Dragons 18 Sharks 10
Diving force ... Dragons hooker Mitch Rein dives over to score the first try of the match against Cronulla at WIN Stadium. Rein was also impressive in defence notching 48 tackles. Photo: Andy Zakeli
Don't be mistaken - it wasn't an afternoon when the Dragons finally executed their plans, it was far more significant than that.
For more than a year, since the midway point of last season, they've been a soulless team wandering aimlessly around the paddock.
Sharks are loathe to wake the Dragon
The Rugby League Match between St George Illawarra Dragons and the Cronulla Sharks at WIN Stadium, Wollongong on Sunday, July 15th, 2012. All pictures by Andy Zakeli. The Dragons won 18 - 10. Photo: Andy Zakeli
It might sound like an exaggeration, but we're talking about a side that left Wayne Bennett, arguably rugby league's greatest coach, mystified and lost for answers.
When they won the competition in 2010, it was their hunger and passion, which grew over years of heartache, that drove them to success.
They've since played like a team content and satisfied to live through past glory, but yesterday they proved there still is some fight left in the old dog. It's been a long time since we've seen Beau Scott play with such aggression, or Ben Creagh hit the defensive line with such venom.
Shattered ... Kyle Stanley of the Dragons suffers an injury and is taken from the field. Photo: Getty Images
It was their change in attitude that coincided with an invigorated display in attack, while maintaining their usually rock-solid defence.
''We had a goal where we wanted to defend well and maybe throw a bit more caution to the wind with the ball,'' skipper Ben Hornby said.
''The more it comes off, the more belief you get. You can't underestimate the belief factor in a game of rugby league. To be able to go out there and execute it … we weren't perfect today but we did enough things right to win the game.''
It didn't begin well for the Dragons, conceding a goal-line drop-out from the kick-off and losing five-eighth Kyle Stanley with a knee injury five minutes into the contest.
But hooker Mitch Rein sparked life into the home side in front of 18,292 fans at WIN Stadium, stepping his way through some feeble Cronulla defence to notch up the opening try of the afternoon.
The Sharks hit back through Wade Graham, who was inspirational for Cronulla despite a painful sternum injury, showing great strength to score the first of his two tries.
And just as it looked like Cronulla would head into the sheds with the ascendancy, a shocking pass from Todd Carney was scooped up by Brett Morris, who sprinted 70 metres downfield on the stroke of half-time to send the Dragons into the sheds up 12-4.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan described it as the turning point in the match. ''The try just before half-time was probably the nail in the coffin just before the end,'' he said.
''I know what Todd was looking for and when you've got top players like that who roll the dice, every now and again they're going to come up 'cat's eyes' [double ones].
''We respect he's put some tries on for us going down that edge and having that type of shape and rolling the dice, but that one didn't come off for him today. That was the difference.''
Probably the second most important moment of the match also involved Morris, who managed to get the ball out of his in-goal area despite a dozen Sharks defenders hellbent on pinning him down for a repeat set, bringing a halt to the Sharks' last-ditch effort to snatch victory.
''To get out of the in-goal there when they were penetrating our defensive line, I thought that was a massive play in the game,'' Dragons coach Steve Price said.
The Dragons produced 19 offloads for the game, and showed plenty of zest in attack despite only scoring three tries.
They came into the game as the worst attacking team in the competition, based on points scored, and it was obvious they were keen to add some unpredictability to their game.
''The last couple of weeks we've actually been moving the ball quite well,'' Price said. ''Our last couple of weeks have been positive in terms of an offensive point of view. You saw some really encouraging signs there this afternoon, and it's only going to get better.''
ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA 18 (TMerrin, B Morris, M Rein tries; C Stanley 3 goals) bt CRONULLA 10 (W Graham 2 tries; T Carney goal) at WIN Stadium. Referees: Adam Devcich, Ashley Klein. Crowd: 18,282.
FIVE THINGS WE LEARNT FROM YESTERDAY'S GAME
1. St George Illawarra aren’t dead — yet. The Dragons proved they haven’t given up on the finals after overcoming the loss of five-eighth Jamie Soward before the game, his replacement Kyle Stanley after just six minutes and fill-in Nathan Fien late in the match to secure a desperately needed win. However, they face the Rabbitohs, Storm, Cowboys and Warriors in their last seven matches.
2. Wade Graham is finally starting to fulfil his potential. It shows how highly Shane Flanagan thinks of Graham that he has appointed the 21-year-old as captain in the absence of Paul Gallen and Jeremy Smith. Graham has been tipped as a star since making his NRL debut as a 17-year-old at Penrith but the added responsibility and his move into the back row have helped him come of age.
3. Brett Morris is the game’s No.1 winger. The only specialist winger in Origin III, Morris vindicated Steve Price’s decision to move him from the fullback role he has occupied for much of this season with a performance in which he ran 225 metres from 19 carries of the ball and made six tackle breaks. Besides a 75-metre try on half-time, Morris came with a big play when he beat four defenders to force his way out of the in-goal late in the match.
4. Price is trying to build a siege mentality among the Dragons players. The Dragons coach admitted as much with his comments to open the post-match press conference. ‘‘You always hear a lot of bad press about our footy club but anyway, we know what works.’’ Price didn’t detail any specific examples, and no one in the media could think of any, but when asked if the Dragons fed off that, he said: ‘‘We certainly do, definitely.’’
5. It is just as well the game didn’t go to golden point. With power problems at WIN Stadium, the match would have finished in darkness had it gone any longer as there were no lights, and the Herald was told the Dragons and Sharks would not have been able to play had the game been scheduled at night. At the start of the game, there was no big screen, the video referee didn’t have access to replays and radio commentators were calling the action on their mobile phones.