Dragons grind way back into top four

HOW GOOD: Dragons players celebrate Luciano Leilua's try in their win over the Tigers on Saturday. Picture. AAP Image
HOW GOOD: Dragons players celebrate Luciano Leilua's try in their win over the Tigers on Saturday. Picture. AAP Image

ONLY the coldest of hearts couldn't find sympathy for Dragons halfback Ben Hunt when he spilled the second-half kickoff cold against the Tigers on Saturday night.

You'd need a heart of pure cold hard stone to not feel for him when he was dispatched to the sin-bin 12 minutes later – the fourth Dragons player to earn a 10-minute spell in their past five outings.

Luckily his teammates found something for their No. 7, proving they had his back in eking out a 20-10 win that sees them climb back into the top four after Penrith's limp display against Newcastle hours earlier.

The win didn't see an end to the poor habits that have plagued  Paul McGregor's men through their recent slump – making five errors and conceding six straight penalties in the opening 20 minutes alone.

The Tigers helped them out on that score, spilling the ball inside the Dragons 20-metre zone on no less than five occasions in the opening 24 minutes.

They also took a page out if the Dragons book, conceding four straight penalties in the final 15 minutes of the opening stanza and finished the match with 15 errors.

It allowed Jordan Pereira to claim the only try of the first half to lead 6-0 at halftime against the run of play. Hunt paid the price for his side's ill-discipline in the second half but, Luciano Leilua – who also laid on Pereira's four-pointer – provided the telling moment with a solo try with 18 minutes to play.

It gave his side a 14-6 lead before Tyson Frizell sealed the win with a determined try five minutes from time. It was enough to snap a three-game losing streak and put a top-four finish back within their grasp with two games to play.

After a week in which even his own job security was questioned, McGregor went as far as to label it the most satisfying win of his coaching career in the aftermath.

“It's been a different week so to get a nice result that we did, under the circumstances, I can nearly say it's the best win I've had as a coach since I've been at the club,” McGregor said.

“With the penalty count, we had one in the bin, they were playing for their season, the scrutiny that players and staff have been under, to come out and have the resolve we had today shows what we've built our year on since round one.

“It was about knowing what worked for us and getting back to that. We were very big on effort and pressure areas and tonight we found it again, and when we needed to find it, we found it more and more.

“It typified it how we played that first 20 minutes defending our try-line and forcing errors. We've still got a bit of discipline to pick up but, all year our vision's been team first, but our purpose has been top four.

“We've been out of it one week, and everyone came at us, so now it's about being disciplined around staying there for the rest of the year. We've got to back up what we dod today next week against Canterbury.”

Hunt has copped so much flak of late that his wife Bridget felt compelled to leap to his defence on social media earlier this week. The criticism's unlikely to quieten after another tough night for the Dragons’ six-million-dollar man, 

He put a kick out on the full and dropped the ball over the try-line after making a jinking run midway through the first 40, and his fumble of the second-half restart allowed Chris Lawrence to cross in the ensuing set to cut the Dragons 6-0 halftime lead back to two.

It only got worse when he was sent to the sin-bin 12 minutes later, with Esan Marsters nailing the penalty goal to draw his side level at 6-0. Returning to steer his side home will mercifully take some sting out of the criticism, and McGregor emphatically backed his man despite the rough night.

"Ben's a part of our 17, he's our No. 7 and he'll always be a part of 17 while I'm coach,” McGregor said.

“He's in there next door and he's not happy with his performance but that's OK because he's got next week. I said through the week, if criticism wants to come to the team it should come to coach so leave my players alone.

“I understand the criticism because it goes with my role. The players get 80 minutes every week to go and protect their character. Benny will be out next week protecting his.”

Lafai re-took the lead with a penalty of his own after Marsters leveled up before Leilua, who's fast emerging as the Dragons most lethal attacking weapon, brushed off Benji Marshall and Michael Chee Kam to score in the 63rd minute.

Lafai converted for a 14-6 lead with 14 minutes to play. Frizell's try sealed the result with Kevin Naiqama's 78th minute consolation try coming with most of the Tigers faithful already heading for the exits.