England five-eighth Gareth Widdop demonstrated why St George Illawarra had paid big money to sign him by spearheading the Dragons to a 44-24 defeat of Wests Tigers in his first appearance for the club.
Widdop, who was one of a host of new faces in the St George Illawarra line-up, had a hand in four of his side's seven tries and kicked eight goals as the wooden spoon favourites came from behind to overpower the injury-hit Tigers.
Dragons burn Wests Tigers
Gareth Widdop inspires St George Illawarra to a convincing 44-24 victory over the Wests Tigers on Sunday afternoon.
While the Dragons were missing NSW Origin fullback Josh Dugan (knee) and lost halfback Michael Witt (shoulder) during the game, the Tigers were without Keith Galloway, Tim Moltzen, Dene Halatau, Curtis Sironen, Tim Simona, David Nofoaluma and Mitchell Moses.
They also lost ball-playing backrower Liam Fulton with concussion after a collision with team-mate James Tedesco midway through the first half that enabled St George Illawarra captain Ben Creagh to capitalise on the overlap.
Before Creagh's 24th minute try, the Tigers had led 18-6 and looked set for a good start to the season after veteran winger Pat Richards scored with his first touch of the ball in the NRL since he left the club in 2006.
Tedesco laid on the try for Richards and the Tigers fullback showed he is now completely over the knee injury that marred his NRL debut in the opening round of the 2012 season when he raced through the middle of the Dragons defence to score a 60-metre try after Brett Morris lost the ball in a Martin Taupau tackle.
Tyson Frizzell forced his way over for the Dragons first try in the 14th minute but when Wests skipper Robbie Farah got the ball down five minutes later the Dragons appeared set for a long afternoon.
However, the game turned when Tedesco's knee collected Fulton's head as the pair attempted to charge down a Witt kick and the Dragons spread the ball wide for Creagh to score in the corner.
When centre Gerard Beale scored in the same place in the 32nd minute, the home side had levelled the scores at 18-18 and a Widdop penalty goal on halftime gave St George Illawarra the lead for the first time.
The Tigers never recovered after the interval as the Dragons mounted their highest score under beseiged coach Steve Price.
Targeting the defence of rookie halfback Luke Brooks, St George Illawarra ran in another four tries in the second half, but despite the scoreline they only sealed victory when hooker Mitch Rein dived over from dummy half in the 65th minute.
Before then, the two teams had traded tries, with Witt extending St George Illawarra's lead in the 43rd minute after a jinking, stepping run that must have had Wests fans pining for the days when Benji Marshall did the same for their team.
A try by Taupau five minutes later put the Tigers within two points of the Dragons before Widdop put Frizzell over for his second try in the 60th minute.
ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA 44 (T Frizell 2 G Beale B Creagh A Quinlan M Rein M Witt tries G Widdop 8 goals) bt WESTS TIGERS 24 (R Farah P Richards M Taupau J Tedesco tries P Richards 4 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Referee: Ashley Klein, Adam Gee. Crowd: 19,860.