Dragons 28 Broncos 10
WOLLONGONG - It started with a bang but finished in a whimper, Wendell Sailor's NRL return ending in a fractured cheekbone and an easy 28-10 victory to the Dragons at WIN Stadium last night.
Playing his first game of top flight football following the expiration of a two-year drug ban last month, Sailor's eagerly anticipated first run left Ashton Sims sprawled on the ground and fans salivating for more.
But as the Dragons raced away to a comfortable 20-6 lead courtesy of some enterprising play against a severely understrength Broncos side, Sailor was a virtual passenger, 'Big Dell' left sucking in the big ones on more than one occasion.
His last involvement came five minutes before the break, a stray David Stagg elbow catching him flush on the cheek and leaving the dual international eyeing the prospect of another enforced layoff.
Given the form of the Dragons and the impending return of NSW stars Mark Gasnier and Matt Cooper, it's unlikely the Sailor will be missed too much over the coming weeks, with even his gate appeal having lost some of its lustre with a disappointing crowd of 11,432 in Wollongong.
While the Broncos were rudderless without their six Origin stars and suspended centre Justin Hodges, St George Illawarra continued to build on the confidence generated by their now four-match winning streak by running in five tries to the visitors two.
The win pushed the Dragons at least temporarily into the top eight, and they have now beaten the sides sitting in the first five places on the ladder.
It was all the Dragons early with Sailor's enthusiasm infectious, Jamie Soward showing pin-point placement with a grubber ricocheting off the post and into the waiting arms of Ben Hornby for an early 6-0 lead.
Dean Young crashed over to extend the advantage before Greg Eastwood responded for the visitors, who struggled to make any impact in the Dragons red zone for much of the game.
The recovery was shortlived - three minutes in total - before Josh Morris, deputising for Gasnier, gave a fair impression of his more illustrious teammate to put brother Brett away for a 20-6 lead at the break.
The Dragons struggled after the break with Sailor's injury forcing a massive reshuffle, and the Broncos threatened the unlikely when Tonie Carroll was dubiously awarded a benefit of the doubt four-pointer with the grounding looking more than a touch suspicious.
But Jason Nightingale put to bed any thoughts of a recovery with a double inside the final quarter to confirm victory and extend his lead at the top of the try-scorers list to a league-best 12.
Sailor was rushed off to hospital before the game was over with club medical officials fearing the worst.
"He'll have scans tonight to assess whether he need an operation, it looks like he will," Dragons doctor Paul Annett said.
"It will probably be 4-6 weeks."
Broncos coach Wayne Bennett, who worked with Sailor before his defection to rugby union in 2002, claimed there may have been a positive to his former protege's injury woes.
"Will it stop him from talking about himself, is it that serious?" Bennett said.
"He'll be back, bigger and larger than life ... he'd be talking himself up into the third Origin if he'd have played the full night tonight."
Dragons coach Nathan Brown praised his side's fighting qualities against a penalty count which went 10-4 in favour of the visitors and a poor opening to the second half, but admitted the win had been soured by Sailor's injury.
"You feel sorry for Dell because that first half they obviously targeted him ... I thought he read it really well his first game back," Brown said.
"It's very unfortunate, not only for Wendell but for the club and I think the game.
"A lot of people watching here tonight were probably here to watch Wendell, that's the way she goes but he'll fight back."