The Dragons were unable to finish atop the South Sydney Rabbitohs in a back-and-forth affair at Cairns’ Barlow Park on Saturday afternoon with the hosts coming away 26-14 victors.
Rabbitohs ace Alex Johnston grabbed the first points of the encounter before the Dragons answered with a try to Mikaele Ravalawa midway through the opening period.
Campbell Graham scored in the early stages of the second half before Ben Hunt answered for the Dragons off a kick-off mistake.
The back-and-forth nature of the contest continued with Cody Walker and Tyrell Sloan trading tries before the Rabbitohs pulled away late with a second Johnston four-pointer.
Michael Molo was placed on report five minutes in after collecting Rabbitohs skipper Cameron Murray with a high shot coming out of trouble.
The first points of the contest came through Johnston who took in a Latrell Mitchell cut-out and went over untouched in the left corner off the back of a Taane Milne break.
Isaiah Tass was denied a try moments later after a Walker cut-out was ruled to have travelled forward in the lead-up.
An incorrect dropout gave the Rabbitohs an opportunity to add a gift two points and extend their lead to 8-0 just shy of the first quarter mark.
The Dragons regained possession off the corresponding restart, however, with the kick-off bouncing into touch and they took full advantage off the scrum with Moses Suli shoving away from Tass and sending Ravalawa over in the right corner to continue his hot try-scoring form.
Toby Couchman joined twin brother Ryan on the field 17 minutes prior to the break for their first taste of NRL action alongside each other before Damien Cook was placed on report for a dangerous throw on Blake Lawrie.
Junior Amone nearly scored off a deft chip and chase but was tackled without the ball just short of the line.
Walker was placed on report in the aftermath for an apparent hip drop on Sloan as he surged towards the try-line.
Max and Mathew Feagai embarked on a fifth-tackle short-side raid just shy of the break but had it thwarted by a desperate Latrell Mitchell cover effort as the Rabbitohs took an 8-4 lead into the intermission.
The Dragons made a successful captain’s challenge in the opening set of the second half after Ryan Couchman was ruled to have lost the ball on-field but replays showed that the 19-year-old remained in possession of it.
A Dragons error put the Rabbitohs on the attack early in the second period with Walker sending Graham through a hole to score off the corresponding scrum.
An error off the kick-off put the Dragons back on the attack and the side took to the challenge with Hunt steaming through to gather an Amone grubber and put the ball down underneath the sticks.
The Dragons skipper kicked his first goal in over eight years to convert his own try and cut the deficit back down to four.
A Rabbitohs forward pass put the visitors back on the attack with Billy Burns threatening to tie proceedings off a Hunt kick but being unable to snare it.
Instead, the Rabbitohs answered through Walker who was the beneficiary of a Latrell Mitchell aerial effort and miraculous offload as the lead improved back to double digits despite replays seemingly showing the duo to be in front of the kicker.
Ryan Couchman was taken from the field with 25 minutes remaining for a head injury assessment which he was able to pass.
A Rabbitohs error saw Mathew Feagai scoop the ball up one-handed and take off downfield before finding Sloan with a ball inside to push the Red V back into strong field position.
Sloan got his name onto the scoresheet off the back of it grounding a Hunt grubber just shy of the dead ball line to cut the deficit to a half dozen.
The Dragons fullback again injected himself into the game off a midfield Hunt chip and went close to regaining his own subsequent chip if not for a desperate Johnston cover effort.
Johnston backed up his defensive work with his second try off the back of it with the Rabbitohs winger finishing off a back-and-forth with centre Tass from inside their own half.
Lachlan Ilias appeared to have wrestled his way over the line late for the Rabbitohs’ fifth try but the video officials ruled that he was unable to ground the ball before Tass was denied another late try due to a forward pass.