ST GEORGE Illawarra coach Wayne Bennett and his players have thumbed their noses at critics after lifting the joint venture’s first premiership with a crushing second half grand final performance against Sydney Roosters.
In front of 82,334 fans at a rain-swept ANZ Stadium, the Dragons piled on four second-half tries to give merger partner St George its first success since 1979 and Illawarra its first major title.
The result was a 32-8 success in which winger Jason Nightingale scored two tries and fullback Darius Boyd got the Clive Churchill Medal.
And there was no way the red-and-whites were going to let their detractors off lightly – after removing one of rugby league’s biggest monkeys from their backs.
“We don’t have to worry about all the rubbish we read about now,” said Bennett.
“(Dragons fans) are much maligned. They feel the pain the players feel, they feel the criticism that they feel. That was a very emotional victory lap there tonight.
“You wouldn’t want to coach a team, the way that you read about them. You wouldn’t have a team.
“It’s all part of the criticism merry-go-round. They were much-maligned before I arrived there and they were a much better team than I thought they were.’’
Five-eighth Jamie Soward gave an even more poignant indication of how deep resentment runs at the club.
“They said we couldn’t do it and our attack sucked … they’ll probably find something else to bag us about, but we’re champions this year,” Soward said at full-time.
Lock Ben Creagh said in the jubilant winner: “Hopefully the ‘chokers’ thing is gone – for good.”
But those very critics were sharpening their tongues and pens at half-time when Sydney Roosters held a 8-6 lead.
Each side had been awarded a controversial first half try, with winger Brett Morris putting a foot into touch before Mark Gasnier’s seventh-minute effort and Bennett arguing that Braith Anasta’s 16th-minute response came after a clear knock-on.
“I thought we were dominant in the game at halftime and things just turned very sour for us there at the start of the second half and we couldn’t get back into it,’’ said captain Anasta.
New Zealand winger Jason Nightingale scored two tries in the first 20 minutes of the second half to put his side ahead 18-8, with more from Dean Young (63rd minute) and Nathan Fien (70th) icing a premiership.
Roosters coach Brian Smith said: “I think (the players) have done a great job tonight of resurrecting pride in the Roosters emblem, the Rooster jersey and I think the Sydney Roosters are back on the map.
“We want to keep it that way next year and we want to go a little better if we can.
“Grand finals hurt more when you lose them but they really hurt when you haven’t had a proper lash at it.
“Unfortunately for us, the conditions didn’t suit us, we didn’t get the rub of the green on some things and in the end we just weren’t good enough.
“Probably half the people I know in my life are Dragons fans so I’m kind of happy for them. It’s been a long wait for them.’’
ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA 32 (Jason Nightingale 2, Mark Gasnier, Dean Young, Nathan Fien tries; Jamie Soward 6 goals) bt SYDNEY ROOSTERS 8 (Braith Anasta, Mitchell Aubusson tries) at ANZ Stadium. Referees:Tony Archer/Shayne Hayne. Crowd: 82,334.
Filed for: SPORTSNEWSFIRST.COM.AU