St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor believes his team have been battle-hardened for Saturday night’s top-of-the-table match against Penrith after playing more games against top opposition than other teams.
The Dragons lead the Telstra Premiership on 18 points with nine wins from their 11 matches but what makes their performance in the first half of the season even more impressive is that eight of those games have been against other top teams.
In comparison, the second-placed Panthers have played just three of the eight other top teams, who are on 12 points or higher.
None of the other top teams - the Warriors (7), Rabbitohs (6), Sharks (5), Broncos (6), Storm (5), Roosters (7) and Tigers (6) - have played each other as often as the Dragons.
"I think nine of the teams we've played in the first 12 games are currently in the top eight so every week is a challenge and this is the hardest one thus far, obviously against the team coming second," McGregor said.
"Statistically the teams match up pretty good, in front of a full house, so we are looking forward to it."
If they can overcome Penrith at Panthers Stadium, the Dragons will head into a bye at the midway point of the season with a potential four-point buffer, depending on the result of Saturday's clash between third-placed Warriors and fourth-placed South Sydney.
The Warriors and Rabbitohs are the only teams to have inflicted defeat on St George Illawarra so far this season; the Dragons have recorded wins over Brisbane, Cronulla (twice), Gold Coast, Newcastle, Souths, Sydney Roosters, Melbourne and Canberra.
In the second half of the season, the Dragons play just five games against other current top-ranked teams, including two against Wests Tigers and one each against the Storm, Roosters and Warriors.
They also play Canterbury and Parramatta twice each as well as matches against Manly, North Queensland and Newcastle.
"We know that teams are going to get up for us because we are leading the competition but we don't change our approach and our process of what we do," McGregor said.
"It’s a different challenge and we are looking to improve every week.
"We stick to our systems, which have worked so far. We have got knowledge of the opposition and they've got knowledge of us. Then when the two teams go at it on the day it is whoever brings their best that usually wins. The NRL is unforgiving, if you are off a little bit you get hurt."
Penrith's success has been built on their defence, which is the second-best in the NRL after conceding just 166 points in 11 matches so far compared to 164 points conceded by the Dragons.
St George Illawarra have also scored more points (299) than any other team through an NRL-high 45 tries and 59 goals, while they are ranked first for tackle breaks (421) and post-contact metres (5746m).
"We are fully aware that Penrith will bring their best on Saturday night and we have just got to be better than them," McGregor said.
"They have got great depth, they have developed that over a number of years and they are doing a fantastic job out there.
"It's just another challenge in the NRL, we know we need to play a good solid game on Saturday to get over a good football team but we've got experienced players across the park and we're hardened due to the fact we have been playing top teams on a weekly basis.
"After this game, the boys who don't get selected for representative football have 16 days until our next game so we are going to leave it all out there."