St George Illawarra threw away a shot at qualifying for the NRL finals, finishing ninth on the ladder after giving up a late lead to lose 26-20 to Canterbury.
The result means North Queensland sneak into the finals in eighth place, despite losing five of the last six games.
Paul McGregor’s men became just the third team since the top-eight system was introduced in 1995 to miss the finals after leading at the end of the seventh round.
“I’m gutted; absolutely shattered,” McGregor said. “It shouldn’t have come down to today but it did.
“We let a team that couldn’t score points put 26 on us. It’s not good enough.”
The Dragons appeared in control when Gareth Widdop slotted a penalty goal with 18 minutes remaining to lead 20-14 at ANZ Stadium. But the game was back level five minutes later when Will Hopoate broke downfield and put Aiden Tolman over.
Hooker Michael Lichaa then put the Bulldogs in the lead when he ducked and weaved his way over the tryline in the 73rd minute to give Canterbury a lead it never surrendered.
The off-contract rake had one of his best games during his three-year stint at Canterbury, and was particularly dangerous running the ball from dummy-half.
The Dragons tried valiantly to hit back in the last seven minutes but an inability to make last passes stick sealed their fate.
The Saints earlier worked their way back into the game after they trailed 14-6 late in the first half.
Winger Jason Nightingale narrowed the margin to two moments before the break, before fullback Matt Dufty lobbed up in support in the 54th minute to give the Dragons an 18-14 lead.
They also have the highest for-and-against (+83) of any team to miss the finals in the 2000s.
Josh Reynolds’ Canterbury farewell was short-lived after he injured his ankle in scoring the team’s opening try.
He limped from the field in the 18th minute, and did not return.
Hopoate was also good for the Bulldogs. He scored once and set up two others, and also held up Josh Dugan at a crucial moment midway through the second half.
The victory ensured the Bulldogs finish the season with three straight wins, and means Manly play Penrith and Cronulla face North Queensland in next week’s elimination final.
Sharks can make more NRL history, Flanagan says
Meanwhile, Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan is confident his team can defend its NRL crown from outside the top four.
The Sharks will face North Queensland in an elimination final at Allianz Stadium after toppling Newcastle by eight points in a meaningless final-round clash on Sunday.
No side has claimed back-to-back titles in a unified competition since Brisbane in 1992-93, while no team has lifted the trophy from fifth or lower in the NRL’s history.
But after watching his team famously break the club’s premiership drought last year, Flanagan has reason to believe the Sharks can etch their name in the record books again.
“It was different last year. It was a different feel. We’ve known for a couple of weeks so you get used it (that) we’re probably going to come fifth,” Flanagan said.
“We’ve got our best footy in front of us as a team and a club. We’re confident we can win three-four games, whatever it needs to be to get to a grand final.
“We’ve got to challenge ourselves to get that done now. Semi-finals is different. I feel I’ve got a semi-final team in there that’ll step up next week.”
On Sunday, despite racing out to an 18-0 lead, the Sharks were pushed all the way by Newcastle but eventually prevailed for a hard-fought second win in three weeks.
Skipper Paul Gallen was easily his team’s best, warming up for the business end of the season with a trademark 249 metres and seven offloads.
Knights forward Lachlan Fitzgibbon impressed with two tries, although he suffered a compound finger fracture in the second half and failed to return.
His efforts also weren’t enough to stop the Knights from finishing with their third straight wooden spoon.
Wests Tigers give departing stars a send off to remember
Meanwhile, Wests Tigers sent departing stars Aaron Woods and James Tedesco out as winners following a 28-16 victory over the Warriors.
Woods spearheaded a 12-point victory over the listless Warriors in front of 10,231 rowdy fans at Leichhardt Oval. He ran for 212 metres and made 39 tackles in a 73-minute effort ahead of his move to Canterbury next season.
The win allowed the joint-venture to end their tumultuous season, which included the sacking of coach Jason Taylor and the departure of half Mitchell Moses depart mid-year, on a high. They also jumped the Gold Coast into 14th spot on the ladder.
THE NRL FINALS FIXTURE
FRIDAY, September 8
Qualifying final: Sydney Roosters (2nd) v Brisbane (3rd) at Allianz Stadium, 7.55pm
SATURDAY, September 9
Qualifying final: Melbourne (1st) v Parramatta (4th) at AAMI Park, 4.10pm.
Elimination final: Manly (6th) v Penrith (7th) at Allianz Stadium, 7.40pm.
SUNDAY, September 10
Elimination final: Cronulla (5th) v North Queensland (8th) at Allianz Stadium, 4.10pm