For the second time in six weeks, St George Illawarra got the better of their former coach Wayne Bennett with a hard-fought 12-4 NRL win over Newcastle at Kogarah on Friday night.
Also for the second time, Dragons five-eighth Jamie Soward outpointed Knights opposite Jarrod Mullen – only this time a Country Origin jersey was potentially up for grabs.
Soward kicked long and had the Knights, who lost 15-14 to the Dragons in golden point in round one, on the back foot all match while also setting up winger Jason Nightingale’s wonderful first-half try.
The Knights fired the first shot of the night when former Dragon Darius Boyd sent a beautiful cut-out pass for winger Akuila Uate to cross in the 12th minute, but the Novocastrians appeared to run out of ammunition after that.
Mullen struggled to make his mark on the game, in large part due to an energised Dragons defensive line which rushed up on him at every opportunity.
The Dragons finished eight-point victors much to the delight of the 15,291-strong crowd, with tries to Nightingale and Beau Scott and a stoic defensive effort in a scoreless second-half proving enough to overcome an improved Newcastle outfit.
Nightingale’s four-pointer was particularly memorable, with Soward’s quick hands finding a speeding Brett Morris on the inside to split the Newcastle defence, with the fullback running 20 metres before drawing Boyd and sending Nightingale over for a classy team try.
But it could have been so much more.
The home side dominated field position in the first half, but had two tries controversially disallowed and Ben Creagh butchered at least two more.
The second-rower dropped the ball over the line on two occasions before the break, but was perhaps unlucky not to be the first man on the scoresheet when denied in the seventh minute.
Creagh was ruled to have lost possession when attempting to ground a cross-field kick from Soward despite appearing to have control.
Perhaps even more unluckily, winger Daniel Vidot was denied when Soward was ruled to have interfered with Uate after a towering bomb was not defused.
Knights backrower Zeb Taia was denied a try in the 56th minute when it was ruled Newcastle prop Kade Snowden had obstructed Scott.
Dragons prop Dan Hunt put his hand up for a Country jersey with some inspired runs as he racked up 38 tackles and 125 metres for the match.
Soward was hopeful of being selected in the Country squad on Sunday, as news emerged that Mullen was in doubt with a severe cork to his right leg and Canberra five-eighth Terry Campese had suffered a knee injury against Brisbane.
“I’d like to think, as the NSW incumbent, I’d be a chance,” Soward said.
“They’ve probably got their team picked … have to wait and see on Sunday.
“I’d be happy to be there and look forward to pressing my claims for Origin, but if I’m not I’ll move on and get ready for Anzac Day.
“It’d be disappointing to miss out, but I think that’s not the end of my chances.”
Bennett admitted the match had been a dour contest before suggesting the modern game had become too defence-oriented.
“It’s not what I like to see, it’s not what I like to coach but it’s what’s happening out there at the moment so there’s not a lot players can do about it,” he said.
“We were fortunate to be in there at 12-4 but we were there.
“And that’s what these guys do as well as any team I’ve coached, they mightn’t be playing well but they don’t give up easy.”