St George Illawarra has booked its place in the finals with a thrilling 32-30 golden-point win after a gutsy fight back by Wests Tigers.
The Tigers scored 22 points in the last 16 minutes of regulation to reach extra time but, in the final minute of the first period, out-of-favour skipper Robbie Farah was penalised for failing to mark up and Josh Dugan landed a penalty from directly in front to hand the Tigers a heartbreaking loss.
Tigers half-back Luke Brooks had opened the scoring with an intercept try in the second minute but the Dragons responded with tries to Josh Dugan, Eto Nabuli, Euan Aitken and Tyson Frizell to take a 20-8 half-time lead.
Jason Nightingale and Aitken extended it to 30-8 before Pat Richards and Aaron Woods, who had not scored for the Tigers all season, touched down to put the Tigers within 12 points.
James Tedesco crossed with three minutes left on the clock before Dragons half-back Drew Hutchison threw an ill-advised pass in the 79th minute that was intercepted by David Nofoaluma, who ran 90 metres to score under the posts, with Richards’ conversion locking scores at 30.
But Farah gave away the decisive penalty in what was probably his last NRL play for the Tigers and the Dragons’ win set up a clash with Melbourne or Cronulla in the first week of the finals.
The Dragons, who have missed the finals for the past three seasons, needed the win on Saturday evening to guarantee a top-eight finish and, in doing so, ended Manly’s hopes of a post-season push.
The Sea Eagles were a slim chance of leapfrogging the Dragons had the Red V lost to the Tigers but, regardless of the result against the Sharks on Sunday, Manly will miss the play-offs for the first time since 2004.
Elsewhere, North Queensland tuned up for the finals with a 42-12 mauling of the Gold Coast Titans.
The game was in the balance with the Cowboys leading 20-12 midway through the second half on Saturday night before hooker Jake Granville sparked his side to five more tries to put the Titans away.
His effort in the 67th minute showcased the No.9’s skills.
He darted out of dummy half, grubbered ahead and then batted the ball just before it went dead, crashing into the 1300SMILES Stadium signage just as Antonio Winterstein was grounding the ball.
Granville then put the icing on the cake with a try of his own three minutes later, while late tries to James Tamou and Kane Linnett sealed the rout.
The win could have been much greater had the Cowboys not missed six goals through the boot of skipper Johnathan Thurston, Kyle Feldt and Ethan Lowe.