Luciano Leilua celebrated his WIN Stadium return by scoring the match-winning try against his old St George Illawarra teammates but Benji Marshall was the star, winding back the clock to orchestrate a stunning 24-14 victory.
Marshall laid on two of the Tigers' four tries with perfectly placed kicks and forced three repeat sets to constantly have the Dragons under pressure in a gripping contest played before 9137 fans in the last game before NRL matches go behind closed doors due to COVID-19.
With halfback Luke Brooks forced out of the match with a calf injury that required scans on Sunday, his 35-year-old colleague used all of his experience to guide the Tigers around as they came from behind to score two tries the last 20 minutes through Leilua and David Nofoaluma.
Josh Reynolds replaced Brooks alongside Marshall in the halves and he endured a torrid night with Tariq Sims repeatedly targeting him with big shots in defence but the Dragons second-rower finished on report for a high tackle on the former NSW Origin five-eighth.
Nofoaluma was outstanding and topped the tally for run metres (193) and offloads (four), before touching down in the final minute of the match.
The Dragons scored before Wests Tigers had even touched the ball when winger Mikaele winger was awarded a penalty try after a spectacular 70-metre individual effort in just the second minute.
Match: Dragons v Wests Tigers
Round 1 -
Venue: WIN Stadium, Wollongong
Ravalawa appeared set to score after fielding a Marshall bomb 30 metres out from the St George Illawarra line and bursting into the clear before kicking ahead into the in-goal and chasing hard as the ball bounced awkwardly for Corey Thompson.
Before he could dive on the ball, Ravalawa was pushed by Thompson and video referee Jared Maxwell ruled he would have scored if not for the interference and awarded the first penalty try of the 2020 season.
The Dragons almost scored again minutes later when Sims lost the ball as he tried to wrestle his way to the ground in the Tigers in-goal, while centre Brayden Williame was denied after failing to cleanly ground a Ben Hunt grubber.
Sims placed on report
Ravalawa also failed to dive on a Hunt kick and he lay outstretched in the in-goal area after suffering a quadriceps injury that forced the Fijian international from the field in the ninth minute.
As often happens, the Tigers made the Dragons pay for failing to capitalise on their tryscoring opportunities when Nofoaluma pounced on a perfectly weighted Marshall grubber to score in the 14th minute after Thomas Mikaele flopped the ball back near the posts on the last tackle.
A Marshall penalty goal in the 22nd minute put the Tigers ahead 8-6 lead after St George Illawarra centre Tim Lafai was deemed to have made a mid-air tackle on Adam Doueihi as he chased a Reynolds bomb.
However, the lead was short lived as Lomax scored in the 26th minute after pouncing on a fumble by Thompson as he returned a kick from Corey Norman and diving over near the posts to give himself an easy conversion attempt.
Round two to continue with suspension of season deemed 'catastrophic'
Lomax 12-8 half-time lead with a 47th-minute penalty goal after referee Ashley Klein pinged Marshall for an obstruction but the Dragons blew a chance to go further ahead when Sims lost the ball on the line a few minutes later.
Marshall levelled the scores in the 50th minute when he took the line on and forced his way over the try line on an angled run and converted before grubbering in-goal for Leilua to beat Lomax and Nofoaluma to the ball and score 10 minutes later.
The remainder of the game was one of missed opportunities and desperate defence as Nofoaluma produced a one-on-one strip on a runaway Paul Vaughan while Lomax helped hold up Thompson and Robert Jennings.
St George Illawarra had two great chances to snatch a late victory when Hunt broke the line but Vaughan was unable to take an awkward pass with the line wide open and second-rower Tyson Frizell threw a loose ball after busting into the clear down the western sideline.