ST GEORGE Illawarra’s finals hopes are hanging by a thread after slipping to a 24-12 loss to Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night.
It was their 10th straight loss in Brisbane and their sixth in their past nine games, leaving them needing to win both their remaining clashes against the Panthers and Bulldogs to book a finals date.
It was a gallant performance that could well have been encouraging for Dragons fans were it not for their precarious position on the ladder that could see them four points adrift of the top eight should other round 23 results go against them.
Broncos five-eighth Anthony Milford proved their chief tormentor, scoring a try and having a hand in three others, though his two from five off the tee was all that kept the Dragons alive deep into the match.
The Dragons went with Broncos early but had little to show for it with Josh Dugan spilling the ball twice in the opening nine minutes – the first gifting Alex Glenn the opening try and the second squandering a certain four-pointer at the other end.
He redeemed himself in laying on Paul Vaughan’s 17th minute try with a clever grubber coach Paul McGregor said the missed opportunities ultimately cost his side.
“It was a 10-point turn there when we dropped one and they scored and then we went up the other end and dropped one over the line,” McGregor said.
“Their broken field play was pretty good their late offloads were effective against us and their line-speed really put our attack under pressure.
“We didn’t start our sets where we needed to. They started a lot of their sets defensively where we were carrying the ball of out try line whereas we really didn’t put them under pressure in those early tackles.
“I thought our forwards were pretty good tonight, most of our missed tackles and ineffective tackles happened on our edges.
“There’s no better player in open field than Milford and he really hurts us. They were just too good tonight.”
If their horror record at Suncorp Stadium wasn’t enough, the visitors endured a nightmare preparation with the worst flu season in 15 years sweeping through the camp in the lead-up.
Hame Sele was a late withdrawal with the virus while Nene Macdonald (knee) and Tyson Frizell (ankle) both suffered injuries in Thursday’s captain’s run.
It saw Macdonald ruled out while Frizell again showed his warrior qualities to play out the match but it wasn’t enough to get his side over the line.
McGregor expects both to be available for next Sunday’s showdown with Penrith at Pepper Stadium that will have a huge impact on both sides finals prospects.
“We’ve got nine blokes in their crook, there’s no excuses but so their effort can’t be questioned,” McGregor said.
“We lost Nene at training and Friz limped off [on Thursday] but he played.
“[Macdonald] hurt it last week and we thought he’d be OK but then he was running around on Thursday like he had a pebble in his shoe.
“We sent him straight home to Sydney to get some treatment so we’re hoping he’ll be right. The nine day turn will help those guys and certainly help the guys that are crook at the moment.”
To make matters worse, centre Euan Aitken re-injured the shoulder that had kept him out of his side’s three previous games in the 79th minute which looks likely to end his season.
“I think he’ll have surgery,” McGregor said.
The Broncos were on the board early through Glenn who collected the scraps after Dugan fumbled a kick from Milford. Dugan looked certain to level up in the ninth minute only to spill the ball cold over the try-line.
Paul Vaughan hit back off the boot of Dugan taking a 6-4 lead after 17 minutes but undid his work with a mistake in the ensuing set opening the door for Milford to step his way across from close-range and re-take the lead 8-6.
Widdop put the kickoff dead on the full but a mistake from Milford at the other end gave the Dragons a brief reprieve before Dragons-bound Ben Hunt produced an inch-perfect kick for Jordan Kahu to cross out wide.
Milford broke his duck off the tee, extending the margin to eight six minutes before the break. The Dragons forced two repeat sets in the minutes before halftime but couldn’t put a dent in the deficit.
Glenn grabbed his double nine minutes after the resumption to give his side a 14-point buffer after Milford slotted the extras.
Tim Lafai pegged it back slightly when he scored off a fumble from Kahu with Widdop adding the extras the get back within eight with 22 minutes to play.
Corey Oates snuffed out any hope of a comeback with an incredible finish in the left-hand corner 12 minutes from fulltime.