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St George Illawarra's Premier League side has lost their opening Qualifying Final 30-28 to the St Marys-Penrith Cougars in controversial fashion at Aussie Stadium tonight.
The Dragons were seething with a 73rd minute decision by referee Jason Robinson to recall what looked like a legitimate try to Hassan Saleh for an earlier forward pass.
Leading 28-26 at the time Mick Potter's side would have wrapped the game up with the converted try but instead the Cougars moved down the field to grab a match winner of their own.
The Dragons will now meet the winner of the Parramatta and Western Suburbs clash in sudden death next weekend.
The mighty Red V were behind the eight ball early when Cougars five eighth Daniel Russell slotted a penalty goal and then Matthew Pow split them up the middle for an 8-0 lead.
Peter Ellis hit back in the 18th minute with a determined run to touch down and bring the deficit to just two.
With nine minutes left before halftime the Cougars combined for a great team try when both Steve Turner and Luke Dyer managed miraculous passes under pressure for Ben Reynolds to cross.
Looking right out of the contest the red and whites responded with two tries in as many minutes to Ryan Powell and Saleh.
Powell made a barnstorming charge on the right edge while Saleh soared high to take a Dean Byrne bomb giving the Dragons a 16-14 lead at the break.
Halftime proved a curse for the Dragons as their ascendancy was snuffed out and Cougars fullback Steve Turner scored twice in the opening four minutes of the second stanza.
Both tries were from over halfway and gave the St Marys-Penrith side a comfortable 26-16 lead.
“The couple of minutes after halftime cost us the game,” five eighth Mathew Head said.
“It was an arm wrestle but when we leaked those points it was always going to be tough. We'll have to improve our defence this week.”
Potter managed a small grin and added with a chuckle, “If I had my time over again I'd change my halftime talk because it obviously didn't work.”
Chris Nero started a Dragons fight back when he dived on a Byrne grubber after the Cougars failed to clean up the loose ball and when John Wilshere produced a stunning 20metre burst into the left corner the scores were level.
Byrne showed tremendous composure to slot the difficult sideline conversion and give the Dragons the lead at 28-26 with just 17 minutes remaining before the controversy took over.
“They tried really hard but a couple of really good plays from the opposition beat us in the end,” Potter said.
“I said to the guys you never know when the crucial tackle or carry will be so you have to treat every play like it will be the crucial moment.”
“In saying that the whole 17's effort was enormous.”
Potter was sure the side could respond for next weeks do or die challenge.
“We have one week to fine tune and get right for next week and I think we can do that.”
ST MARYS-PENRITH COUGARS 30 (S Turner 2, M Pow, B Reynolds, C Hicks tries; D Russell 5 goals) d. ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS 28 (P Ellis, R Powell, H Saleh, C Nero, J Wilshere tries; D Byrne 4 goals)