ST GEORGE Illawarra’s finals charge is back on in earnest after a stunning first-half display en route to a 52-22 win over Manly at WIN Stadium on Sunday.
On a day where defence took a back seat, the Dragons produced a near perfect opening stanza, piling on five tries to lead by 30 at the half.
It came on the back of Gareth Widdop masterclass with the Dragons skipper laying on two tries, scoring one of his own and kicking a perfect five from five for a personal haul of 14 points at the interval.
The buffer quickly evaporated with the Sea Eagles piling on four tries in the 14 minutes after the resumption before the hosts regrouped and saw out just their fourth win in their past 11 games.
It made for some nervous moments but coach Paul McGregor was pleased with his side’s effort in wresting back momentum.
“We’ve just got to learn to slow down and pull it back a little bit and re-group quicker when something doesn’t go our way,” Dragons coach Paul McGregor said of the Eagles comeback.
“We won the first half quite comfortably and we drew the second. I said to the boys are our best is ‘the best’ and our worst is ‘the worst’ so we’ve just got to close that gap in between and just a bit of self-belief at times.
“Sometimes when the score-line’s like that you can take your foot off the accelerator a touch and back off and that may have happened.
“I’m just excited about winning again and to put 50 points on any team is exceptional. We said last week we wanted to build on our performances going into the back-end of the year with everyone back. It was certainly a good sign today.”
Matt Dufty also debuted at fullback after Josh Dugan was scratched on Friday with a hamstring injury and, in a potential look to the future, had two try assists and a late try in strong first-up display.
“He’s the third guy that came through our 20s system to debut this year,” McGregor said.
“We had lot of experience there today so it was a good time to make his debut at home. He showed what he’s got, he’s got the ability to burn people with speed and he’s got a really nice to catch and pass.
“He’s strength is a little bit deceptive as well. Because he’s got that speed to get away from people so I thought it was a good solid debut.”
Both sides had some pre-game disruptions, with Manly coach Trent Barrett “resting” five-eighth Blake Green and prop Brenton Lawrence, while the Dragons lost Joel Thompson to an ankle injury in the warm-up.
It saw Jacob Host start the match and Blake Lawrie brought onto the bench a day after playing with the Steelers at Penrith on Saturday.
It did nothing to disrupt their rhythm, with the hosts shooting out of the blocks, completing 20 of 22 sets and running for a combined 1126 metres by the break.
It was a sluggish start from the visitors that coach Trent Barrett labeled “embarrassing” in the aftermath.
“With that score-line it was an NYC standard game,” Barrett said.
“30-0 [in the first half], 22-all [in the second] that’s just not up to scratch. We were down on troops but that’s no excuse to be down 30-0 at halftime.
“It was a gallant effort to get back within eight points. It would’ve been a miraculous win to come home from there, and we put ourselves in a position to do it, but it doesn’t make it easier for me to sit here and watch that.
“I’m embarrassed, the players are embarrassed. I’m accountable to it just as much as the players and we’ve got to fix it because we’ve got to go to Melbourne next week.”
Nightingale opened the scoring in the eight minute after Manly defence gave him free passage on a Josh McCrone kick with Widdop’s conversion giving his side an early 6-0 lead.
Nightingale had an air-swing at a Widdop kick on his next attempt but Tim Lafai was on hand for the scraps and the second try of the afternoon.
Widdop nailed the sideline conversion to extend the lead to 12 after 16 minutes and pushed it out to 18 when he latched onto a Cherry Evans pass and raced 80 metres to score.
The lead swelled further when Nene Macdonald batted down a kick from McCrone for Euan Aitken to cross in the western corner.
Widdop was in the action again when he put Jacob Host across from close range to extend the margin to 30.
The Sea Eagles drew first blood after the resumption through Dylan Walker to peg back the margin.
Darcy Lussick’s sin-binning for punching Jack de Belin took the sting out of their momentum but it swung back quickly when brother Joey crossed from dummy-half to cut the margin back to 18.
The game was well and truly back on when Jackson Hastings crossed from close range minutes later and the Dragons advantage had all but evaporated when Akuila Uate plucked a Cherry Evan kick out of the air for his side’s fourth try.
Paul Vaughan re-took the ascendancy for his side, stemming the flow of Manly points with a try from close range to push margin back out to 14 with 20 minutes to play.
Nightingale scored his second with an assist from Dufty to take his side’s tally to 40 and when Aitken also notched his double the Dragons had their highest score for the season.
Dufty rounded out the scoring late in the match for a final score of 52-22.