Amongst the drama and intrigue that currently surrounds the NRL transfer market fiasco, one quite remarkable story-line has gone largely unnoticed by the Rugby League community.
The St. George Illawarra Dragons, given next to no hope of winning the premiership just two months ago, sit top of the premiership table with just one loss to their name. It’s not quite the Leicester City fairy-tale, particularly when you consider that we are just six rounds into the season and the Dragons haven’t yet taken on the competition heavyweights, but it is a miraculous turn of events given the disastrous state of club just a few months ago.
Let’s look back at the events that led to their demise.
The Dragons finished season 2016 in eleventh position. The club was in disarray. Fans were campaigning for the coach and chief executive to be thrown out of the club like a drunkard being tossed out of a nightclub following a booze fueled brawl. And criticism was being hurled at the halves, namely Widdop and Marshall, like stones from all and sundry. The problem began and ended with them.
But as time has passed, some seven months now, the Dragons have become a more professional outfit and winning games has quickly become a habit.
The real test will come when they face the Cowboys this weekend, and then the Roosters followed a week later by the Storm. Only in the aftermath of these encounters will we know whether the Dragons are capable of challenging for the crown in 2017.
They’ve shown signs of having what it takes to make it to ANZ Stadium in October. Against a rampant and in-form Sea Eagles outfit last weekend they ran out 35 to 10 victors in a game many expected the home side to run away with like a cat burglar stealing a TV in the dark of night.
So what has been the catalyst for the dramatic turnaround from chumps to, dare I say, champs?
It’s hard to look past their pack, in particularly the big names – Vaughan, De Belin, Frizell, Thompson and even Packer – who are dragging the club kicking and screaming into a new era.
Much of the Dragons game last year was based around defence, and it needed to be given they found points harder to come by than a property listed for less than a million dollars in the city’s CBD.
But so far this year, the big men have provided the go forward and given the Dragons field position, allowing the halves to play close to the line instead of trying to create something from an impossible range. And hasn’t Widdop flourished.
The old story in Rugby League goes that members of the cities’ football club never have to empty their pockets for a coffee again once they’ve payed their dues; such is the admiration for their skill. Rumour has it Balmain legends Steve Roach and Paul Sironen are still being offered free drinks on the peninsula by overawed fans clinging onto the success of the late eighties. Gareth Widdop had no such luck around two months ago and was made to pay for every coffee, muffin and breakfast burrito he ever consumed, plus an extra surcharge. Now the race is on to snap up his signature before another club swoops in on him.
This is quite the turnaround but he is far from the only player that has experienced some success under the Dragons’ new style.
Former St George Illawarra hooker Mitch Rein labelled the Dragons a boring football side after he left the club on bad terms. One must wonder whether this was purely him airing his dirty laundry or whether there was truth to his claims.
But since Cameron McInnes has come along to spice up the Dragons attack, nothing about it has been remotely sleep inducing. His presence around the ruck has added an extra dimension to the Dragons game that opposition defensive units have found difficult to counteract.
Under Marshall, Widdop and Rein, St George Illawarra’s kicking game was almost non existent, and when it was, nothing came of it. McInnes has added run and carry out of dummy-half, been as solid as the rock of Gibralter in defence, but, and perhaps most importantly, has provided grubbers in behind the defence that have either led to try scoring opportunities or forced repeat sets.
Again, these opportunities only arise when the forwards are doing their job.
I cannot end this column without mentioning the transformation in Lafai’s game because, while he hasn’t earned the accolades or the plaudits that the likes of Widdop, McCrone, Frizell and Vaughan have, he has played a pivitol role in the Dragon’s reawakening.
Two weeks ago against the West Tigers it was his vision and strength that sent Nightingale over for a hat-trick. Sure, none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the brilliance of Widdop in the lead up play, but it was stunning Rugby League nonetheless, delivered by a player regaining the confidence that saw him play a vital role in the Bulldog’s march to the Grand Final in 2014.
Wingers are only as good as their inside man after all.
Having said all this, it takes just one poor performance for the bubble to burst and the cycle to start all over again. It’s the way the Dragons bounce back from narrow, or damaging, defeats that will decide whether they are genuine challengers.