IT was an unlikely comeback sparked by the unlikeliest of heroes, but St George Illawarra held off a fast finishing Cowboys outfit remain at at the top of the NRL ladder with a tense 28 -22 victory over North Queensland at WIN Stadium on Saturday night.
With Cowboys skipper Jonathan Thurston watching on from the sideline, makeshift five-eighth John Asiata produced an inspired second-half performance, laying on two of the visitors three second half tries in the space of 10 minutes to cut a 24-8 halftime deficit to just six with 15 minutes to play.
It wasn’t enough to steal a late victory but it was certainly a humbling second 40 minutes for the Dragons who didn’t look like adding to their halftime tally, and had to scramble down the stretch to prevent an embarrassing loss.
Coach Paul McGregor was an animated figure in the coach’s box throughout the second stanza but was measured in his response post-match.
“I think it's good learning for us. We haven't been in that position, to be in front by that scoreline [at halftime],’ McGregor said.
“Obviously the first 40, we played some really good footy, defended strong on the back of that created opportunities, scored points.
“In the second half we had a 5-1 penalty count discipline-wise, certainly collectively we didn't do anything together with our defence which created opportunities for the opposition and a bit of space.
“I thought our intent was good, I just don't think collectively we did it together, we went one out a little bit too much with the footy when we had it and without it we didn't control any of the tackles. We let three tries in off kicks which is not good enough.
“I think every game you got something to grow with and I think this game, certainly we got something to come out of it. This competition’s pretty tough so we'll take the two points and we'll learn from what we done right and we'll certainly improve on what we done wrong.”
The Cowboys resurgence came after a first half demolition led by in-form skipper Gareth Widdop who scored a try and laid on a double for Tim Lafai after Nene MacDonald opened the scoring in the eighth minute.
Widdop finished the opening half with 12 points, converting his own try that came from some great lead-up work from Russell Packer as the hosts took a handy 24-point buffer into into the break.
The Cowboys could only manage Gideon Gela-Mosby’s 12th minute four pointer in response, completing just five of 12 sets in the opening stanza and missed a staggering 22 tackles to the Dragons eight.
The ledger turned dramatically in the second half, with the Dragons making seven errors and conceding five penalties to one to invite the visitors back into the contest.
Ben Spina scored first before Asiata put Morgan across untouched with a deft short-ball in the 62nd minute and provided the bomb for Scott Bolton to score just two minutes later to get the visitors within six with 15 minutes to play.
They peppered the Dragons line throughout the final 10 minutes but couldn’t find an equaliser with Cowboys coach Paul Green was left ruing a disastrous start.
“I don’t think Jono [Thurston] would’ve made much difference in that first half,’ Green said.
“That 20-minute period at back end of the first half, we just switched right off there on both sides of the footy and the game got away from us
“Defensively we were off, we made some really basic errors in our own half and just put ourselves under a lit of pressure. They got a couple of tries back to back which took us a bit to recover from and we just played the game down our end far too much in that first half.”