Mid-season Report Card
Oh When The Saints… Go Marching In… Oh When The Saints Go Marching In… Oh I Want To Be In That Number… When The Saints Go Marching In!
All hail King Benny as the St George Illawarra Dragons reach the halfway point in first place on the NRL ladder with a new-found grit, a new-found defensive steel and more recently the ability to score points, making them one of the sides to beat for this year’s crown.
They may have had a little bit of luck (the Bulldogs game comes to mind which they won thanks to a glaring video referee error) but they are one of only two sides to not have any byes at this stage so to be in top spot is an amazing effort.
There is no denying supercoach Wayne Bennett. His impact on the side is obvious as the once ‘soft’ Dragons have become a side prepared to do the hard yards before chancing their arm.
Gone is the flashy, unwise, often erratic play that plagued the team in the crucial parts of matches; in its place is a suffocating relentless play – the cornerstone of Bennett’s time at the Broncos which yielded six premierships.
Are Things Going To Plan? It certainly seems so. The side struggled with attacking football early in the season as Bennett worked almost exclusively on defence, but they were still able to win matches. They started with a golden-point loss in Melbourne before striking up a run of four victories, which included an awesome 25-12 win in Brisbane against Bennett’s former club.
They had a small stumble against the Knights at Kogarah when they got a little cocky, before once again getting back into the winner’s circle. Their defence has been sensational, conceding just 172 points or 13.2 a game, and while their attack hasn’t been overly potent it has shown some good signs in the past two weeks against the Panthers (win 38-10) and the Titans (loss 28-24). With offence certain to continue to improve, and a defence as tough as nails, the Dragons are in the frontline for the premiership.
Injury Front… The Dragons have used 26 players up to this point, but some have been forced through representative football rather than injury.
Kiwi forward Jeremy Smith has been the major casualty, with an ankle injury seeing him miss five games, while a broken hand for Matt Prior also threw a small spanner in the works. Matt Cooper has missed a game here and there with leg muscle issues and Justin Poore missed some football earlier in the year. But their depth has been able to cover for these absences.
If Only… The Dragons have only suffered four losses this season. One was in golden point against the Storm, one was a six-point loss to the Knights when they held an early lead, one was a four-point loss to the Cowboys after representative games and the last was just recently, another four-point loss to the Titans.
Against the Storm anything could have happened at the death, but it was the Storm who prevailed. The Knights game was the Dragons’ for the taking when they led 14-6 at halftime yet they let the Knights score three tries in seven minutes after the break to take it from their grasp.
Against the Cowboys the Dragons had some players missing after City-Country and others backing up but still fought their way into a chance to win when Ben Hornby released Matt Prior into the clear at the death.
As Wendell Sailor loomed up on the outside Prior tragically passed the ball over the sideline and the chance was lost. Then just recently the Dragons trailed 22-2 at halftime against the Titans – before storming home to get within four at the death. Just one of those needed to be wins for them to hold the outright competition lead.
Then again, they have had their share of luck: they should have lost to the Bulldogs and the Warriors should have put them away instead of losing by a point in Wollongong.
Who’s Flying… In the backs, the back three of Darius Boyd, Brett Morris and Wendell Sailor have been outstanding. Boyd is averaging 138 metres gained a match, has three line breaks, five line-break assists and two try assists, despite a swine flu scare. Morris is gaining 129 metres, has 11 line breaks and 11 tries, while Sailor is averaging 131 metres, and has six line breaks and seven ‘meat pies’.
Five-eighth Jamie Soward has given his critics a big ‘don’t argue’ – much like the one Greg Inglis handed him in Round 1 to start the criticism – by having the NRL’s best kicking game (averaging 582 metres gained from the boot a match), adding eight line breaks, eight line-break assists, five tries and 14 try assists.
In the forwards, props Justin Poore and Michael Weyman have pushed their way into New South Wales jerseys thanks to their massive output, and second row forward Ben Creagh also joined the Blues thanks to outstanding form on the left edge.
Needs To Lift… The Dragons don’t have any poor individual performers although Matt Cooper might like to contribute a little more to try to win his representative jerseys back. The attack still needs to make more inroads for the side to be true premiership material, but while the defence is as strong as it is they will remain in the hunt.
Predicted finish… The Dragons have set themselves up in a position where anything less than the top four should be seen as a failure. 1st-4th.
Under-20s… The Dragons’ young guns are currently sitting third on the ladder after going on a big run of wins earlier in the year. They lost their first two matches by just two points before embarking on nine straight wins to rocket up the table. A loss to Penrith was followed by a win over the Gold Coast, putting the side just a win behind the competition leaders without having had any byes.
Winger Joe Vickery is proving a try-scoring weapon and halfback Beau Henry is also racking up the points. Centre Kane Linnett is a constant line breaker and Trent Merrin is an NRL forward in the making.