2010 in review: St George Illawarra Dragons (minor premiers and premiers)

Overview and history

When the St George Illawarra Dragons were being declared National Rugby League champions in 2010, their coach Wayne Bennett was heaping praise on his players. It was a deflection of course, but not a disingenuous one. It was Bennett at his modest best. While the Dragons were winning their 16th premiership overall, Bennett was winning his seventh in first grade (two more than the great Jack Gibson) to earn the title as Australia's greatest ever rugby league coach.

Born on January 1st, 1950, Bennett grew up in South East Queensland. A police officer in his teens, Bennett started his rugby league career on the wing for Warwick before representing Queensland nine times including seven matches against New South Wales (1971-73). He was also selected for Australia, playing two provincial matches on a tour of New Zealand (1971).

Bennett's coaching record speaks for itself. He guided the Brisbane Broncos to six premierships. In 1994 he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia "in recognition of service to the sport of Rugby League, particularly as coach of the Brisbane Broncos".

But at the end of 2008, Bennett left the Broncos for greater challenges, and Brisbane's loss was St George's gain. It is now history that Bennett guided the Dragons from top eight hopefuls to premiers in two seasons, while his replacement Ivan Henjak saw the Broncos go from premiership contenders to falling out of the top eight in the same period of time.

After securing the minor premiership in 2009, the Dragons bowed out in the finals. In 2010 however, after winning back-to-back minor premierships, the club lifted to another level.

With the best defence in the League, Saints possessed a goal-line defence that often appeared impenetrable. The team's trademark to tough it out in the first half and pile on the points in the second half was no more evident than in the 2010 NRL Grand Final.

After trailing 8-6 at half time, St George Illawarra Dragons locked out the Sydney Roosters with a second half 26-0 whitewash, winning 32-8. The record books and statistics show the scorers and possession flow. The Dragons clocked up five tries to two with winger Jason Nightingale posting a memorable double for the premiers while team mate (and Roosters reject) Jamie Soward kicked six goals from seven attempts. The Dragons enjoyed 55% possession overall, coming back in the second half. With six line breaks to the Roosters one. The Dragons also hammered their opposites with over 30% more metres gained. But it was the defence that laid the platform. The Roosters were mostly kept in check with the Dragons missing 17 tackles, while the runners up missed almost 40 tackles in reply.

The end result was a stranglehold around the ruck with the Dragons racing away in the second half.

But these stats don't tell the full story.

At full time, hooker Dean Young embraced his father, St George legend Craig Young who played when the Dragons last won a premiership in 1979, encapsulating the team spirit of a club with a proud history.

After accepting the trophy adorned by the Dragons' most successful captain, Norm Provan, Saints captain Ben Hornby knew the pressure of expectation - to live up to the club's famous 11 premiership reign from 1956-1966.

But Hornby also gave veiled mention to the negative media the club had to endure for two seasons. Despite their dominance on the field, and the clean record off the field, the club, players and fans were the subject of a concerted tabloid media onslaught in 2009 and 2010.

"It's been a long time coming but we got there and to all the fans that came out tonight - to all the true believers," Hornby said.

"We've worked so hard for two years, we've been knocked down but got back up again each time and now we're here!"

There was a particular jab in Hornby's voice at that point. His eyes steeled, he tilted his head slightly and loudly growled the words: "NOW WE'RE HERE!"

Then after a brief pause he looked back up, beamed and shouted, "let's celebrate!"

Emotional scenes followed amidst what was a massive crowd of 82,334 fans, 75% bathed in red-and-white throughout the contest. It was a state of jubilation not seen since 'Bath's Babes' won St George their last premiership in 1979. The spirit of the event took hold with even the NRL ground announcer joining the party and announcing it as the Dragons' first premiership in 31 years.

It was indeed the first premiership since St George and Illawarra formed a joint venture in 1999. But the fact that it was the Dragons 16th premiership since 1921 was not lost on the fans or the media.

