The St. George Illawarra Dragons have done it tough but done it right, taking out the Reg Gasnier tribute match out 27-24 over the Cowboys tonight at Kogarah in front of 12,000 fans.
A Jason Nightingale hat-trick was the key for a Dragons side missing regular centre Josh Dugan and enforcer Trent Merrin (both on Origin duties), who started slowly by conceding a try down their right side defence through Antonio Winterstein. It didn't take long for the hosts to strike back with Charly Runciman then Nightingale both crossing before Adam Quinlan benefited from a cheeky Benji Marshall in-field kick which bounced awkwardly for the Cowboys defenders.
The Quinlan try had the Dragons in front 14-4 going into halftime before a second try for Winterstein reduced the margin to just four at the break.
With several stars of their own missing - including Johnathan Thurston and James Tamou to Origin duty and a host of long-term injuries - the Cowboys started the second half with a powerful statement, Tariq Sims hitting a hole close to the line centre-field to go over almost untouched after 44 minutes, then backed the effort up with a try for Curtis Rona which saw them take a six-point lead.
Unbelievably with 25 minutes remaining Michael Morgan crossed, slamming the ball down but it was ruled to have bounced, and just one set later the Dragons went up the other end and scored through Jason Nightingale. With the scores level, it came down to each side grinding out a result - end-to-end footy was the name of the game despite the Cowboys piling on the pressure.
It took until the 72nd minute before the deadlock was broken, with Nightingale claiming his third in the far corner of the ground and a superb sideline conversion from Widdop giving the hosts a six-point lead. The following set saw the big Red V roll down the field courtesy of a Leeson Ah Mau break before that man Widdop again potted an important field-goal to push the margin to seven with just a few minutes remaining. The Cowboys' handling cost them, and they didn't cross again until the 79:40 mark through Taumalolo, and there was no time to restart play.
The Dragons now have 16 footy-free days, with a bye next weekend followed by hosting the Manly-Warringah side back here at Kogarah on Monday 21 July. The Cowboys have the bye next weekend as well, but will play on Friday night in Round 19 at home to lowly Cronulla.