St George Illawarra have set up a blockbuster final NRL round after upsetting Penrith 16-14 at Pepper Stadium on Sunday.
The equation is simple for the Dragons – beat Canterbury next Sunday night and jump from ninth into the top eight.
With the Panthers to meet Manly on Saturday, the Dragons are then guaranteed to play finals.
After a rollercoaster season in which they led the competition after seven rounds before losing 10 of their next 15 games, the Dragons are still alive.
They shook off the distraction of representative star Josh Dugan being dropped for disciplinary reasons – he was a late withdrawal after missing the team bus – to hold on against the Panthers, with skipper Gareth Widdop outstanding in the clutch.
The Dragons, Panthers, Manly and North Queensland – who play Brisbane on Thursday night – all face potential sudden-death match-ups in round 26.
“How important is it? It’s the most important one,” coach Paul McGregor said.
“The key to making finals is taking it into our own hands. We’ve just got to make it happen.
“We’re capable of doing it and I’ve seen this team grow in all areas of the game and today was another example.”
McGregor said he hasn’t ruled out keeping Dugan in NRL exile for next week’s must-win clash with Canterbury.
“Next week’s next week,” he said.
“Let’s worry about celebrating tonight.”
McGregor’s call was as gutsy as they come considering the Dragons’ position going into the match.
After Manly beat the Warriors in golden point, a loss would have made the Saints just the third side in 22 years to miss the finals after leading the competition at the end of the seventh round.
But McGregor said it was a decision that had to be made.
“Discipline is important to our footy team and on game day especially,” he said.
“If you want to drive standards and disciplines it doesn’t matter what round it is, or what’s on offer.
“It’s what the club needs, and our club needed to make a statement whether it be Josh or any other player in the side.”
Dugan drove himself to the ground, but by then McGregor had already made his call.
Manly seal the deal in golden point win over Warriors
The Warriors blew a seven-point lead with seven minutes remaining to lose what seemed like a guaranteed two points against Manly at Mt Smart Stadium.
Manly scored through Tom Trbojevic before Daly Cherry-Evans booted two field goals – including an under-pressure left-footer in golden point – to snatch the vital win.
On Saturday, Michael Gordon booted a clutch penalty conversion as the Sydney Roosters held off a Cronulla fightback to win 16-14.
The Roosters overcame the sin-binning of Luke Keary in the final nine minutes to move ahead of Brisbane into second.
Melbourne obliterated South Sydney 64-6 as the minor premiers made a bold statement to the rest of the competition one week out from the finals.
Gold Coast failed to fire up following the sacking of coach Neil Henry as they were beaten 26-14 by Canterbury.
The injury-ravaged North Queensland continue to fight hard and kept their top eight hopes alive with a 22-14 win over the Wests Tigers on Friday.
A Jordan Rapana hat-trick fired Canberra to a 46-28 victory over the last-placed Newcastle.
Brisbane’s premiership campaign hit the rocks following their 52-34 flogging at the hands of Parramatta on Thursday with prop Korbin Sims suffering a season-ending broken arm.