Mid-Season Review: St George Illawarra Dragons

Position after 13 rounds: 1st
Wins: 10
Losses: 1
Draws: 1
Byes: 1
Competition points: 23
Differential: 122

There’s been no premiership hangover for the Dragons, who have pretty much swept all before them so far in 2011 to open up a three-point lead at the top of the NRL ladder. At the corresponding stage last year, the Red V had incurred three losses but were still top of the table – this year they’ve suffered just the one defeat, a surprise Round 2 loss to the Sharks on a wet night when that committed opponent would have beaten any team.

Subsequently they’ve strung together nine wins in a row – a joint-venture record – plus a gritty draw against the Eels to close out the first half of the year.

Their hot form has seen a plethora of players rewarded with representative honours over the past month – including seven New South Wales Blues jerseys (Brett Morris, Mark Gasnier, Jamie Soward, Dean Young, Beau Scott, Ben Creagh, Trent Merrin) as well as Darius Boyd’s Maroons jumper.

The side has shown resilience when it matters – all teams have really stuck it to the premiers but time and again they’ve weathered the heavy going and come up trumps.

Their defence is the best in the comp, allowing in just 10.7 points and 1.8 tries a game.

They continue to set the benchmark for building pressure and strangling oppositions out of the contest. Against the Knights in Newcastle they withstood a second-half onslaught that saw them forced into making 67 more tackles than the home side after halftime; they emerged two-point victors.

Twice in three weeks they’ve kept oppositions scoreless. Their Round 6 clash against the Rabbitohs remained in the balance at halftime when they led just 2-nil, before two tries in five minutes late in the second section sealed the deal. A fortnight later they spanked the Eels 30-nil, their sparkling attack rocketing the side to a 22-nil advantage inside the first 40.

Injuries have been kind to them and the experts’ biggest concern at the start of the season – that they would not have the depth to cover for the loss of forwards Neville Costigan, Jeremy Smith and Jarrod Saffy – has proven unwarranted.

While they’ve accomplished all they would have hoped to at this stage they have yet to meet the competition’s other gun performers Brisbane (Round 15), Manly (Round 16) or Melbourne (Round 24). The next month will no doubt provide a good barometer to their chances of securing a hat-trick of Minor Premierships.

Are Things Going To Plan? Absolutely. This time last year the critics were slamming the Dragons for their one-dimensional attack which favoured the left side by a 2:1 ratio. But in 2011 they’ve thrown away that crutch and are now damaging on the right edge too. Evidence? At the corresponding stage last year, left winger Brett Morris had scored 12 tries; this year he’s crossed for just three. Meantime Mark Gasnier and Jason Nightingale have formed a fearsome combination on the right, with the Dragons scoring 14 of their 41 tries. They’ve scored 19 tries on the left side; while that’s still high it’s not the go-to area it once was.

Injury Front… The Dragons have called on 24 players, the third fewest number of all sides. Key players including Dean Young (knee soreness), Nathan Fien (hamstring) and Darius Boyd (hamstring) have had some minor injuries but they’ve only been sidelined for short bursts.

But their depth will be further tested in the next month or so with strike centre Matt Cooper sidelined with minor eye socket, cheekbone and wrist fractures and Kyle Stanley out with a hamstring strain.

If Only… A few of their stars weren’t in the form they are in, they wouldn’t be faced with massive disruption heading into their Round 14 game with the Titans and Round 17 clash with the Knights prior to Origin II and III respectively. The Dragons had a bye in Round 11 and weren’t affected by Origin I preparations. How they deal with the next month will go a long way to confirming their minor premiership credentials.

Who’s Flying… Who’s not is more the question. It’s got to the stage where picking man of the match in a Dragons game is tougher than getting out of the car park at ANZ Stadium on grand final night.

Matt Cooper has wound back the clock – he ranks third for line-breaks (11) and has 39 tackle-breaks plus seven tries.

Jamie Soward’s kicking game has kept them on the front foot – he’s carved out nearly six kilometres of territory from kicks.

No surprise Ben Creagh was recalled to both the Test team and the Blues – he has upped his game several notches in 2011 and incorporated a wicked offload (27) into the bargain. Plus he’s grinding out solid territory (108 metres) and making more than 25 tackles a game, all in 70-plus minutes.

Matt Prior is their unsung hero, quietly topping the team in defence with 33.3 tackles a game. Beau Scott has added 93 metres and 30 tackles.

Then there’s Gasnier, who has worked hard to get his metres back up to triple figures (122), while providing critical attacking assistance (five try assists, five line-break assists).

Needs to Lift… Twelve months ago Michael Weyman was an Origin player. Since then a groin injury and extra attention from oppositions have set him back in his tracks. He’s still a valuable contributor, but he needs to do better than a 74-metre gain from 10 hit-ups in under 40 minutes of footy.

Assistant Coach Steve Price tells NRL.com “We’d rate our year a 7.5 or 8 out of 10 so far. We are where we want to be. We’re happy with our defence and we’ll look to improve our attack and score a few more tries as we build in the second half of the season. The players have achieved a lot of good things; now it’s important we continue the flow, get through the tough time around Origin and then rev up our season. While a whole bunch of guys have played consistently, Matt Cooper is playing the best footy of his career. People rate him the best defensive centre but his attack has come on in leaps and bounds. And Jason Nightingale has taken his game to a new level… the club is really pleased with him. Injuries haven’t been too harsh… our biggest challenge now is to maintain our intensity and not get carried away.”

Predicted Finish… If the Dragons can negotiate the next three weeks with only a minor bump and just a few bruises it will be hard for the other sides to reel them in and prevent Minor Premiership No.3. But their depth will be sorely tested over the coming weeks. Still, it would be a surprise if they weren’t in the top two through Round 26, and you’d expect them to have a mortgage on a berth in the big one on October 2.

Under-20s… It’s been a disappointing year for the junior Dragons, who have just three wins and a draw to rank 13th,  five competition points adrift of eighth place. Attack has been a struggle for coach Adrian Lam’s charges – their 212 points scored are the second fewest in the competition. Player-wise, 19-year-old lock Alex McKinnon has been a standout, averaging nearly 16 runs for 153 metres with 25 tackles. Meanwhile fullback Jarrod Boyle has done a good job learning from top squad No.1 Darius Boyd, adding a team-high nine try assists. Second-rower Jack De Belin ranks fourth in the TC for offloads (25).

St George Illawarra's player stats for 2011

Compare the stats of every NRL team in 2011