The news editor of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Australia's national news service, ran the headline: "Dragons romp to sweet 16th"

"St George Illawarra has broken a 31-year premiership drought... The Dragons clinched their 16th premiership overall with the club's highest winning score in a grand final," wrote Adrian Crawford of the ABC.

Meanwhile NRL.com, the NRL's official website referred to the victory in equally glowing terms.

"It was the club's first premiership since 1979, its 16th overall," as penned by Doug Conway (AAP).

The St George Leagues Club Journal headlined with 'Sweet Sixteen'. Meanwhile fans through the Jubileeavenue.com.au - an online fansite that began in 1997 and now hosted on Leagueunlimited.com - had been hammering the point home since grand final day on October 3rd.

To understand this passion for history, one doesn't have to dig too deep. Both the Illawarra and St George districts share a common heritage that dates back to the 1800s, a time before the words 'rugby league' were placed in print.

Indeed, there was a time when all land south of the Cooks River was referred to as 'Illawarra'. The NSWRL club of this district was eventually named after the Parish of St George. It included a junior base that drew from the then low population areas of the Sutherland Peninsular - and of course, the south coast of Wollongong and beyond. From Kogarah to Kiama, the Dragons had a healthy junior base.

The Illawarra Steelers were formed in 1982, but despite the 'big backyard', financial constraints meant the club was set to fold, and there loomed a threat of there being no Steelers team or NRL games in Wollongong in 1999.

A reunification of the two districts saved the day. St George and Illawarra agreed to bring the two families back into the same household.

Former St George captain Mark Coyne epitomised the sentiment well in 1998, on the eve of the Joint Venture, when he echoed the thoughts of many Dragons supporters by exclaiming, "St George and Illawarra are kindred spirits."

In what was looking like a decade of disappointment, there's a piece of history that the Dragons team of 2010 has helped to preserve. Since the joint venture was formed, Saints had previously contested just one premiership decider in 1999. What followed was a slide into a perceived acceptance of mediocrity with coaches Andrew Farrar and Nathan Brown unable to deliver a grand final appearance, let alone a premiership.

It had not escaped some fans that 2010 was the last chance for the Dragons to keep an unique record intact. No team in the history of red-and-whites has failed to qualify for a premiership decider in any decade since the club's first grade debut in 1921. Failure to qualify for a grand final in 2010 would have seen the St George Illawarra administrations of 2001-2010 presiding over the most unsuccessful decade in the history of the St George DRLFC. But at the death, they went one better.

For Bennett, it was no pressure.

Season Review

Coming into 2010, St George Illawarra held a heavy weight of burden and regret after their listless end to 2009, going out in straight sets. But from the opening game against the Eels in 2010, where they completed over 95% of their sets, until their second half shutout of the Roosters in the grand final, the Dragons focused their game plan on one thing: defence. If they got that right, the attack would follow.

The downside to this though, when a team hung with the Dragons or had the attacking flair to trouble their rigid defence, they got on top of the eventual premiers. Fortunately for the Dragons, this didn't happen too often. Nevertheless, many pundits questioned their premiership credentials. This was not helped when the club suffered their seventh loss of the season against Canberra in round 24. But after that it was go time, and the Dragons were ready.

Following their round one victory over last year's grand finalists, the Dragons easily disposed of the Bulldogs and Cowboys before travelling to Melbourne - the Storm yet to have their points stripped and at the time were still regarded as the team to beat. Saints lost to the former 2009 premiers but bounced back in rounds 5 to 8 to post four consecutive wins against the Broncos, Titans and Roosters before demolishing the Sharks 38-0 at WIN Stadium, centre Matt Cooper bagging a double and winger Brett Morris snaring a hat-trick.

The Dragons suffered their second loss of the year to Manly in round nine before making short work of old rivals the Bulldogs the following week. With Origin duties calling up no less than six players, the Dragons copped a third loss against the Raiders in round 11. Round 12 saw an emphatic 30-0 victory over the Eels, followed by a tight affair a week later in Auckland, the Dragons winning 22-20 in the wet.

