A SUSPECTED hamstring tear for Josh Dugan and a supreme showing from skipper Gareth Widdop have scattered the pieces of the Dragons retention puzzle as they dismantled Wests Tigers 28-6 at ANZ Stadium.
The star pairing are front and centre of the Red V's contract conundrum, but there is serious concern for Dugan after he went up the tunnel clutching at a leg that could hold dire consequences for the NSW and Kangaroos star.
Widdop meanwhile starred throughout with a hand in three of the Dragons' five tries, shooting the unfancied Saints to second on the NRL ladder and keeping the Tigers rooted to the bottom of it.
The Red V have committed a cool $1 million to Ben Hunt and the No. 7 jumper that has plagued them so in recent years, while contract talks with both Widdop and Dugan have dragged on now for some months.
A class above throughout the entire contest, Widdop once again made a compelling case for an extension and a pay rise - not the cut to his $650,000 salary that was forecast when the season kicked off.
In any case his dominance in the front line make the possible shift to fullback - pushing Dugan to centre - that has been discussed inside and out of the club somewhat hard to fathom.
By the same token Dugan has been superb to start 2017 as well, but any time on the sidelines is ill-timed indeed given he and the club are currently at a standoff over his $1 million asking price and preference to play fullback.
The 26-year-old will be sent for scans on Monday, but early projections of a 3-4 week lay-off would all but rule him out of the May's Trans-Tasman Test.
Veteran flankman Jason Nightingale is another who has been negotiating a continued stay at St. George Illawarra for some time.
A treble in just over 30 minutes won't do his bid to finish his career at the club any harm.
Going into the contest the Tigers and incoming coach Ivan Cleary were staring at a rugby league equivalent of scaling Mt. Everest - stuck at the sorriest of base camps through a litany of off-field dramas, on-field slumps and all-round shambles.
The effort was there throughout, but despite interim coach Andrew Webster barking through his ever-present walkie talkie, 54 per cent of possession and 100 running metres more than their opponents, they were never in the hunt.
Boasting just one win from five starts, and spoiling for their own contract stoush to wage with their brightest prospects, the Tigers are still desperately battling for oxygen.
The Dragons knocked the wind out of them early, with the type of brilliance long associated with their opponents.
Tim Lafai's flick pass to an unmarked Nightingale kicked things off in the seventh minute. A charming little chip kick from Widdop had 'Gypsy' on the double and Saints scoring at a point a minute soon after.
The resolute defence that has been the Dragons upside for the past few seasons then denied the Tigers first forays.
The Tigers added similar backbone to their own efforts without the ball, but couldn't crack the Red V wall with it.
When Saints finally resurfaced in prime real estate, Widdop and Nightingale showed them how.
Widdop's long ball found the veteran on the fly and Nightingale had himself a hat trick in just over half an hour.
Out the other side of a quickly and correctly denied try to James Tedesco for offside, Nightingale threatened to snag a fourth for the first half.
It was Widdop once more behind the bid with an audacious between the legs pass from dummy half. Alas, the touchline and desperate defence denied them this time.
The Tigers threatened to get going when Kevin Naiqama claimed a mongrel grubber the Dragons couldn't.
Had rookie winger Moses Suli done the same soon after it was on for all money.
Instead Cameron McInnes was busting them up the middle seconds later, and Widdop's boot was providing yet another four-pointer, this time for centre Tim Lafai.
With the win on ice there was time yet for a Nene MacDonald try in the corner, and a penalty goal to front-row toiler Leeson Ah Mau in his 100th NRL match.
The Tigers meanwhile had nothing to celebrate, only a mountain to climb.
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