State of Origin star Nick Cotric became the first player sent off in the NRL this season as St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor boldly declared his side could still win the competition after their fading finals hopes took another hit.
The returning Cotric, playing his first game back from a syndesmosis injury which robbed him of playing in games two and three of NSW's Origin triumph, faces suspension after an ugly dangerous throw on opposite Tim Lafai in Canberra's 36-14 drubbing of the Dragons on Sunday night.
Nick Cotric is given his marching orders by referee Ashley Klein.Credit:NRL Photos
"It’s unintentional and it got away from him a bit – I understand that – but it was accidental. He’s a strong kid and he’s got no malice in him at all. I feel sorry for the officials who have to react to all this hype around it. I just thought it was very harsh.
"He’s shattered. I took off straight after the game to go see him. My heart went out to him is because I know how much he’s hurting. He just said, ‘what’s going to happen?’"
Asked about the tackle, Dragons coach Paul McGregor said: "I’d prefer not to comment on that. There was no intent on Nick’s behalf and it just ended up in the wrong position."
It will be little consolation for St George Illawarra, who are anchored in 14th position on the ladder with only the struggling Titans, who sacked their coach Garth Brennan on Sunday, and the Bulldogs rooted below them. It was their eighth loss in their last 10 matches.
But a defiant McGregor boldly claimed the Dragons could still go all the way in the finals.
"I think we can win it," he said as James Graham and Gareth Widdop are scheduled to return within the next fortnight. "That might sound unrealistic sitting here right now, but that’s how I approach every training session. If we’re healthy, look out. But we’ve got a long way to go from tonight.
Cotric’s tip tackle on Tim Lafai was deemed serious enough for the first send off of the season.Credit:NRL Photos
"I’m not going to defend that performance at all. It was the worst performance of the season. There’s no excuse."
Croker became the Raiders' leading try-scorer with the 121st try of his career, topping the mark set by former Canberra ironman and his namesake Jason.
The Dragons briefly threatened a comeback after piling on back-to-back tries in the second half cutting the Raiders' buffer to 16 points before Cotric's dismissal.
But such is the lack of confidence in McGregor's side a 12-man Raiders managed to respond with tries to ex-Dragon Siliva Havili and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, who bagged a double.
It only added to McGregor's frustration and that of the Dragons fans, some of whom spilled to the exit gates five minutes into the second half with their team trailing by 26 points before the Cotric flashpoint.
Former Raider David Shillington was the last NRL player to be sent off prior to Scott way back in 2015. Cotric's moment of madness capped a maddening month for the speedster, who posted the first of seven Raiders tries when he shimmied past Lafai.
He was ruled out of games two and three of the Origin series after making his NSW debut in Brisbane when he suffered a syndesmosis injury against the Sharks last month.
There were also a number of interventions from the NRL's brain bunker, which called for the withdrawal of both Croker and Dragons centre Euan Aitken for head injury assessments. Both players passed their tests.
Croker was taken from the field a couple of minutes after copping a high shot from Mikaele Ravalawa, which landed the Fijian flyer on report. In between Joe Tapine crashed over for the Raiders and Croker even converted the try before being escorted from the field.
Aitken and Raiders brute Elliott Whitehead were involved in a sickening head clash in the first half which prompted the Englishman's immediate exit for a HIA, but Aitken was only taken off a couple of sets later after he had taken a further carry. Whitehead was cleared to continue.
St George Illawarra's returning Origin stars failed to add any spark to a team which was clawing to save their season and McGregor even opted to bench halfback Ben Hunt inside the last 10 minutes alongside Tyson Frizell and Paul Vaughan.
The Raiders blasted to a 16-point lead at the break as the Dragons' goalline defence was found to be flimsy, an issue which was only exacerbated straight after the half-time break when Bailey Simonsson and Nicoll-Klokstad crossed.
And it took almost 20 minutes for the Dragons to score a point against a side a man short when Matt Dufty sprinted 95 metres for a consolation.
CANBERRA RAIDERS 36 (Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad 2, Jarrod Croker, Nick Cotric, Joe Tapine, Bailey Simonsson, Siliva Havili tries; Croker 4 goals) defeated ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS 14 (Korbin Sims, Luciano Leilua, Matt Dufty tries; Corey Norman goal) at WIN Stadium: Referees: Ashley Klein, Todd Smith. Crowd: 9159.
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