Following a much needed bye in round 14 and with Origin II kicking off, the Dragons hit form again with big wins over the Sharks and Wests Tigers before hitting a lean period. In what was Mark Gasnier's comeback match, Saints went down to the Panthers in round 17, rookie Kalifa Fai-Fai Loa bagging a double late in the match. Following their second bye and the end of the Origin series, the Dragons continued to struggle with hard fought matches in rounds 19 to 21, registering a win over the Rabbitohs and narrow losses to the Titans and Broncos (the Dragons' only consecutive losses in 2010) - coincidentally while prop Michael Weyman was sidelined with suspension. With a determined win over the Roosters in round 22 and an emphatic 32-18 win over the Sea Eagles in round 23, the Dragons season appeared to be back on track. However, round 24 saw another loss to the Raiders and the 26-18 win against the Knights in round 25 was less than convincing, Saints letting an early lead slip. Playing to a packed house in Newcastle, the result was only determined in the 78th minute when fullback Darius Boyd made sensational clean break through the line from deep in his own half before finding five eighth Jamie Soward in support to seal victory.

Nevertheless, it was enough to secure the minor premiership for the second year running. With just one round to play before the finals, coach Wayne Bennett decided to rest a number of key players against the Rabbitohs at Kogarah Jubilee. Ben Hornby (c) and Jamie Soward were replaced by Kyle Stanley and Nathan Fien in the halves. Forwards Dean Young, Jeremy Smith and Trent Merrin were also rested. The Rabbitohs had everything to play for with a win ensuring them of a finals berth. The gamble by Bennett paid off brilliantly with backrower Ben Creagh crashing through for a hat-trick of tries in the opening section, giving the home side an 18-0 lead after just 18 minutes of play. Cruising at times, the Dragons went on to win 38-24 to end the Rabbitohs' season.

St George Illawarra's ability to shut out their opponents in the second half was no more evident than the 2010 finals series, the Dragons outscoring them 51 to nothing. The defence suffocated their opposition with no cracks appearing across the entire field. When their opponents were tired, St George Illawarra would run riot and finish off the match in style.

With a home final at Kogarah, the Dragons easily accounted for the Sea Eagles 28-0, running away with the match in the final 20 minutes to earn a week's break.

A fortnight later in front of a crowd of 71,212 at ANZ Stadium, Homebush, St George Illawarra won through to the Grand Final with a tense 13-12 victory over a brave Wests Tigers outfit. After trailing 12-6 at the break, the minor premiers levelled the scores through Jason Nightingale in the 50th minute. An arm wrestle followed with both sides jockeying for field position, the Dragons gaining the ascendancy in the final quarter. A Jamie Soward field goal in the 74th minute saw Saints hit the front for the first time in the match, securing victory and bringing the house down.

The Grand Final

The Dragons saved their best for the final 40 minutes of the season, defeating Brian Smith's Sydney Roosters 32-8 in the 2010 NRL Grand Final. Playing in front of a crowd of 82,334 in the Homebush rain, Saints were first to score through Mark Gasnier in the eighth minute. But the first half proved to be a tough encounter, an enthusiastic Roosters outfit scoring the next two four-pointers to take an 8-6 half time lead. The make matters worse, the Dragons had lost prop Michael Weyman with a head injury. The second half however, was a different affair. Jason Nightingale crossed for the first of his double six minutes after the break. He was in again in the 60th minute. By now, the Dragons pack were rolling over the top of their opposites. Three minutes later, Dean Young scored and the Dragon Army were celebrating. The final blow came in the 70th minute. With Hornby and Soward telegraphing that a field goal was on, hooker Nathan Fien dummied to pass in front of a tired set of markers before diving over to score next to the sticks.

