Ben Hunt's "captain's knock" earned him high praise from coach Anthony Griffin as St George Illawarra registered their first win for 2021 with a 25-18 win over the Cowboys at Queensland Country Bank Stadium.
Hunt, who has so often borne the brunt in the past for the team's missed opportunities, stepped into the light on Saturday with two try assists, three line break assists and a line break himself.
That was when he scored a fine individual try in the 53rd minute which became the turning point separating the sides by seven points.
"I was really pleased for him to get his first win being the captain. He got that try for us to go ahead again – it was a typical captain’s try. He took the line on and did it himself," Griffin said, who was also celebrating his first win as St George Illawarra coach.
Since hooker Andrew McCullough arrived in Wollongong last month, the former Bronco has reignited his relationship with Hunt and also another former Bronco in Corey Norman.
Match: Cowboys v Dragons
Round 2 -
Venue: Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
Hunt and Norman have been paired at the Dragons since 2019 but seemed to blossom anew on Saturday night.
"They just helped each other. That’s what you expect them to do too. They’ve both got a lot of experience so you want them in tight games like that to get you over the line," Griffin said.
"I thought their kicking game was great. Corey, for his first hit-out [after his round-one suspension], was really good. They had some nice touches together. We’re just got to get more football and more combination out of them.
Feldt placed on report for Bird tackle
"[Ben] is a really tough competitor. Tonight some of his big plays in defence were enormous. It was a really good captain’s knock. They all played for each other and he led that."
It was McCullough who delivered the pass close to the line for Hunt to dazzle defenders and score.
Not that the Cowboys were standing around with hands on hips. Only one point separated the two teams for the majority of the second half.
Entertaining bursts early from visiting speedsters Cody Ramsey and Matt Dufty, as well as Valentine Holmes and Scott Drinkwater for the home side gave a hint this game was always going to be on a knife-edge.
Amid the end-to-end football was some controversy with Kyle Feldt being placed on report for a lifting tackle on Jack Bird, which many thought was sin-bin worthy.
It was the Dragons' night. They made six line breaks to the Cowboys’ one, complemented by 34 tackle-busts and 15 offloads to underline the win.
After four clubs slugged it out in sodden grounds around Sydney in the two earlier Saturday games, Coen Hess showed what a dry track can do by scoring in the second minute to put the Cowboys in front early.
Eight minutes later, brilliant lead-up work by Hunt had winger Mikaele Ravalawa over in the corner with Zac Lomax landing the conversion.
It ended up being a slim 13-6 lead to the visitors at half-time. Norman executed a long-range field goal seconds before the break.
Holmes brought the home crowd to its feet early in the second half retrieving his own grubber to score under the posts and make it a one-point ball game.
From there, tit-for-tat tries to Hunt, then Jake Granville made it 19-18. Lomax responded for the Dragons and it was enough to hang on in the humid conditions.
Griffin praised his side defensively as they only let in one line break - Granville jumping out from dummy-half.
"We scrambled well and controlled the ruck and I thought our defence took another step tonight," he said.
"A few weeks ago we got it terribly wrong at Mudgee [Charity Shield] but we’ve been gradually getting better. I thought we were really good tonight on their key players."