Gareth Widdop, the NRL’s best player over the opening seven rounds, hobbled from Allianz Stadium just before the halftime hooter.
Before he had done his knee – a grade one medial tear was the initial prognosis – the St George Illawarra captain was on track to earn again win the Ashton Collier Spirit of Anzac Medal.
They almost managed without him.
Instead it was another representative playmaker, Mitchell Pearce, who landed the telling blows in front of a record Anzac Day crowd of 40,864. He scored a try to put his team in front, and it was the field goal he slotted, his first since round eight in 2011, that proved the difference.
Pearce did it in extra time, under the most extreme pressure. He took the shot and, later, the medal as the man of the match. Laurie Daley would have been taking note.
The game should have been over long before then, but the Dragons refused to go quietly. Widdop not only sets up tries but converts them – so with him watching helplessly from the sidelines, it was left to Josh Dugan to fill the breach. With two minutes to go, Nene McDonald etched himself into folklore, barging his way to the line against all odds. The occasion, and the fact he did it against his own club, made it all the more memorable.
Dugan had to kick it from the sideline to level it up. This was a conversion as dramatic as that one by Matt Head all those years ago. It never looked like missing.
For the first time, the traditional Anzac Day clash went into overtime. But there could be only one winner.
The Dragons and the Roosters contested a grand final seven years ago. If both teams hold their current form, there is every chance they could again meet in October. The Red V spent the second stanza without the skipper or much of the football, but somehow almost got the job done.
In the 38 minutes in which he participated, Widdop showed he is worth every cent of his lucrative new four-year contract. However, his 150th NRL appearance wasn’t all memorable. The English international is out of the representative round, although it’s unclear how long before he will be back on deck for the Dragons.
That they were almost able to finish the job without him speaks volumes about his side. And their coach.
Paul McGregor’s management is expected to meet with club CEO Peter Doust next week to discuss a contract extension. The agent will have a fair case. No coach came into the season under more pressure. His side had finished 2016 in 11th place, but his stocks are on the rise. In front of a record Anzac Day crowd of 40,864, McGregor’s side nearly hung without their skipper or hardly any second-half possession.
There were many memorable moments. Joel Thompson was denied the first time he found the tryline. The backrower was on the spot when Blake Ferguson fumbled a bomb, only for the red light to come up due to a Dragons knock on in the lead up.
But there was no stopping him midway through the first half. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Aiden Guerra impeded his passage to glory, but he got there regardless.
Blake Ferguson also crossed the tryline twice but was only credited with one four-pointer. His first ‘try’ was disallowed after the final pass from Luke Keary was called forward. But just minutes after copping a knock to the knee, the NSW and Australian three-quarter pounced on a Jake Friend kick to score.
The joint-venture outfit doesn’t want to rush a decision on their coach. The club is still smarting from the announcement of Steve Price’s re-signing during the halftime break of the 2013 Anzac Day clash. The Dragons lost that clash as well as this one, but on this occasion ‘Mary’ appears to have done enough to stick around a while longer.