8 min: Dragons 6-0 (Gasnier try, Soward goal)
16 min: Dragons 6-4 (Anasta try)
20 min: Roosters 8-6 (Aubusson try)
46 min: Dragons 12-8 (Nightingale try, Soward goal)
60 min: Dragons 18-8 (Nightingale try, Soward goal)
63 min: Dragons 24-8 (Young try, Soward try)
67 min: Dragons 26-8 (Soward goal)
70 min: Dragons 32-8 (Fien try, Soward goal)


Stats 2010

BIGGEST WINS: Round 8 v Sharks 38-0; Round 12 v Eels 30-0; Finals 1 v Sea Eagles 28-0

BIGGEST LOSSES: Round 9 v Sea Eagles 24-6; Round 24 v Raiders 32-16

LONGEST WINNING STREAK: 5 wins - Round 25 v Knights 26-16 - Grand Final v Roosters 32-8

Finished 1st: Minor Premiers, Premiers

MINOR PREMIERSHIP (after 26 rounds):
Competition points: 38 points (1st)
Won 17, Lost 7, Byes 2
Points For: 518 (8th)
Points Against: 299 (1st)
Points Differential: +219 (1st)
NB: Panthers 2nd P/D with +156

Won 3, Lost 0
Points For: 73
Points Against: 20

TOP POINT SCORERS 2010 (including finals):
Most Points: Jamie Soward 197 (6t, 84g, 5fg)
Most Tries: Brett Morris 20
(NB: B Morris is poised become the first NRL player since Nathan Blacklock to score 20 tries or more over three seasons)
Most Goals: Jamie Soward 84/117 (71.8%)

MOST GAMES 2010 (including finals):
Ben Creagh [26], Jason Nightingale [26], Jamie Soward [26]

Best Players

It's hard to single out one player as the best for a strong unit like the Dragons, the squad required contributions from all players to maintain their standards. Fullback and Clive Churchill Medalist Darius Boyd, five eighth Jamie Soward, halfback and captain Ben Hornby, hooker Nathan Fien, centre Matt Cooper, winger Brett Morris, utility Beau Scott, forwards Dean Young, Michael Weyman, Neville Costigan, Ben Creagh, Matt Prior, Jarrod Saffy and Jeremy Smith all played their part.

But we've picked out winger Jason Nightingale as the player who epitomised the ethos Wayne Bennett had installed at St George Illawarra. Shunted to the bench for reformed bad boy Wendell Sailor in 2009, Nightingale got his spot back in 2010 following Sailor's retirement. A Sydney born Kiwi international, 'Florence' would be first to take a hit-up from his own end, gaining valuable metres for his side. More than once he brought the ball back into the field of play when most first graders would have been caught in the in-goal. Plus, the St George junior proved to be a tremendous finisher with a knack of being in position to get across the line, including bagging two tries in the grand final to break the Roosters resistance. That is the St George Illawarra Dragons under Wayne Bennett.

Best Rookie

Kyle Stanley may not of been on the field during the emphatic grand final victory but he still had a huge part to play for the Dragons in 2010, from filling in at centre when Matt Cooper was injured to replacing Jamie Soward at five eighth in round 26. Playing against the Rabbitohs (who had everything to play for), the Dragons celebrated the minor premiership while Stanley kicked 7/7 to cap off the night. 2011 will see Stanley spend more time on the bench as an utility for Bennett to deploy whenever but retirements and departures should see the boom youngster in his preferred position of five-eighth or centre.

Players appearing in NRL in 2010

BOYD Darius, COOPER Matt, COSTIGAN Neville, CREAGH Ben, EMMETT Nick, FAI-FAI LOA Kalifa, FIEN Nathan, GASNIER Mark, GREEN Jon, GREENFIELD Michael, HORNBY Ben (c), HUNT Dan, KING Cameron, LETT Michael, MARKETO Jake, MERRIN, Trent, MORRIS Brett, NIGHTINGALE Jason, PRIDDIS Luke, PRIOR Matt, SAFFY Jarrod, SCOTT Beau, SMITH Jeremy, SOWARD Jamie, STANLEY Kyle, THORBY Ricky, WEYMAN Michael, YOUNG Dean
(NB: 28 Players used)

Player Movements

Mark Gasnier - 2014 [French Rugby - Stade Fran