Gavin Badger sent the try upstairs with replays showing Winterstein had grounded the ball before grazing the sideline with his knee, giving the visitors an early 4-0 lead.
The Dragons hit straight back minutes later when Widdop found Charly Runciman with a lofted cut-out ball on the left edge to level the score at 4-all.
A well-weighted kick from Marshall forced a line dropout on the Dragons next set with Adam Quinlan producing a deft round the corner ball for Jason Nightingale to finish in the corner and extend the lead to 8-4.
The Cowboys gifted the home side another set from the kickoff with Tariq Sims penalised for an overzealous effort on Dragons skipper Ben Creagh.
The Dragons marched up the field and earned another repeat set on the back of a grubber from Marshall.
In a throw-back to the form that once saw him regarded as the game's best, Marshall produced a freakish banana kick that bounced perfectly for Quinlan under the posts in the 25th minute to extend the lead 14-4.
With the game slipping away the Cowboys managed to hit back on the stroke of halftime when Michael Morgan caught the Dragons short on the right edge with a long ball for Winterstein to score his second.
Ethan Lowe's sideline conversion cut the Dragons' lead to 14-10 at halftime.
The Cowboys kicked ahead five minutes into the second half when Tariq Sims charged onto a Robert Lui pass to barge over from close range and take the lead at 16-14.
The Cowboys looked certain to score minutes later only for Winterstein to fumble a poor pass from Moga with try line beckoning.
Marshall swooped on the loose ball and took off up field but a Dragons turnover gave possession back to Cowboys who made them pay on the next set when Lui engineered an over lap on the right edge to allow Curtis Rona to extend the lead to 20-14.
Michael Morgan looked certain to extend the lead minutes later when he regathered his own clever grubber kick close to the Dragons' line, but video referee Chris Ward confirmed he had lost control in grounding the ball.
The error proved costly with 18 minutes to play when Marshall turned Peter Mata'utia into space with Nightingale on hand to collect the off-load and draw his side level at 20-all.
The Cowboys were gifted an opportunity to re-take the lead with 10 to play when Quinlan inexplicably speared a pass intended for Runciman into the second row of the grandstand putting his side under immense pressure.
With the go-ahead try beckoning, centre Kane Linnet spilled a pass from Lui allowing Gerard Beale to swoop and run 90 metres up field before he was run down by Rona.
It proved the decisive play with Marshall linking with Mata'utia two rucks later to allow Nightingale to complete his hat-trick in the right corner.
Widdop's sideline conversion gave the Dragons a 26-20 lead with six minutes remaining.
Widdop sealed the victory with a field goal from 20 metres out with four minutes on the clock.
Jason Taumalolo scored a late try for the Cowboys to cut the margin to three but with only 15 seconds left on the clock it was too late to affect the result.