FOR two groups of players who have been coached by Wayne Bennett, it was the bunch who had been with him longest which beat the latest - once again. The Knights will surely improve through this year and beyond, but right now the Dragons are better. They have shown that twice in the opening seven rounds.
The Dragons, holding their own under their new coach Steve Price, haven't quite shown the consistency that he would be commanding, but last night, at home, they responded to a poor performance in better fashion than their opponents did. They should have won by a far greater margin than they did.
The final execution will grate with Price, but the overall performance will not. Last week, against Cronulla, the Dragons' attack was limp, but they found their form with the ball in hand - at least in the first half - just in time to topple their former coach, who continued his problems against his former clubs.
Both teams, in fact, had been trying to right the wrongs of last week; the Dragons couldn't manage a point against Cronulla - the first time a Dragons or Illawarra side had done so against the Sharks since 1973 - while the Knights were poor despite a victory against hapless Parramatta.
The Knights still struggled to put points on the board last night, yet they were brave. A number of their players struggled through pain during the encoounter, namely centre Junior Sa'u and five-eighth Jarrod Mullen.
The latter certainly showed the required toughness in another State of Origin audition - this one against the Blues' incumbent five-eighth Jamie Soward - even if the game didn't flow his way.
Mullen was hurt very early on. Dragons prop Dan Hunt hit him hard after the five-eighth kicked, and Mullen fell awkwardly, jarring a leg. At that stage, the Dragons were looking more hungry, and appeared to be rewarded with an early try, but video referee Bernard Sutton denied Ben Creagh after the second-rower came down with Soward's kick, losing control as he did. The Knights responded, and did so with more success, swiftly transferring the ball through their back line to winger Akuila Uate, who rather easily dispensed with his opposite Daniel Vidot to score.
Another Knights player was next to score, but for the Dragons. Back-rower Beau Scott, who has signed to play with the Knights from next year, scored and the Dragons took the lead. It was the catalyst for them to really get going. After 22 minutes, the attack which has been missing for much of the season suddenly reappeared - Soward's netball pass put fullback Brett Morris through a hole, and he sent winger Jason Nightingale over.
Five minutes later the match could have been over, when Soward's bomb found grass after Uate's indecision. His subsequent push on Uate, just before the ball found its way to Vidot, was penalised.
Creagh could have had more tries than the Knights before the break. He stretched over two minutes before half-time but lost control again, far more obviously this time. The Dragons could have led by 18 points, but only did so by eight.
The Knights worried the Dragons after the break, but their night effectively ended when Zeb Taia's effort was denied due to obstruction.
Price now leads Bennett 2-0. Whatever happens now, he can look back on that fondly.
ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA 12 (J Nightingale B Scott tries J Soward 2 goals) bt NEWCASTLE 4 (A Uate try) at WIN Jubilee Oval. Referee: Jared Maxwell, Gavin Reynolds.