Benji baits Sharks as Dragons belt wounded Cronulla

Benji Marshall came back to haunt the club he spurned - while also helping Josh Dugan mount a compelling case for a NSW recall - as a slumping Dragons piled on the pain for an injury-ravaged Sharks.

Having rejected the overtures of the Sharks after his mid-season switch from rugby union, Marshall sparked an out-of-sorts St George Illawarra to a 30-0 belting of their fierce rivals at WIN Stadium on Saturday night.

Yet even the Dragons $1.1 million man knew this wasn't worthy of any tickertape occasion.

There were no animated celebrations, exaggerated back-slapping or eye-catching theatrics after having a hand in five of six tries in his first home game in the Red V. He merely spun away from one pinpoint pass which sent Dugan crashing over for one of a hat-trick of tries as his teammates converged on the tryscorer.

Speaking of which, Laurie Daley might be forced into a last-minute re-think for his NSW right-hand edge after Dugan's impressive audition. Seeking to fill one of the two spots vacated by the injured Morris twins, Dugan toyed with an inexperienced Sharks in only his second game at centre.

Marshall directly laid on all three of Dugan's tries - twice via hand and one a deft second-half kick - as he threw his hat into the ring to help NSW end Queensland's eight-year Origin dynasty.

Benji Marshall races downfield in the Dragons' 30-0 rout of the Sharks. Picture: CHRISTOPHER CHAN

Benji Marshall races downfield in the Dragons' 30-0 rout of the Sharks. Picture: CHRISTOPHER CHAN

"It would mean the world," Dugan said of a NSW recall, while claiming he saw his long-term future at centre. "It's something you strive for as a player to be the best at your game and to get picked in the side. You want to be on that big stage and play in that rep game.

"I haven't [spoken to Laurie], but I haven't hurt my chances. There are things I can keep improving on and that's what I'll work on."

Dragons coach Paul McGregor, who chalked up his first win as an NRL head coach, said he thought Dugan was ready for a sky blue jumper at ANZ Stadium in less than a fortnight - and would tell Daley as much if he asked.

McGregor will still run the water for the Blues during game two, but that will be his only commitment as NSW bunker down in camp at Coffs Harbour again.

Said McGregor: "He certainly didn't do himself any harm, did he? Last week everyone was saying he's miles off and tonight he's had a good game and he's close.

"The good thing - and I've said it all along - is he wants to play there. If a person wants to play there in a position he's going to play good. He's a footballer and he just likes challenges. When you put a challenge in front of Duges he wants to compete. From making five tackles a game to making 20 plus two weeks in a row and being effective ... it's a hard thing to do."

Dugan's polish on the end of a tradesmanlike Dragons performance at least helped St George Illawarra end a horror period in which they'd lost seven of their last eight matches. And provided them with a glimmer of hope before a testing trip to take on Jamie Soward's high-flying Penrith next week.

It was also the first time the Dragons have kept a side scoreless since round 8 in 2011 - long before the Steve Price era had dawned - and provided a huge confidence booster for Marshall.

"Expectation has probably been from the fans more than the media," Marshall said. "That's just part of it. When you've been at the top of the game for a while you're expected to be back there straight away.

"It's one thing thinking you can play how you've played before, but putting it out on the field when you haven't had that feeling of the defensive line when it's coming at you.

"In rugby I had to throw a lot of league stuff away and play a lot earlier and in the last couple of weeks I didn't threaten the line enough, but tonight I tried to get tackled a bit and commit people and it seemed to help."

Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Todd Carney, Andrew Fifita, Jeff Robson were all sitting in the stands - and that was only the start of the Sharks' injury crisis. And Marshall let them know what they had missed out on by failing to get his signature.

He had a hand in all four of the Dragons' first-half tries, including a double to Dugan as well as a first Dragons try for Peter Mata'utia and a late effort to Gerard Beale.

From then on there was only ever one team in the contest as a brittle Sharks helped the Dragons halt a season thought to be in freefall.

"We just want to be healthy and that has been our sole aim for the last three weeks," Cronulla coach Peter Sharp said. "Let's draw in the sand and let's try and play some good positive footy for the last 10 weeks.

"That will put everyone in a better frame of mind. We had 10 or 11 top-line players out today and that is a fair chunk of your squad."

One of the Sharks' stop-gaps, Daniel Holdsworth, fumbled the ball from the first kick-off and his second touch wasn't much better, failing to grasp a crossfield kick. The visitors were only let off the hook when Joel Thompson's 100th game celebrations were spoiled when a Widdop forward pass was called back as the back-rower charged over.

Beale completed the rout after Widdop, not to be outdone, kicked and regathered himself before freakishly tossing the ball to Beale who dived over.

ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS 30 (Josh Dugan 3, Gerard Beale 2, Peter Mata'utia tries; Gareth Widdop 3 goals) defeated CRONULLA SHARKS 0 at WIN Stadium. Referees: Gavin Badger, Chris James. Crowd: 12,079.


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