How Dragons went from 40-minute team to genuine contenders
St George Illawarra Dragons were statistically the second-best team in the NRL last year up to half-time of matches but failed to make the finals. This season, they are going on with the job for the full 80 minutes and are on track for a top-four finish.
Dragons coach Paul McGregor revealed the statistic about his team’s first-half performances in 2017 after their 30-12 defeat of Newcastle, and outlined why he believed they were better placed to capitalise on their perfect start to the season.
Under McGregor’s coaching, the Dragons won six of their first seven matches last season and six of their first eight games in 2015 but the club has never previously been unbeaten after the opening four rounds since the formation of the joint venture in 1999.
Only 20 teams have won their first four matches in NRL history and 14 of them have finished in the top four, while four have won the grand final.
"It is a different group, the balance of our squad is much improved," McGregor said. "We certainly learned a lot as a group, and as a coaching staff.
"I’m into my fourth year and we have bought in a halfback [Ben Hunt], we have bought in a front-rower [James Graham], our youth are on their second or third year after their debut and they have had a couple of good pre-seasons, so the depth of our squad is deeper."
The key areas of improvement are their fitness and game management.
With Hunt and skipper Gareth Widdop in the halves, the Dragons have two world-class playmakers who are able to sum up the game and make good decisions.
Hunt’s arrival has freed up Widdop to play a running game at five-eighth and he has been popping up on either side of the ruck to provide another attacking option.
"I feel a lot more comfortable in the [coach’s] box with the way the guys are game managing around the important times and field position," McGregor said.
"We needed to work hard and get a really good physical base and a better technical understanding.”
In defence, the Dragons have conceded just 48 points in four games, with their 20-16 win over Cronulla Sharks in round two being their closest match.
However, it is not just the difficulty other teams are having breaking their defensive line which is impressive but the physicality of the tackling from the likes of Jack de Belin, Paul Vaughan, Tyson Frizell, Leeson Ah Mau and Tariq Sims that is having an impact.
Match: Dragons vs Knights
Venue: WIN Stadium
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On three occasions at WIN Stadium, Knights players lost the ball in heavy tackles and the Dragons scored.
"There is just a good attitude floating around the place at the moment where boys are really just willing to put their hands up, put their stats to the side and do those team-first actions," de Belin said.
"If I see someone else put on a good hit it definitely motivates me to do the same."
Widdop said the work of the forwards had made it easier for the backs against the Knights.
"The big boys in the middle, certainly in the first half, had a lot of intent and forced a few turnovers," Widdop said.
"They were great tonight and when your forwards are winning that battle in the middle it always makes it easier for us on the edges.”