The return of Shaun Johnson could not stop St George Illawarra overwhelming the Warriors 28-16 in their NRL season opener on the Sunshine Coast.
Johnson may have had top billing before Saturday’s clash but Dragons winger Mikaele Ravalawa stole the show with a stunning try-scoring hat-trick.
The Fijian powerhouse helped the Dragons snap an eight-match losing streak stretching back to last year, despite Johnson’s best efforts.
In his first game for the Kiwi club since 2018, ex-Golden Boot winner Johnson turned the match on its ear when he helped the Warriors reel in an early 12-0 deficit and grab a 16-14 lead by the 48th minute.
However, Ravalawa sealed his hat-trick with back-to-back tries in the 57th and 66th minutes to swing the momentum once again.
When ex-Queensland Origin utility Moses Mbye — one of the Dragons’ six prized recruits on display on Saturday — crashed over in the 74th minute, after a bust by exciting teenage fullback Tyrell Sloan, coach Anthony Griffin was finally breathing easy.
“We had to win it twice,” Griffin said after the Dragons squandered their strong start.
“But I thought that was the most pleasing part of the night… once they got in front of us I thought we played some of our best football… and we were a bit too strong in the end.”
The Dragons’ winning chances on Saturday appeared to go up in smoke — just like their 2021 season after a now infamous team barbecue.
But there are now encouraging signs after closing out a promising performance without Tariq Sims (calf), Jayden Sullivan (hamstring), Josh McGuire, Tyrell Fuimaono (both suspension) and George Burgess.
Recruits Mbye, Aaron Woods, Jaydn Su’A and Francis Molo, Moses Suli and Jack Gosiewski impressed in their official Dragons club debut.
The Dragons’ only concern, apart from their mid-game lapse, was the sight of Woods limping off in the 64th minute with a suspected hamstring injury.
Livewire 19-year-old Sloan set up two tries as the Dragons breathed fire early.
But the Warriors cut the halftime deficit to 14-10 after Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (20th minute) grubbered for himself to score before Johnson combined with lock Josh Curran to send Wayde Egan over 11 minutes later.
Johnson took control early in the second half when he booted a monster 40-20 and three plays later the Warriors were ahead when back-rower Eliesa Katoa scored off a suspected forward pass from the Kiwi superstar.
But Ravalawa — and the Dragons — finished strongly as the Warriors suffered their fourth straight NRL loss stretching back to last year.
“To get there (16-14 lead) was a good effort but we sort of lost our way a bit, turned over a lot of ball,” Warriors coach Nathan Brown said.
“Shaun had some positive points and negative, like a lot of blokes.”
Warriors skipper Addin Fonua-Blake was placed on report for an alleged 23rd minute crusher tackle.