On a day in which Wayne Bennett slipped through their fingers, St George-Illawarra showed they still have a way to go to become genuine finals contenders after going down 21-12 to competition leaders Manly at Kogarah on Monday night.
It was a brave but error-riddled performance from the Dragons who were twice made to pay for costly errors deep inside their own territory by a Manly outfit showing no signs of the internal unrest reportedly engulfing the club.
The loss came just hours after Brisbane announced that they had ripped 2010 premiership winning coach Bennett out from under the Dragons' nose with a lucrative three-year $4 million deal.
Fairfax Media reported on Monday that the Dragons were so confident they had their man, that talks had progressed on the makeup of the roster and coaching staff. However an 11th hour phone call from Bennett to News Corp boss - and longtime Broncos fan - Lachlan Murdoch clinched the deal between Brisbane and the seven-time premiership winner.
Chief executive Peter Doust confirmed that he was phoned by Bennett on Monday to explain his reasons for rejecting the Dragons' three-year $800,000 per season offer in favour of a return home to Brisbane in a move that opens the door for McGregor to take the full-time role next year.
McGregor was endorsed for the long-term role by Illawarra board member Sean O'Connor before to the match. If he was a contender prior to the announcment that the Broncos had lured their foundation coach home, then he must now be an odds-on favourite despite his side falling short against the competition leaders.
The Dragons face the the Tigers at ANZ Stadium on Sunday fresh off a 46-18 demolition of the Bulldogs ahead of matches against the Roosters, Panthers and the notoriously difficult 'hoodoo' away trip to Canberra in what shapes as a make or break month for both their finals ambitions and the long-term aspirations of the coach.
McGregor said after Monday night's match that he is yet to sit down with Doust and discuss his long-term future but said he was interested in a long-term role.
‘‘I really enjoy coaching this group and I'd like to continue coaching this group,’’ McGregor said.
‘‘The association needs to interview the best people for the job and if they see fit that I'm the best person for the job then they'll interview me in time.
‘‘At the moment they're doing their rounds and obviously Wayne was part of that. He's made his mind up now he's going back home.
‘‘All I can do is look after the group that I'm in control of right now and that's this footy team.
‘‘If I continue to do that and the results fall our way than they'll look at me as coach I suppose.’’
It was also a drama-filled day for the Sea Eagles with reports that star players Brett Stewart and Anthony Watmough had joined Steve Matai in requesting releases from their respective deals with the club.
They showed no ill-effects on the paddock with Stewart combining with Matai for the first try of the game and a 6-2 lead after Gareth Widdop opened the scoring with a penalty goal nine minutes into the first half.
The pair combined again in the 23rd minute with Stewart putting Matai away down the left flank with Keiran Foran on hand to collect a fumbled pass and score the Eagles second. On-field referee Gavin Badger sent the try upstairs to Ashley Klein who ruled an errant hand from Jason Nightingale had knocked the ball from Matai's grasp allowing Foran regather and extend the lead to 10-2.
The Dragons looked certain to cut the lead when livewire Adam Quinlan latched onto deflected Benji Marshall kick and produced a miracle over-head pass back to Nightingale who was denied by a desperate tackle from Matai.
The Eagles continued to mount pressure forcing two consecutive line dropouts allowing Tom Symonds, who replaced an injured Matai with 10 minutes left in the half, to cross in the left-hand corner only to be denied by video referee Klein who found an obstruction in the lead up.
After absorbing a barrage of pressure at the other end the Dragons hit back three minutes before halftime with Widdop laying on a try for halves partner Benji Marshall to cut the lead to 10-8 at the break.
The Dragons went desperately close to taking the lead eight minutes after the resumption when Josh Dugan grubbered into the Sea Eagles in-goal for Nightingale who beat Jorge Taufua to the ball but couldn't plant it, knocking it dead.
The Dragons handed Manly a golden opportunity to extend their lead after 53 minutes when Brett Morris, who was quiet in his return from a shoulder injury, put down a pass from Quinlan 10 metres out from the Dragons line.
Daly Cherry-Evans made them pay two rucks later with a beautiful ball for Symonds to score next to the posts and extend the lead to 16-8.
It got worse for the Dragons when Quinlan, faultless to that point, fumbled a high kick from Cherry-Evans to again hand the ball back to the Sea Eagles inside their own 10 metre zone.
Taufua scored from the ensuing scrum despite a valiant defensive effort from Nightingale but Jamie Lyon's wayward conversion attempt kept the home side in the match at 20-8.
Cherry-Evans put the game beyond reach with seven minutes remaining with a field-goal extend the lead to un-assailable 13 points at 21-8.
Nightingale scored a late consolation try with three minutes to play to add respectability to the score but it was too late to have an impact on the result.