ST George Illawarra ensured it was a memorable occasion for both Gerringong's Jackson Ford (debut) and James Graham (400th first grade) on Saturday, as the Dragons returned to form with a 40-28 victory over the Gold Coast Titans.
Graham was impressive in the victory, the prop producing 131 metres in 67 minutes, however it was his fellow Englishman Gareth Widdop who was the chief orchestrator for the Dragons.
Playing his second last match at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, Widdop was in total command of the St George Illawarra attack, the five-eighth producing three try assists in what was a high-scoring affair.
Typifying where the two sides sit on the ladder, the match was sloppy at times, and with 68 points scored, some of the defence was less than stellar. Despite this, it was an entertaining 80 minutes, with both sides opting to throw the ball around in search of the two points.
The Dragons, featuring Gerringong products Tariq and Korbin Sims, celebrated Graham's milestone with a special post-game presentation featuring his parents John and Diane, who made the journey to Australia for the occasion.
Graham revealed after the match his parents' presence was a surprise, with the Englishman even urging his parents to remain at home.
"I was very, very, very surprised," Graham said of his parents' arrival. "I spoke to mum on Tuesday or Wednesday and she was saying good luck and I said 'If you're thinking of coming, I will f-ing kill you.' We laughed it off and I thought that would be enough.
"It was very emotional to see them at the end, any time you see your parents is pretty awesome."
Graham paid tribute to the sacrifices his entire family made to help him get to 400 games, the 33-year-old thanking them for their support throughout his glittering 16-year career.
"My parents made a big commitment and a big sacrifice to the family in order to get me to training on time, get me to games at 11 years of age, four nights a week, Saturdays and Sundays. They did that not because they wanted to see me play in the NRL, but because they'd seen that one of their sons was passionate about something.
"I would also like to acknowledge my brother and sisters, they paid a price for that as well, because dad wasn't around a lot of the time, he was busy ferrying me around the northwest of England.
"When you look back and think they missed out on some dad time and mum had to pick up the pieces sometimes when we were travelling a lot, so they paid the price. I'd like to say thank you."
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St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor also paid tribute to the proud Englishman on achieving such a major milestone, saying Graham's impact on the club has been significant.
"James is a once in a generation type player," McGregor said. ""He just brings so much to the players away from actually the game as well, just in his education around how hard he works to go out and play the way he does.
"If you look at pictures of his career and he's always that bloke coming from the inside from somewhere, doesn't matter where, to try to stop that try or try to push that person into the corner, it's just the effort areas around the game that he brings.
"He doesn't bring it in any other way but through his effort and grit and perseverance. He's going to leave a legacy at the club for these young guys to really work hard and do the right thing. Today was, again, a typical James Graham type of game for himself."
While acknowledging his team still has plenty of areas to improve, McGregor was pleased to see the Dragons producing an inspired attacking display to snap a five-game losing streak.
"Our attack was really good at times, when we had support around the ball and put on some decent shape, we scored some nice tries.
"Defensively, they had three of their five tries come off some bat ons and tip ons and ricocheted off a kick, but generally I thought our defence on the edges needs to be a lot better than it was and we invited our opposition back into the game too many times."
The Dragons started the match in dominant fashion, with Paul Vaughan opening the scoring in just the fourth minute. Big runs from Tyson Frizell, Graham and Patrick Kaufusi allowed Corey Norman to put through an attacking grubber which, after a deflection, was pounced on by Vaughan.
St George Illawarra continued their dominance throughout the next 10 minutes, however it would be the Titans who crossed next, Brian Kelly taking advantage of some disorganised Dragons defence to cross in the left corner and level the scores at 6-6.
A Gold Coast error in the ensuing set of six put St George Illawarra straight back on the attack and they made the Titans pay, Gareth Widdop delivering a lovely short ball to a charging Tariq Sims, who crossed almost untouched.
Widdop was involved again five minutes later, with Frizell pouncing on a pinpoint grubber to hand the Dragons an 18-6 lead.
Despite a period of St George Illawarra dominance, it was Gold Coast who scored next, Kevin Proctor finishing off a passage of play that started with an AJ Brimson break deep in the Titans half to cut the deficit to six.
The Titans may have finished the first half on top, but it was the Dragons who started the second in control, Hunt opening the scoring in the 43rd minute.
Gold Coast, however, wouldn't go away, with Phillip Sami on the end of a last tackle play that involved 10 sets of hands and a deflected grubber in the 49th minute.
The match continued to see-saw, with tries to Sims and Euan Aitken, in his 100th NRL match, allowing the Dragons to extend the margin out to 20 with 22 to play.
Just when the 6532 St George Illawarra fans in attendance thought the home team had put the game to bed, the Titans hit back with two tries of their own.
Four-pointers to Sami and Ryley Jacks in the space of two minutes saw the margin slashed to eight, the Dragons suddenly holding on to a 36-28 lead with 17 minutes to play.
With very little to play for and plenty of tired legs on the field, both teams opted to throw the ball around throughout the final 15 minutes, some of the Titans attacking plays resembling touch football.
The Dragons had plenty of opportunities of their own to close out the match, however numerous errors, including two to Frizell, allowed the Titans to remain in the hunt.
Gold Coast had chances of their own to cut the deficit to just two, however the Dragons defence held firm.
Finally it was Widdop who played a hand in yet another try, producing a perfect grubber for Jason Saab in the 76th minute to put the result beyond doubt and secure a 12-point victory.
During Ford's 20 minutes on the park on Saturday, he made seven tackles and one tackle break.
Sports reporter at the Illawarra Mercury
Sports reporter at the Illawarra Mercury
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