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3 hours ago | Tim Costello
The St George-Illawarra Dragons have been tearing apart their opposition so far this season and are starting to look like genuine title contenders. The Sydney outfit has been the standout team in the competition this year, recording eight wins from their first nine matches.
Their commanding 34-14 victory over the Melbourne Storm in round nine sees them sitting two points clear at the top of the table, and rugby league fans everywhere are certainly standing up and taking notice. The Dragons narrowly missed out on making the top eight last year, falling just two points short of the Penrith Panthers (7th) and North Queensland Cowboys (8th). However, it looks like St George fans can definitely look forward to finals footy this year, with the real question being, can they go all the way?
The Storm has been one of the most successful and consistent teams over the last decade and are often the benchmark of where a team needs to be if they want to mount a substantial title charge. Scoring 34 points and limiting one of the most attack-oriented sides in the competition to just 14 is a testament to how well this side are playing at the moment.
St George was impressive from the starting whistle and applied relentless pressure on the Storm forcing them to make needless errors throughout the match. Five-eighth Gareth Widdop acknowledged after the game how important the win was and said the side was extremely pleased with their form so far this year. Star signing Ben Hunt also spoke after the match saying that the team is starting to believe but realises there is still a long way to go.
Bookmakers also seem to think that the Dragons are the team to beat this year, with Oddschecker finding them as short as $4.50, making them the favourites to lift the trophy in September. Melbourne are the other serious contender at this stage at $5.50, followed by the Sydney Roosters on $7.50 and then back to one of the surprise packages of the year, the New Zealand Warriors at $12.00.
It's not as if their first eight wins have come against easy opposition either. Aside from the reigning premiers they have also taken down the champions from 2016, the Cronulla Sharks, both home and away, as well as the Roosters, Brisbane Broncos and the South Sydney Rabbitohs. All teams which will be right in the mix for finals footy at the end of the regular season.
Another remarkable thing about this Dragons' squad is the ease at which they are able to put points on the board. Back in round three, they put on a magnificent display of attacking football and hammered the Gold Coast Titans 54-8 at Clive Berghofer Stadium in Toowoomba. Centre Tim Lafai and young fullback Matt Dufty were in sizzling form and both finished with three tries apiece. The halves duo were sensational too, with Hunt and Widdop's kicking game absolutely destroying the Titans defence.
After the first nine rounds, St George have an impressive point difference of 142. That's an incredible 61 points more than the Storm who have the second-best record with a difference of 81. So what is the key change the Dragons have made this year that is turning this side into the most dangerous team in the competition?
The Dragons went big in the offseason when selecting their new halfback to complete their halves combination, signing Ben Hunt on a massive five-year contract, supposedly worth around $6 million. But even though he came with quite a hefty price tag it seems as though St George have nabbed themselves a red-hot bargain when you look at what he has brought to the team already. Hunt has slotted into the side effortlessly and is the kind of player that coach Paul McGregor will be able to build his team around in the years to come.
McGregor said the side were looking for a player that is accountable for their role in the team and their performances week to week. He wanted someone that would complement the existing players in the squad and set a positive example for the younger members coming up through the ranks. It seems like Hunt is ticking all these boxes at the moment and coach McGregor couldn't be happier with the effort he's putting in on the field.
The experience that he has brought from his time at the Broncos is invaluable, with the 28-year-old having played 189 games with the Brisbane outfit as well as representative football at both state and national levels. With Widdop at the club until 2021, and hooker Cam McInnes and fullback Dufty staying till at least the end of next year, the Dragons have the opportunity to build something really special that could be an extremely dominant force in the future.
The connection that he has already built with Widdop is fantastic with both players complementing each other's strong points beautifully. Gareth is a left-sided player while Ben prefers to go to the right. Ben has a long kicking game, whereas Widdop has an excellent short kicking game. They are both instinctive players who can play within a set system, but can also use their natural talent to spot a weakness in the defence or seize an opportunity to exploit their opposition. They are easily the most exciting halves duo in the NRL this season and it has been a pleasure to watch them work beside each other during this campaign.
State of Origin always plays a factor in any sides season especially teams that are performing well. Football expert Michael Ennis has recently tipped a colossal six players to be called up for representative duties, but is confident that the side can handle the temporary loss of players without slipping into crisis mode.
He expects Tyson Frizell, Cameron McInnes, Paul Vaughan, Jack De Belin and Euan Aitken all to be selected for the New South Wales side, with Ben Hunt to claim the number seven jersey for Queensland. It's undoubtedly something that Dragons' fans will be dreading with the chance of a costly mid-season slump a looming possibility.
Even though the Origin period will be a challenging time for the team, it does give McGregor a good chance to give the younger crop of players some game time. Against the Storm, we saw Reece Robson coming in as dummy half, with the coach obviously anticipating the loss of McInnes and hoping to prepare the youngster for what's expected of him in the upcoming games. Jai Field is another who will probably come into the starting side, as well as Zachary Lomax who will be a solid centre replacement for Aitken.
All in all, things are looking good for the Sydney side and if they can get through the origin period relatively unscathed it's going to make for an exciting second half of the season. One thing is certainly becoming clearer with each game, come September the Dragons are going to be one tricky customer for any team that draws them in the finals.