Six weeks ago it may have been encouraging but, with their finals hopes hanging by a thread, St George Illawarra's 24-18 loss to Cronulla on Saturday proved just another nail in their finals coffin.
Like they did against the Cowboys for 60 minutes last week, the Dragons proved a worthy opponent for a side on the path to a top-four finish, but it was a case of too little, too late with their top-eight hopes buried under a six-point defeat.
After trailing 18-6 at halftime, the Dragons bucked a trend of second-half fade-outs to score two tries to one in the second stanza and go desperately close to a third to force golden point before time ran out.
It leaves them two wins adrift of the eighth-placed Roosters heading into a next week's tough road trip to Canberra where a loss would definitively end their campaign.
The loss may yet be soured further, with Tariq Sims having possibly played his last game in the Red V after he was sin-binned for a high shot that left Sharks flyer Connor Tracey prone on the deck just 11 minutes into the contest.
Sims was perhaps fortunate not to be sent from the field for the shot that, while clearly accidental, saw Tracey treated for several minutes before being stretchered off.
Sims followed close behind showing great concern for his fallen opponent, but is sure to cop some charge for the shot that could spell the end of his time in Wollongong.
The 32-year-old was sin-binned twice in his side's round-17 loss to Brisbane and was subsequently hit with two charges, including a grade-two careless high tackle charge that saw him rubbed out for one match with an early guilty plea.
With only four games remaining, and with the Dragons knocked out of the finals running with the loss, a charge of comparable grading as a third offence could end the Melbourne-bound veteran's time with his junior club - one he admittedly never wanted to leave.
Sims' departure will continue a dramatic roster turnover since Anthony Griffin took the coaching reins, though it frees up little room in the club's cap to recruit its way out of the doldrums next season.
Attention will turn to the retention of marquee man Ben Hunt beyond next season, but there's no escaping the fact the skipper's superb individual form has not lifted his side's fortunes, with the Dragons having reached the finals just once in the five years since he joined the club in 2018.
The Sharks looked on the path to an easy victory when Nicho Hynes crossed just three minutes in, while Sims looked to have taken his side's chances with him to the sheds with the score locked at six apiece.
Stand-in five-eighth Braydon Trindall scored a try and laid on another filling in for the injured Matt Moylan, but Blayke Brailey's sin-binning 90 seconds before halftime served to keep the Dragons in it as the hosts made seven first-half errors.
Craig Fitzgibbon's side looked even more out of sorts in the second, requiring an error on kick reception from Dragons young gun Tyrell Sloan for their only four-pointer of the second stanza.
It gave the home side an eight-point cushion with 15 minutes remaining only for the Dragons to mount a rear-guard action with 77th minute penalty goal to Zac Lomax.
It cut the margin back to a converted try the Dragons went desperately close to managing only for the clock to beat them.
"It was a tough one. I was really happy with our effort and proud of the way we kept coming and putting ourselves into the game, particularly after halftime where they were way on top," Griffin said post-match.
"Our execution both sides of the ball in the second half, just at times, cost us dearly. Over the last three weeks we've played some really good football apart from probably 15 minutes against the Cowboys at the back end of last week.
"It's frustrating because we've played three really good sides and put ourselves in a position to win every game [but haven't].
"It's hard to swallow. We gave everything, but we just didn't execute, [not] catching kicks and then when we had our chances in good ball we were a little clunky at times."
Griffin wasn't drawn on whether it spelled the end of his side's finals charge, but admitted it's a steep climb.
"It's tough now but there's only one game that matters now and that's next Sunday [against Canberra]," Griffin said.
"We did a lot of things right to win that game [tonight] so we've just got to keep coming at it next Sunday."
The Dragons will be sweating on Sunday's charge sheet in regards to Sims but Griffin wasn't passing preliminary judgement.
"I'd have to have another look at it," Griffin said.
"Obviously it was something the referee thought warranted a sin-bin so we'll have a look at it. There's always a chance [of suspension] but I'll need another look."
The Sharks were on the board first through Hynes, who carried Sims and Molo across from close range for the opening try.
The Dragons hit back through Jack de Belin who was on hand to collect the scraps when Ronaldo Mulitalo spilled a well-placed bomb from Hunt.
Lomax converted to level the scores at six apiece after nine minutes. Sims shot on Tracey halted the match for several minutes before he was dispatched in the aftermath.
Mulitalo looked to have taken advantage when he crossed following a break from Graham, only to be called back for a forward pass.
There was no denying Trindall on the Sharks next trip up the park, the stand-in five-eighth breezing through some flimsy defence to cross for his side's second try.
Hynes converted for a 12-6 and the Dragons right edge defence issues continued with Teig Wilton scoring over the top of Amone off a short ball from Trindall.
The visitors crossed first in the second half, Tautau Moga finishing in the corner courtesy of a lofted pass from Amone.
Lomax nailed the sideline conversion to cut the margin back to six just five minutes after the resumption.
Lomax narrowly missed doing the same 10 minutes later after Mat Feagai crossed on the opposite side of the park after Hunt caught the Sharks short on the blind.
Clinging to a two-point lead and looking decidedly out of sorts, the hosts hit back through Wade Graham after Sloan spilled a Hynes bomb 10 metres out from his own line. Hynes converted for an eight-point cushion with 14 minutes to play.
Lomax cut the margin back to a single converted try with penalty goal in the 77th minute, and the Dragons went close to a leveller when Jack Bird swooped on a Hunt bomb to secure possession for one last tilt.
It ended with Moses Mbye fumbling the ball at dummy-half and handing possession back to the hosts as time ran out.
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Sports writer. Sport is my passion, rugby league my first love.
Sports writer. Sport is my passion, rugby league my first love.
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