Interim St George Illawarra coach Ryan Carr will be sweating on Ben Hunt making it through Origin I unscathed, with a listless Dragons slumping to a 26-12 loss to the Dolphins in the absence of their skipper on Thursday night.
Less than seven days on from an emotional victory in the wake of former coach Anthony Griffin's sacking, the Dolphins ran in three tries in six minutes midway through the opening stanza, the third immediately following the sin-binning of stand-in captain Jack de Belin.
The visitors couldn't make a game of it from there, despite pegging the margin back on the stroke of halftime, with Hunt's absence glaring as his side made eight second half errors without posing any threat with the ball.
Carr will benefit from his first long turnaround heading into the Dragons next outing against the Panthers at Penrith Sunday week, with Hunt likely available should he come through Wednesday's Origin series opener in Adelaide.
Hunt will wear the No. 9 for the Maroons, but will surely return to the halves at club level, with Jacob Liddle's performance out of dummy-half likely to leave Carr facing a tough call on either Jayden Sullivan or Talatau Amone should he elect to back his skipper up.
Drip-fed action under Griffin, Liddle played an unbroken 73 minutes at dummy-half, making 53 tackles and laying on Toby Couchman's 39th minute try that gave his side a sniff at halftime.
It was more of a mixed evening for young halves Sullivan and Amone. The latter was denied the opening try by the bunker, and subsequently laid on his side's first for Jack Bird with a neat grubber, but was far too easily brushed aside by Anthony Milford en route to the try-line midway through the first half.
He wasn't alone in that regard, with Mark Nicholls' try minutes earlier also coming through brittle on-line defence from the visitors.
Sullivan did the bulk of the kicking, and made a lone line break with one of seven runs, but struggled with his side on the backfoot for all but the opening quarter of the match.
De Belin was also placed on report for the cannonball tackle on Dolphins lock Ray Stone 12 minutes before halftime, the acting skipper having been warned for a similar effort a set earlier in the lead-up to Nicholls' try.
He was penalised by on-field referee Adam Gee, with the bunker intervening and determining the shot worthy of being marched. It will be for the match review committee to determine whether it warrants further time on the sideline.
"To be honest, it happened pretty quickly there," de Belin said.
"I can't really remember, but I didn't think I went in too hard or too low with bad intent so I was pretty shocked, in all honesty, to be sin-binned.
"I suppose that's the way the game's going so you've got to live with it. That was disappointing on my end, you don't want to leave the team out there with 12 men. I was super disappointed that.
"Credit to the Dolphins, they just kicked to the corner, built pressure and, by the time we got the ball back, we were pretty zapped of energy. At the same time, our execution and discipline just just wasn't good enough. We hurt ourselves in that sense."
It was the most costly of five straight penalties that saw the hosts post three tries to overhaul an early 6-0 deficit and lead by 12 in the space of seven minutes. Milford proved the chief destroyer, laying on Jamayne Isaako's try with a pinpoint kick and scoring himself from close range.
By the time de Belin returned to the field, the Dolphins had enjoyed 12 of 13 sets with the football and could have piled on more points had they not made four errors of their own.
It allowed the Dragons to hit back through Couchman just 49 seconds before the break, Liddle putting the rookie forward across from close range to cut the margin back to what was a flattering six points at the half.
The Dragons opened the scoring through Zac Lomax when Jeremy Marshall-King felled Sullivan as he kicked, the type of collision fast becoming an automatic whistle.
It cost the hosts a penalty goal, with the margin quickly extended when Liddle sliced through from mid-field and found Tyrell Sloan looming in support. He was grassed by the cover, with Amone crossing from the ensuing play-the-ball.
The try was taken off him by the bunker, with replays showing Kenny Bromwich doing just enough to complete a tackle on Amone before the youngster's second dig at the line.
It was a mere stay of proceedings, with Amone threading through a neat grubber two tackles later for Bird to grab the opening try. Lomax's attempt at the extras was waved away, keeping the margin at six after seven minutes.
An error from Lomax compounded by Sloan putting a line dropout well out on the full put the hosts back on the front foot. Another repeat set allowed Isaako to hit back for the Dolphins when he plucked a well-placed Mliford bomb out of Mat Feagai's arm for the home-side's first four-pointer.
De Belin was pinged for a ruck infringement in the next set, marching the Dolphins up the park for Mark Nicholls try from close range. Isaako made no mistake off the tee, taking a six-point lead with 13 minutes before the break.
De Belin was placed on report in the following set, and was subsequently sin-binned to reduce his side to 12 men with 12 minutes to play before halftime.
Milford breezed through a flimsy attempted tackle from Amone to cross in the corner and extend the margin to 10 in the blink of an eye.
The Dragons did well not to concede further points, and more than that found a late hit back through Couchman, who punched across from a short ball from Liddle just 49 seconds before halftime.
They strangled the Dragons out of it from there, making just two errors through the entire 40 minutes and kicking their way to victory in a match played almost exclusively at the visitors' end.
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