Severe food poisoning hospitalised Ben Hornby, prompted Daniel Vidot's pre-match withdrawal and had starting hooker Mitch Rein repositioned on a toilet after kick-off - yet it was the New Zealand Warriors caught with their pants down as they slumped to a record-equalling defeat at St George Illawarra last night.
Not even a Dragons line-up affected by illness and already out of title contention could lift the Warriors from their late-season malaise as interim coach Tony Iro's first game culminated in a mirror-image of the lack lustre displays that ended predecessor Brian McClennan's tenure.
The seven tries to one, 38-6, defeat at Wollongong's WIN Stadium is the Warriors seventh in a row - a season-ending loss to the Canberra Raiders on Sunday would present an all-time low, the nadir of a campaign which has seen last year's beaten grand finalists come uncomfortably close to finishing dead last.
Had the Gold Coast and North Queensland not been depleted when they hosted the Warriors during State of Origin the New Zealanders could potentially be lower than 13th and challenging Parramatta for the wooden spoon.
Instead Iro has inherited the equivalent of a poisoned chalice - for one more week at least - as McClennan's exit on Tuesday did not herald a new beginning.
The former Kiwis international was coy on whether he was keen to make the role permanent as he fronted the post-match inquisition with retirement-bound Micheal Luck - the latest captain tasked with justifying another mediocre performance.
"I'm just keen on getting the side to hopefully perform next week in front of a home crowd," Iro said when quizzed on his future ambitions.
"It's been a tough year for our members, we certainly owe them a good performance."
After watching the Warriors deteriorate from 12-6 at the midway point to a 32-point hiding, a glum Iro struggled to glean any positives from a performance blighted by weak tackling, passive carries and the loss of concussed playmaker Shaun Johnson after his left eye was closed by an accidental finger.
"It was a tough night. I thought the boys tried hard, they fought right to the end, the boys kept turning up for each other at least," he said glossing over the fact the Dragons scored five unanswered tries in the second spell including three in a 10-minute burst.
He then added a touch of realism when confessing: "We're not playing with a lot of confidence or a lot of luck."
Motivated to give Hornby and another retiring stalwart Dean Young cause for celebration in their final match on home soil, the Dragons were in control throughout and had Jamie Soward's kicking game been more accurate they would have crossed more than twice in the opening half.
However, the Warriors were still stressed by their defensive workload and their energy and accuracy dropped alarmingly after the break.
The loss of Johnson, the Warriors only try-scorer, in the 38th minute was another body blow - he tried to prove his readiness by doing some press-ups in the in goal during the third quarter but when Jason Nightingale scored to put the outcome beyond doubt he wisely returned to the bench.
Iro said the star halfback had blurred vision but was hopeful he would be available to face the Raiders.
While Johnson was sidelined the surprise return of Kiwis prop Ben Matulino presented a genuine feel-good factor from an otherwise forgettable night on a ground the Warriors have not won at since 1996.
Ruled out with a pectoral muscle injury since the hammering by Cronulla on August 5, Matulino was a late addition to the interchange bench and responded by carrying the ball a team-high 143-metres.
Rookie fullback Carlos Tuimavave was caught in mid-air for the Dragons opening touchdown but made amends with two excellent try-saving interventions as the home side ran rampant.
Meanwhile, after completing a lap of honour with Young, captain and halfback Hornby revealed he required medical assistance after falling ill and was only certain of playing after completing the warm-ups.
"I thought I wasn't even going to get to the game. I thought there'd be all this celebration going on and I won't even be here," he said.
Vidot didn't display the same intestinal fortitude and was replaced on the wing by Chase Stanley, who scored his first try since the opening round last season after moving out a slot from centre.
St George Illawarra 38 (Jason Nightingale 2, Will Matthews, Chase Stanley, Josh Miller, Ben Creagh, Matt Cooper tries; Jamie Soward 5 goals)
NZ Warriors 6 (Shaun Johnson try; James Maloney goal)
- © Fairfax NZ News
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