Dragons fullback Matt Dufty.

The finals equation has got harder for St George Illawarra after Thursday night’s 16-14 loss to Melbourne but coach Paul McGregor was pleased about everything except the result as his depleted team just fell short of upsetting the NRL competition leaders.

With eight of their biggest stars missing, the Dragons matched Melbourne and only lost after a 75th minute Cameron Smith penalty goal.

“It was very brave. I am very proud of the players in the shed with their performance,” McGregor said.

“I don’t think the game deserved to finish the way it did, considering the effort both sides put in and especially my guys, with nine players out and on the end of a possession rate that wasn’t going their way. They found a lot in the second half at different stages so it is a small win within a loss.”

Particularly pleasing for McGregor was the performances of four players who each had less than 50 NRL matches to their name, fullback Matt Dufty (45), lock Blake Lawrie (29) and second-rowers Luciano Leilua (33) and Jacob Host (38).

Dufty ran 178 metres and made a line break, while Lawrie – the only running forward regularly in the St George Illawarra pack this season – carried the ball for 169 metres.

Leilua was a handful for the Storm defence and produced a number of offloads, including one which almost resulted in a try after Dufty raced into the clear before passing to fellow speedsters Jai Field.

“I think it is one of our best performance of the season on the effort areas and the bravery,” McGregor said. “That’s important for a lot of those players in the shed, a lot of them are early in their careers and some of them are later in their careers and looking for a contract for next year.

“For me as a coach it is hard to wear the loss because of the importance of the time of the year but if you get that type of effort shown and bravery shown and resilience shown at different times, you are okay with that.

“The outcome is not what you want but the performance is there. There are probably five guys there are in their third year in the system and when we needed a little bit more we got a little bit more.”

McGregor was frustrated by the game-deciding penalty against Host for “escorting” Melbourne fullback Jahrome Hughes away from the ball as Dufty fielded a kick.

However, he said the Dragons players will take a lot of confidence from their performance without the likes of Gareth Widdop, Tyson Frizell, James Graham, Corey Norman, Ben Hunt, Paul Vaughan and Tariq Sims.

“We are not getting any luck but sometimes that’s rugby league,” McGregor said. “You’ve got to earn your own and it has been one of those tormenting years but it is what it is and we’ve still got nine games to go.

“We had nine of our regular 13 out and just got beat by a penalty goal by the Storm, who obviously had six out as well, on the back of at times no possession.

“We wanted to win and we need to win, and we didn’t get the result we wanted on the scoreboard and on the ladder but you can only go out there and perform to your ability and effort and they certainly did that tonight.”