Bronson Xerri scored his first NRL hat-trick as Cronulla confirmed their finals credentials with a 22-9 defeat of an undermanned St George Illawarra outfit that has left the Dragons facing an injury crisis as they head into the State of Origin period.
The Dragons were reduced to just one man on the interchange bench for the entire second half of the WIN Stadium clash after losing forwards Tyson Frizell (concussion) and James Graham and centre Tim Lafai (both ankle) in the opening 40 minutes.
Lafai limped from the field in the 18th minute and Frizell joined him on the sidelines in the 35th minute after a sickening head clash with former team-mate Josh Dugan, while Graham was unable to return after halftime.
The injuries forced St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor into a reshuffle of his line-up, while his NSW counterpart Brad Fittler was left sweating on the availability of Frizell for the opening State of Origin at Suncorp Stadium on June 5.
Second-rower Jacob Host spent 62 minutes at left centre, while fellow interchange forward Luciano Leilua saw 54 minutes of action and back-up hooker Reece Robson played 53 minutes at lock.
Match: Dragons v Sharks
Round 11 -
Venue: WIN Stadium, Wollongong
Already without the services of captain Gareth Widdop (shoulder), five-eighth Corey Norman (cheekbone), lock Jack de Belin (stood down) and interchange forward Jeremy Latimore (knee), the Dragons are set to be hit harder by Origin selections.
Halfback Ben Hunt, whose kicking game was one of the bright spots for St George Illawarra on Sunday, is expected to be selected at hooker for Queensland, while Frizell, prop Paul Vaughan and second-rower Tyson Frizell were members of last year's winning NSW squad.
The Sharks welcomed Matt Moylan back for the derby clash with St George Illawarra and should be a formidable force when prop Aaron Woods (foot), back rower Wade Graham (knee) and five-eighth Shaun Johnson (knee) return in coming weeks after advancing to sixth position on the Telstra Premiership ladder.
Moylan's first touch in his return from a hamstring injury that had sidelined him for six weeks was a fumble backwards from a Hunt kick in the opening set of the game but the class of the former Origin star was evident with his next involvement as he laid on a try for Xerri.
The teenage speedster crossed in the eighth minute after Moylan chimed into the backline to create an overlap for Dugan and Xerri on the right edge to give the Sharks a 6-2 lead after Jai Field had landed a penalty goal for St George Illawarra.
The Dragons were denied try scoring opportunities when fullback Zac Lomax outleapt Moylan for a Hunt bomb on the Cronulla line but he was tackled just short by Dugan and Hunt lost the ball over the line after breaking through the defence.
However, the home side was finally rewarded for their persistence when hooker Cameron McInnes dived over from dummy half in the 32nd minute after the Sharks defence had repelled a charging run by second-rower Leilua on the previous tackle.
Frizell taken from the field following head clash
Cronulla winger Sosaia Feki had an opportunity to put his side back in front just minutes later but he had a foot on the touchline when he caught a pass from Kyle Flanagan with the try line wide open.
Flanagan levelled the scores at 8-8 with a 38th minute penalty goal but Hunt claimed back the lead with the first field goal in his 223-match career as the halftime siren sounded.
With Graham, Lafai and Frizell in the medical room after halftime, the Dragons were on the back foot and Flanagan took advantage with a long kick for second-rower Kurt Capewell to outpace Jordan Pereira before scooping up the ball to put Xerri over for his second try in the 45th minute.
When Pereira lost the ball 20 metres out from his own line in the 58th minute, it was St George Illawarra's seventh error since the half time break and the Sharks capitalised on the glut of possession with another try to Xerri to take a 16-9 lead. Blayke Brailey touched down on an attacking grubber in the final seconds to seal the win.