By Mary Maidiotis
The St George Illawarra Dragons have defeated the Wests Tigers 32-30 in extra-time at ANZ Stadium, Olympic Park on Saturday.
The Red-and-Whites secured the two valuable competition points to earn a final series berth, following an intense golden-point battle.
Head Coach Paul McGregor was forced to make an early change to the line-up announce mid-week following five-eighth Gareth Widdop’s failure to overcome a corked thigh injury during the final training session on Friday.
Fellow Dragons’ five-eighth Drew Hutchison was subsequently named to partner halfback Benji Marshall in the halves, making his third first-grade appearance of the season.
Additionally, George Rose celebrated his 150th first-grade appearance after being named on the interchange bench alongside fellow props Ben Creagh and Jack de Belin, as well as second-rower Nathan Green.
Unfortunately, despite these changes, the visitors opened the scoring in just the second minute as halfback Luke Brooks latched onto an intercept and proved too quick for fullback Josh Dugan.
The Australian international redeemed himself four minutes later after managing to duck and weave his way through several opposition markers to notch the opening try for the home-side.
The hosts continued to apply pressure down the left flank and managed to breach the opposition defence for the second time in the game as winger Eto Nabuli demonstrated his skill under the high-ball to score in the ninth minute.
Dugan converted to put his side 10-4 in the lead.
Red V centre Euan Aitken ensured the home-side would build on their momentum as he burrowed himself over in the right corner on the mark of the first quarter.
Tigers’ winger Pat Richards held onto a cut-out pass and blitzed down the sideline to put the ball down in the corner and reduce the gap to a converted try, twelve minutes out from half-time.
The Dragons extended their lead, with seven minutes left before the half-time siren, as second-rower Tyson Frizell exploited a gap in the opposition defence and went over to score.
Dugan converted with ease to make it 20 points to eight.
The hosts were first to strike on return from the break as a Benji Marshall cut-through grubber was pounced on by winger Jason Nightingale in the right corner.
The Red-and-Whites found a chance to increase the gap as Aitken bagged a double when he crashed over in the corner, with a quarter remaining before the final siren.
Dugan slotted the conversion to put his side up 30-8.
The visitors sought to put themselves back in contention as Richards caught the defence off-guard and made a burst down the sideline, subsequently crossing the white line.
Tigers second-rower Aaron Woods maintained the pressure on the home-side, ploughing over underneath the posts and handing Richards an easy conversion with ten minutes remaining.
Fullback James Tedesco kept the Tigers’ hopes alive when he made a break in the 77th minute and scored slightly to the right of the posts, allowing for an easy conversion to make it 30-24 in the final moments.
The scores were levelled30-all with one minute before the siren when visiting winger David Nofoaluma intercepted a Hutchison pass and ran sixty metres to score under the posts.
Richards slotted the goal to send the game into extra time.
The Red-and-Whites were awarded a penalty in front of the posts, 15 metres out for an offside call in the fifth minute of extra time.
Dugan sliced the penalty goal to hand his side the lead, 32-30.
St George Illawarra Dragons 32. Tries: Aitken (2), Dugan, Nabuli, Frizell, Nightingale. Goals: Dugan (3/6). Penalty Goals: Dugan (1/1).
Wests Tigers 30. Tries: Richards (2), Brooks, Woods, Tedesco, Nofoaluma. Goals: Richards (3/6).