Matt Dufty completed a great escape for St. George Illawarra Dragons as the NRL leaders produced a late fightback to beat bottom side Parramatta Eels 20-18.

Parramatta were on the brink of pulling off an upset at WIN Stadium on Thursday, but late tries from Euan Aitken and Dufty got the Dragons out of jail.

The Eels led 12-8 at half-time after Tim Mannah broke down the middle and whipped a pass inside for Bevan French to go under the posts, then Nathan Brown crossed prior to Dufty going over at the other end.

Jarryd Hayne spun and dotted down from close range to increase the beleaguered Eels' advantage and an upset was on the cards until the closing stages.

Ben Hunt had been out of sorts on his return from State of Origin duty, but his grubber produced a try for Aitken seven minutes from time to set up a tense finale.

There was a final twist when Dufty got on the end of a perfectly weighted grubber from Gareth Widdop to score a third Dragons try, which the skipper converted to take his tally to eight points and put his side four points clear at the summit.

Victory for the Dragons may come at a cost, as New South Wales Origin forward Paul Vaughan was placed on report for tripping Eels forward David Gower.