Rabbitohs 16 d Dragons 10
St George Illawarra's run of six straight wins ground to a halt on Monday night when they were overrun 16-10 by the Rabbitohs in front of 13,126 fans at ANZ Stadium.
The Dragons led 10-6 at the break but were made to pay for some uncharacteristically poor defensive reads early in the second half to suffer their first loss in seven outings.
Adam Reynolds made his long-awaited return for Souths and appeared slightly off the pace in the first half before springing to life in the second to provide the direction the Rabbitohs had sorely missed in his three-game absence. John Sutton’s return from injury was not so successful, lasting just 18 minutes after he copped an accidental finger to the eye from Dragons prop Mike Cooper. He didn’t return in the second half.
In a surprise move coach Michael Maguire also gave young-gun Cameron McInnes a start at hooker leaving Issac Luke - who this week announced he would depart the club at season’s end to join the Warriors - relegated to the bench and forced to wait 30 minutes to see any action.
Josh Dugan came into the match under an injury cloud but showed no ill-effects from the leg problem that kept him off the training paddock for the bulk of the week.
He did no harm to his State of Origin selection prospects despite the loss and must now surely have one hand on the Blues No 1 jumper. Coach Paul McGrgeor suggested as much post-match.
"I wouldn't have anyone else there myself," McGregor said.
"He's been in that environment before and come away with man of the match's in the arena so it'a no-brainer for me. He was brilliant tonight. He only did some light running on Friday and the captain's run [on Sunday] and put in a really good performance coming back from wearing an Australian jumper. It's a credit to him."
Dugan's performance aside McGregor conceded his side didn't do enough with their opportunities in the first half in which they dominated field position.
"We had some chances especially in the first half and I felt we should have come away with another try in that first period," he said.
"In the second period we didn't have much ball. I think we had our third set at around the 20-minute mark after [Luke] Keary took that ball from the field of play into the in-goal. They had five sets on us after that and came up with points. I thought we defended pretty well there but we just got left on the ground a bit too much. We won't lose any admirers the way we played. We competed really well against the premiers who were at their hungriest and their most desperate. We had our chances in the last ten minutes but we probably used up too much gas in the first 20 minutes of the second half but I'm very proud of our guys."
Both sides traded penalty goals in the opening exchanges to lock the scores at 2-all after 10 minutes but it was the Dragons who looked more dangerous with the ball.
They hit the front when Peter Mata’utia, who was shifted to the wing to accomodate Dugan’s return, sliced through some flimsy defence with Gareth Widdop backing up on the inside to score and extend the lead to 6-2 midway through the half. The Rabbitohs drew level at 6-all through rookie Aaron Gray just six minutes from the break.
The scores looked likely to remain locked at the interval before Benji Marshall found Jason Nightingale with a beautiful cut-out ball one minute before half time to give the away side a four-point buffer at 10-6 heading into the break.
The Rabbitohs started the second half strongly with Gray scoring eight minutes after the resumption and Reynolds’ sideline conversion taking the lead at 12-10.
The Dragons were unlucky to be on the wrong end of a questionable call from video referee Steve Clark after Luke Keary appeared to spill a kick from Widdop in his own in-goal.
A penalty in the ensuing set marched the Rabbitohs up the field and they were handed a golden opportunity to extend their advantage minutes later when Mata’utia spilled the ball just metres from his own line.
He was made to pay for the error when Alex Johnston darted past him to score in the right-hand corner, taking the score to 16-10 with 22 minutes to play.