St George Illawarra’s season is officially on the skids after it was handed its biggest loss at Kogarah, flogged 38-0 by Canterbury in the penultimate round of NRL on Sunday.
Limping into the finals after six losses in eight games, the Dragons have fallen to sixth having been a top-four side for the first 23 rounds.
Booed off the field at half-time after an error-riddled performance, the Dragons also lost centre Euan Aitken (hamstring), winger Jason Nightingale (elbow) and hooker Cameron McInnes (concussion) to injury as Bulldogs winger Reimis Smith scored a hat-trick and former Dragons Brett and Josh Morris both scored tries.
Earlier, Cronulla scored an emotional 38-12 win against the injury-hit Newcastle Knights at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
On a day when the Sharks paid tribute to former back-rower Lance Thompson, who died on Thursday, Cronulla leapfrogged St George Illawarra and Penrith into fourth spot.
The result ensured grand final hero Luke Lewis went out a winner in his final game at Shark Park.
The match was also notable for Valentine Holmes breaking the club record for most tries in a season (19) that he had shared with David Peachey.
The feat prompted Sharks coach Shane Flanagan to declare, “We’ll sell the leagues club if we have to” to re-sign Holmes.
“It has been up and down all week and the players handled it really well. We ended up doing what we had to do,” Flanagan said.
In other games, a Billy Slater-inspired Melbourne Storm consolidated top spot with a come-from-behind 10-8 win against Gold Coast Titans, and victories for Brisbane Broncos and NZ Warriors means the top eight hasn’t changed for 13 rounds for the first time since 1972, when the top four went 19 rounds unchanged.
The downside was a potentially season-ending suspension for Sydney Roosters’ Dylan Napa after knocking out Brisbane hooker Andrew McCullough in an ugly tackle in Brisbane’s 22-8 win.
Amid the 44-6 magic of Johnathan Thurston’s farewell match in Townsville against Parramatta, North Queensland Cowboys’ Gavin Cooper crossed to become the first forward in history to score a try in eight straight games.
And Penrith continues to cause concern, with the Panthers failing to take control in the three games since coach Anthony Griffin was sensationally sacked by club boss Phil Gould. They fell 36-16 against the Warriors.
It all sets up an intriguing final round of matches before the finals series begins.
Clear on top by a win, Storm plays Penrith at AAMI Park and is likely to still get a home qualifying final, regardless of the result, courtesy of Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs slipping up.
The Roosters take on Parramatta with the realistic chance of losing home-ground advantage in week one of the playoffs if they don’t rise to the occasion.
Likewise, the Rabbitohs – vanquished 24-12 against Canberra – will be hoping to restore some confidence against Wests Tigers having lost the past three games.
Cronulla can still finish top two if results fall its way or drop out of the top four but the Sharks must overcome the resurgent Canterbury to do so.
The form of Penrith and St George Illawarra will be worrying their fans, particularly as Brisbane (v Manly) and the Warriors (v Canberra) host their lower-rated opponents and look to be peaking at the right time.