A hat-trick of tries by rookie Canterbury winger Reimis Smith helped to put paid to St George Illawarra's top-four hopes on a horror day for the Dragons at Jubilee Oval in which they were left with a mounting injury toll and facing the prospect of finishing as low as eighth.
Centre Euan Aitken (hamstring), winger Jason Nightingale (elbow) and hooker Cameron McInnes (HIA) all failed to finish the match as the Bulldogs inflicted a significant blow to the Red V's premiership hopes with a record 38-0 defeat.
After losing NSW Origin prop Paul Vaughan for the season with a broken foot in a training mishap last Tuesday, the club's long-term casualty list now includes Aitken and Nightingale, who was celebrating his farewell home match after recently announcing his retirement.
Captain and five-eighth Gareth Widdop is due back from a dislocated shoulder either next week in Newcastle or in the first week of the finals and there is no doubt the Dragons missed his direction as they were outgunned totally by the Bulldogs.
Match: Dragons v Bulldogs
Round 24 -
Venue: Jubilee Oval
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The loss leaves the Dragons in sixth after being leapfrogged by the Sharks and Penrith, who now have a superior for-and-against despite losing by 20 points to the Warriors on Friday night.
Canterbury have now climbed above Gold Coast into 12th position after winning four of their last five matches and can lay claim to being in better form than some of the teams who will feature in the finals.
Individually, some of the young Bulldogs players also outplayed their bigger known opponents, with five-eighth Lachlan Lewis's kicking game superior to that of Queensland Origin star Ben Hunt, while Smith outpaced renowned Dragons speedster Matt Dufty to score three tries.
"We've got a number of those young guys who are playing really good, attractive footy now and we want to build on that and build into our pre-season and hopefully start next season off on a really positive note," Bulldogs coach Dean Pay said.
Lewis, the nephew of Wally Lewis, wasn't even in Canterbury's top 30 squad at the start of the season, while Smith, whose father Tyran was a New Zealand international, had played one NRL match in 2016 before his mid-year call by Pay.
"You can't play them if they are not in your top 30 but obviously through the year things change and they get an opportunity and that is what has happened," he said. "Reimis is a great kid who works really hard on his game and he got his opportunity, and he has taken it."
Lewis forced four repeat sets, including three in the first half, while the Bulldogs scored three of their six tries from kick returns.
A frustrated St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor said fatigue had played a role after his team had been forced to do so much defending in the first half but he described the performance as unacceptable.
"The energy and effort parts of your game, when you are doing two-to-one tackles than your opposition just takes it out of you," McGregor said.
"Then you start having the non-commitment in your kick-chase and blokes not tying in quick enough and they seem to get the footy before you.
"One of the kick chases, we had three people in our line so of course there is going to be space. That leads to opportunity and opportunity leads to points so that is not good enough. It doesn't matter how fatigued you are, you have just got to find a way."
Remarkably, given their achievements this season to lead the Telstra Premiership for the opening 12 rounds and install themselves in the top four for 22 of 24 rounds, the Dragons players were booed by sections of the 12,436 crowd as they came from the field at halftime.
Both teams lost key players early in the match, with Canterbury second-rower Rhyse Martin suffering bruising to the top of his fibula and Dragons centre Euan Aitken tearing his hamstring, but it was the Bulldogs who coped the best.
Martin was injured when Nightingale fell on his leg in a scramble for the ball after Nene Macdonald put down a Lachlan Lewis kick in the 15th minute, while Aitken tore his hamstring as he tried to turn to chase a Lewis grubber kick into the Dragons in goal.
With Aitken clutching at his hamstring, Josh Morris pounced on the ball untouched to score the opening try of the match in the 18th minute and things were to only get worse for the home team as the game went on.
After starting the match at fullback, Nightingale switched to the centres and Matt Dufty came off the bench in his place but the renowned speedster was unable to stop Smith from sprinting 70 metres to score Canterbury's second try in the 23rd minute.
Smith, who won a foot race with Dufty along the western touchline, grabbed his second try five minutes later to put the Bulldogs ahead 18-0 and effectively end St George Illawarra's top-four hopes after Cronulla's 38-12 defeat of Newcastle earlier in the day.
The Bulldogs dominated possession and field position in the first half, completing 21 of 22 sets with the ball compared to just 11 of 16 by the Dragons.
The Dragons steadied in the second half, even after losing Nightingale in the 43rd minute with an elbow injury that was so painful he could be heard screaming on Sports Ears.
However, Smith's third try in the 65th minute opened the flood gates and Brett Morris and Ofahiki Ogden crossed in the final five minutes to help inflict a devastating defeat on the Dragons.
News & Notes: The 38-0 loss was the biggest at Jubilee Oval in the history of both St George and St George Illawarra, and just the third time a Dragons team had been held scoreless at the ground ... Reimis Smith now has seven tries in 10 NRL games ... Canterbury forward Rhyse Martin suffered a knee injury in the 15th minute and did not return... Next week: Dragons plays Newcastle on Saturday; Bulldogs host the Sharks at ANZ Stadium on Sunday.