Dragons in box seat for home final after gritty win over Newcastle

NICE: Dragons players celebrate Jeremy Latimore's try in their win over Newcastle on Saturday. Picture: AAP
NICE: Dragons players celebrate Jeremy Latimore's try in their win over Newcastle on Saturday. Picture: AAP

Can a single tackle turn a season? It remains to be seen, but Jordan Pereira's bone-rattler on Mitch Barnett in his side's 24-14 win over Newcastle on Saturday could prove that moment.

The shot, ironically on one of the NRL's noted hitmen, came midway through the second half with the Dragons trailing 10-8. His wing partner Nene Macdonald went 70 metres minutes later to take a 14-10 lead.

Pereira ultimately sealed the win with his 78th minute try after Matt Dufty gave his side a four-point buffer with a long range effort against the run of play with 12 minutes left on the clock.

They had to survive a late onslaught, and a bunker intervention to deny Barnett a go-ahead four-pointer five minutes from time, but Paul McGregor's men found enough desperation to see out the 80 minutes and earn a home final in week one of the post-season.

“It was good timing wasn't it?” McGregor said of Pereira's tackle post-match.

“He made the decision to come off the wing on the pass and made the right tackle at a really important time. That's one of the game-changers you have when you're short a couple of numbers and you come up with a play like that which is good for Jordy.

“It gives him good confidence going forward. There's some things in Nene's game that he'd like to have over again but it's a better game than he's had in the last couple of weeks.

“He certainly turned the game with that run so it's good timing going into next week for a few boys.” 

It will give the Dragons advantage against either the Warriors or Broncos depending on the result of the latter's clash with Manly on Sunday, with skipper Gareth Widdop set to return from a shoulder injury.

“If we'd won last week he would've played so he'll definitely be playing next week,” McGregor said.

“We'd lost our opportunity to be in the top four so we didn't want to play him today because of the position we would've finished regardless of the win or loss.”

It's unlikely the gritty more than pretty win will fully restore the faith of the fans who booed them of the park last week, but it gives them a sniff of a finals run after finding some part of their best in the final 20 minutes.

"We'll take the win [but] we did it the hard way,” McGregor said.

“We had no possession in the first half, no field position. It was just like the other eight weeks before it but we found a way today which was good.

“They had 46 play-the-balls in our 20, we had eight in theirs, so I thought our goal-line d was exceptional. To  man, the effort the energy and the intent across the board which was pleasing.

“We only missed 14 tackles and, with the amount of possession the opposition had, we made 400 tackles. We wanted to really get back to [being] a strong defensive side which we were for the first 15-16 rounds and we haven't been of late. Today was a part of that.

“Errors and penalties [were] not good enough, we need to learn from that. We've got to be better, there's no doubt about that, but next week's a different competition.It's knockout footy so both teams are level.

“We've beaten all teams that are in [the top eight] so why not?”.

McGregor had some early concerns, with Jack de Belin reeling out of collision just two minutes in and requiring running repairs on an injured ankle for most of the first half.

It didn't stop him scoring what looked like the opening try after a badly shanked kick from Ben Hunt deflected into the arms of Cam McInnes only for replays to show both were offside.

It kept the score at 2-0 after Zac Lomax grabbed his first NRL points with a seventh-minute penalty goal. The lead didn't last long with Ken Sio juggling a Cory Denniss flick pass before grounding it in the eastern corner.  Nick Meaney's attempted conversion was waved away keeping the score at 4-0 after 12 minutes.

Lomax was in the action again when he produced a miraculous one-handed grab of a bouncing Hunt grubber only to fumble the ball in an attempt to ground it, with the bunker ruling no try.

The rookie had a moment to forget 17 minutes before the break, driving his second penalty goal attempt into the upright after the Dragons elected to take the two in good attacking position.

The teenager's mixed afternoon continued when he spilled a flick pass from Dufty over the try-line five minutes before halftime.

He did the same at his own end in the next set opening the door for Shaun Kenny-Dowall's try off a well-placed kick from Mitchell Pearce, giving the hosts a 10-2 lead at the interval.

Jeremy Latimore took the momentum early in the second stanza, scoring a rare try from close range seven minutes after the resumption to cut the margin back to two with Lomax's conversion. 

Pereira produced his match-turning try-saver on Barnett to deny what looked like a certain try with Macdonald streaking away for a crucial four-pointer in the next set..

Lomax converted from the sideline for a 14-10 lead with 20 minutes to play before Hunt swooped on a loose ball and found Dufty for a long-range try to re-take the lead.

Barnett was denied what would have been the match-winning try five minutes from fulltime with replays showing Jack Cogger had fumbled a loose ball after Dufty spilled a spiral bomb from Pearce.

Ken Sio got his side back within four with nine minutes left before Pereira put the match to bed in the dying minutes.