Peter Sterling: The Dragons' lethal left edge

When it comes to game analysis and rugby league strategy, there are few who rival the passion and experience of Peter Sterling.

First a game-breaking player at the highest level, now the brains behind the Channel Nine commentary team - it's fair to say 'Sterlo' has earned the right to have an opinion.

This season, footy fans, we'll get a chance to delve into the mind of the man himself.

'Sterlo' is now a permanent member of the NRL.com team. Stay tuned for his column each and every Wednesday throughout the season.

Darius Boyd is the new Karmichael Hunt.

No, he’s not heading off to play rugby union or join the AFL.

What he is doing is having a similar influence on the Dragons that Karmichael did with the Brisbane Broncos.

The common denominator of course is coach Wayne Bennett, who guided both player's fortunes when they entered the NRL as teenagers. Hunt is still the youngest ever to play first-grade for the Broncos, debuting at the tender age of 17 and 118 days. Boyd not a whole lot older, playing his first game at 18 and 238 days.

Before Karmichael’s defection, he was an integral part of Brisbane’s sustained success, and his combination with Darren Lockyer the catalyst to so much of their attacking potency.

We are now seeing the same kind of qualities being demonstrated by his former teammate at St George Illawarra.

I think we can assume that when Wayne Bennett headed south of the border to take over his new post, he had already determined the different role to be played by Boyd.

Whilst at the Broncos, Darius played just 17 games from 73 appearances in the fullback position. The rest divided between centre and wing.

At the Dragons, all of his 30 games have been in the No.1 jersey.   

It has come as something of a surprise then to find out what a good ballplayer and decision-maker he is proving to be. Ominously for other clubs, he is only getting better.

His biggest impact is the pivotal role he is playing as part of the Dragons' lethal left-side attack.

The club enjoyed an impressive strike-rate in 2009 down that side of the field. In the opening eight weeks of the new competition, it has been absolutely phenomenal, producing 19 of the 35 tries scored.

Despite opposition teams doing their homework and knowing what to expect, very few have been able to nullify the danger. In six of their eight matches, the Dragons have scored at least one try per game from the same attacking formation. It’s been a bit like a Benji Marshall sidestep - you know it’s coming, but how do you stop it?             

This formation couldn’t be more simple. It invariably begins with Ben Hornby with the football, Ben Creagh going through as a decoy, Darius Boyd looping behind as a 2nd man runner and Matt Cooper and Brett Morris as outside supports.

The first success came in the opening minutes of round two against the Bulldogs with Boyd taking the ball behind Creagh and developing a three-on-two against Jamal Idris and Steve Turner. A cut-out pass saw Morris score.

CLICK HERE to see the birth of this trademark play.

An hour later it was take two, except it was a short pass for Nick Emmett to cross who was deputising for the injured Cooper.

CLICK HERE to see this variation.

In round five against a young and inexperienced Brisbane outfit, the same play again unfolded perfectly for Boyd to deliver the ‘money ball’ to an unmarked Morris.

CLICK HERE to see Boyd's deft passing on the left edge.

Last weekend against Cronulla, it was the same combination with Boyd instinctively knowing that a rushed pass on his outside would lead to points.

CLICK HERE to see the same combination fire against the Sharks.

All of these tries were scored off selective passes from the fullback immediately assessing the situation and making the right passing decision. Remarkably, of the 11 tries Morris has currently crossed for, Darius Boyd has given him the final ball on six occasions.

A couple of those again came from the same attacking set-up, but after the ball needed to be run first.

The Cowboys were victims in round three with Boyd putting a beautiful move on Grant Rovelli to slice into space, draw the fullback and find Morris.

CLICK HERE to see Boyd's footwork against the Cowboys.

Against Brisbane it was a similar scenario, after good inside work put him into the clear to again set up his wingman.

CLICK HERE to see Boyd carve up his former club.  

Why then is this simple and now expected formation continuing to be so successful?

It comes down to the initial work done by Ben Hornby.

In every instance, Ben makes a concerted effort to straighten his run at the defensive line before letting the ball go. By doing so, he squares up the opposition and they are forced to commit themselves to an attacking player. This stops them from being able to slide in defence and cover more than one attacker.

The second part of the equation is then for Hornby or Boyd to make the right decision, based on how the defence has reacted.

To make things more difficult for other teams, the Dragons are introducing variations to this play to avoid becoming too predictable.

Against Canterbury, Hornby operated a simple run-around with Dean Young to put pressure on the ‘Dogs wide defenders. On this occasion, the usual role played by Boyd made him the perfect decoy. Winger Steve Turner saw him lurking out the back, over read the situation, and came way in off his wing expecting the fullback to receive the ball. He didn’t, and Morris did.

CLICK HERE to see this variation involving a run-around with Young.

Instead of over reading, the Roosters on Anzac Day didn’t at all read a rare inside run from Ben Creagh. At times he’ll crash on to a flat pass outside of Hornby, but a clever change of line saw him drop back underneath to catch out lazy defenders and off-load for Luke Priddis to score.

CLICK HERE to see Creagh's line-running.

At the beginning of the season, there was plenty of conjecture as to whether St George Illawarra could back up their much vaunted defence with enough variety in their attack.

After two months of competition sitting as sole leaders, and having scored the third most amount of tries, even their harshest critics would have to concede that they’ve found the right mix.