St George Illawarra Dragons put opposition on notice in NRL Finals 2010
It wasn't the flair of the Sydney Roosters, precision of a Gold Coast or youthful brilliance of Canberra, but St George Illawarra sent a shudder through their NRL finals rivals with a death by a thousand cuts victory over Manly on Sunday.
Proving their grinding efforts of the regular season worked just as well in the finals, the Dragons never gave an understrength Sea Eagles a sniff in running out 28-0 winners at WIN Jubilee Oval.
In truth, the final scoreline flattered the Dragons, who bludgeoned the Sea Eagles out of the contest with a series of penalty goals before running in three late tries to blow out the score, but the reality is Manly were lucky to get nil against a red and white wall that refused to give way.
Against a depleted Manly side, this was never going to be a contest of skill or power, but rather a mental battle as the Dragons looked to put the misery of last year's quick exit out of the finals behind them.
The win, their first in a finals encounter since 2006 when they rattled up the same score against the same opposition, put them into their first preliminary final since the same year, where they will play the winner of Friday night's Canberra Stadium clash between the Raiders and Wests Tigers.
On the other side of the draw the Sydney Roosters host Penrith at the Sydney Football Stadium on Saturday night with the winner to meet Gold Coast at Suncorp Stadium on Friday week in the other preliminary final.
While the Dragons scored only one try in the first 65 minutes against the Sea Eagles, for coach Wayne Bennett, there was only one mission for his side.
"We came here today to win this game of football, I didn't care how we won, we just wanted to make sure that we got the job done," Bennett said.
"We didn't want to be in situation we found ourselves in last year."
While their finals rivals may be searching for ways to combat the red and white wall, the performance didn't impress Manly coach Des Hasler too much, claiming the Dragons would need to do more to go all the way.
"I would hope they did what they had to do today," Hasler said of the shutout.
"I thought they struggled a little bit when they were put under defensive pressure."
With the win came a heightened expectation for the red and white faithful, with the Dragons firming to $2.10 favourites ahead of the Titans ($4.50), Roosters ($6), Canberra ($7), Penrith ($11) and outsiders Wests Tigers at $15.
"It's sort of been building, hasn't it?" Dragons skipper Ben Hornby said of the expectation.
"We've been in front for a while and that's just something you've got to deal with. There's not too much we can do about the distractions except block them out."
The Tigers will find out on Monday whether star playmaker Benji Marshall will overcome a bruised medial ligament in his right knee to play against the Raiders, coach Tim Sheens already facing a mammoth task to lift his troops after their amazing 19-15 golden point loss the Roosters on Saturday night.
Thanks to the Dragons' win they live to fight another day, but it could merely serve as a stay of execution against a Raiders side that on Saturday might became the first team this year to win six straight games with their 24-22 upset of Penrith.
Like the Tigers, the Panthers are battling injury with Trent Waterhouse (pectoral) out for the season and Frank Pritchard (hamstring) and Tim Grant (ankle) in extreme doubt, but they do regain the services of skipper Petero Civoniceva from suspension.