St George Illawarra showed it is the team to beat in the NRL after posting a convincing 34-14 win over the Melbourne Storm at Jubilee Oval on Sunday.
The table-topping Dragons entered the much-anticipated clash against the reigning premiers with seven wins from eight matches this season but faced a red-hot Storm outfit which had scored 21 tries in its past three matches.
And even though Storm flyer Josh Addo-Carr bagged a hat-trick, the Dragons, led by Origin hopefuls Cameron McInnes and Euan Aitken, were simply too good, particularly after the break.
Craig Bellamy’s team, which was uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball, controlled the last 25 minutes of the first half but failed to erase St George Illawarra’s early lead.
That proved costly as Timoteo Lafai and Aitken – for his second – crossed in the second half, while the excellent Gareth Widdop booted five penalties and four conversions.
“They’re the benchmark and we know now we’ve got some work to do,” Bellamy said.
“They are the benchmark, without a doubt … we had a lot of ball there late in the first half and they defended their goalline a lot better than we did.
“They’ve been playing great footy all season and if we want to be playing footy in September, we need to improve.”
Dragons coach Paul McGregor could not hide his delight when informed of Bellamy’s praise but said he would be urging his players to keep their feet on the ground.
“That’s nice to hear off a great man and a great coach,” he said.
“We have a lot of belief and our attitude is good. It’s just about maintaining that and not being complacent in what we do.”
There was lots of post-match debate about a disallowed try from Addo-Carr, too, with Fox Sports commentator Braith Anasta describing a puzzling decision in the first half as “one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen”.
It mattered little in the end, though, as the Dragons won well.
It was a much closer contest in Sunday’s other match, as the Sydney Roosters scrapped to a 22-20 success over the out-of-form Manly Sea Eagles.
The pre-season title favourites moved back into the top eight with victory but it did not come without a scare as Akuila Uate’s 76th-minute try set up a nervy finish.
Uate scored two tries for Manly, which has lost five matches in a row and sits 14th on the ladder.
At the other end of the table, the New Zealand Warriors are just one win behind the Dragons after toppling the Wests Tigers 26-4 at Mt Smart Stadium.
But the win came at a huge cost for the second-placed Warriors, as star playmakers Shaun Johnson (leg) and Issac Luke (shoulder) limped off.
Adam Blair also injured an ankle in Saturday’s victory.
The Warriors moved a game clear of the Penrith Panthers, who were upset by the North Queensland Cowboys in Bathurst on Friday.
The Cowboys – last season’s losing grand finalists – won just two of eight matches to start the campaign.
But a strong first half helped the Cowboys to a 26-20 win against a fast-finishing Panthers, a performance that suggested they may have their mojo back.
Elsewhere on the weekend, South Sydney climbed to fifth after an excellent 36-18 win at Newcastle on Friday.
Parramatta remains last but showed encouraging signs in a 22-20 defeat at Cronulla, while the Gold Coast’s winless record out of Queensland this season continued.
The Canberra Raiders beat the Titans 32-18 in the nation’s capital.
And in the Thursday night Round 9 opener, a last-gasp penalty helped the Brisbane Broncos defeat the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 22-20.