The Dragons have brought home a rousing win for the first game of the 2018 NRL season, with Ben Hunt putting in an even more spectacular performance in the halves than he did against the Bunnies during the Charity Shield. While the Broncos were definitely paying below par, and Hunt was advantaged by his intimate knowledge of his former team’s playmaking and halves collaborations, there could be no doubt that this was a statement of purpose from St. George-Illawarra after their devastating loss to the Bulldogs in the week before last year’s finals season.
It took a while for us to see the first try of the 2018 season, with both teams apparently taking a while to get into gear. Four minutes in, Tevita Pangai Junior coughed up the ball and prevented the Broncos getting to the end of their set, although he made up for it four minutes later with a strip on James Graham – the beginning of a strong night for the Brisbane prop – and off the back of that and a penalty Jordan Kahu chose to go for goal, slotting through the first two points of the 2018 season.
The score was levelled when St. George got a penalty of their own at the eleventh, but they failed to really consolidate upon their momentum, with Paul Vaughan coming up with an error in the play-the-ball with three tackles to go about three minutes later – a stuff-up that was all the more frustrating in that this had been the Dragons’ first really emphatic attacking position of the game so far.
Sure, Matt Lodge might have coughed the Steeden up a moment later – to rapturous boos from the crowd – but the Red V were still unable to make the most of it, with some uncharacteristically bad timing from Tyson Frizell shortly afterwards shutting down what initially looked to be a good setup from Gareth Widdop. While the Dragons might have received the penalty for Brisbane being offside, they didn’t feel confident, so it made sense that Widdop decided to take the two – somewhat to the chagrin of the Kogarah faithful – rather than having another crack at the line.
Nevertheless, the Broncos weren’t dominant either, appearing to have crossed over twenty-one minutes in, only for the replay to show what had been pretty obvious to the naked eye anyway – namely, that the cut-out pass from Darius Boyd that sent Corey Oates over had been (just) forward. To make matters worse for the Brisbane winger, he knocked on right on the Broncos’ line six minutes later, granting the Dragons their first close-range set of the game so far.
They made the most of it too, with Cameron McInnes putting in a monster of a run to slam over Josh McGuire and get within centimetres of the line, only for a scrambling Brisbane defence to hold him up at the eleventh hour. Still, that speed and strength was enough to dishevel the Brisbane line, who didn’t know what had hit them when Ben Hunt sent a sneaky grubber past Boyd a moment later, and Frizell outran Anthony Milford to ground the first try of the 2018 NRL season.
In the way in which it cancelled out Frizell’s mistiming earlier in the game, the way in which Hunt managed to outmaneouvre his old halves partner, and the thirty-five minutes it had taken us to get here, this was a particularly cathartic and rousing try for the Dragons – and no doubt contributed to the torrent of points that would cascade over the second stanza.
Sure, it might have been a bit dispiriting for Red V supporters to see Frizell led off for an HIA a minute later – he’d copped a boot to the head in the putdown – but the spectacle of Widdop effortlessly adding the extras couldn’t help but make it feel as if things were starting to get into gear for the Dragons.
Despite ending the first half strong, St. George struggled a little bit at the start of the second forty, with Jason Nightingale making a rare error to return possession to Brisbane right on their line. From there, the Broncos rapidly sent the ball over to the right side of the field, with James Roberts compressing and accelerating the momentum to send the Steeden out to Jamayne Isaako, who dragged the entire Brisbane right edge with him.
In one of the defter plays of the night, however, Isaako popped the ball back in right before he was dragged into touch, returning it Roberts who stormed through the space that had been opened up after he’d passed the ball across to Isaako. In effect, it was like seeing Roberts play a longform dummy, only pretending to send the ball to the right – by way of Isaako – before storming through the space that he’d tricked the Dragons into opening up for him.
Nevertheless, the Red V responded in the most emphatic way possible a couple of minutes later. It started with a set play from Lodge – a no-look pass to Milford that Hunt intercepted so clinically and elegantly that he was able to turn around and burn back down the field with only Kodi Nikorima coming close to chasing him in down. If there was something a bit apposite about seeing Lodge make the stuff-up, then it was poetic indeed that Hunt had managed to outsmart his previous halves partner, timing his intercept so well against Milford’s rhythm that it was almost as if he were still treating him as a halves partner in his head, only to turn against him at the critical juncture.
Part of the power of Frizell’s four-pointer had come from Hunt’s try assist, and the way his grubber had skidded ever so casually past both Boyd and Milford – his old spine – and his cemented that here with what will surely come to be seen as his first truly great moment in Dragons colours, and a definitive point in his identification with the club.
Ten minutes or so later, the Dragons crossed over again, thanks in part to a terrific try assist from Widdop, who found himself in a tight situation at the end of the tackle count but handled it superbly with a flat cut-out pass that sailed across Kahu’s chest to find Aitken on the wing. While the ball might have travelled a long way, this was as quick and sharp as a flick pass, so rapidly did it get to Aitken, allowing him to build up enough speed and momentum to crash through a tackle from Oates and an ankle tap from Kahu, who had run in from his line to make up for not anticipating Widdop’s pass, but was too late to prevent the St. George centre crossing over.
With Widdop curling the ball beautifully through the posts – and having racked up a penalty goal in the buildup to Aitken’s try – the Dragons were now quadruple the Broncos’ scoreline at 24-6, and looked almost certain to scopre a couple more tries before the game was over. To stay in the game, the Broncos needed to score next – and score they did, thanks to a pair of long, looping passes from Isaako and Nikorima, and then a short pass from Boyd, who ran right up to the line to send the Steeden across to Roberts for his second try of the night.
As it turned out, however, this was also the last Brisbane try of the night, with the game now entering a bit of a messy period as both teams tried to consolidate their momentum, aware that the Dragons probably only needed one more four-pointer to win the game, and the Broncos only needed one more four-pointer to really get back in the game.
On the Brisbane side, Roberts lost the ball almost immediately after scoring, while Nikorima coughed it up a minute or two later; on the St. George side, Hunt went for a field goal only for the ball to bounce off the uprights, while a spotty fifth-tackle option a couple of sets later granted the Broncos a seven-tackle set as the game wound down to its final quarter.
Finally, though, a quick tap from Nightingale got the Dragons some field position and possession, with Jack De Belin slamming over a couple of tackles later. If the Dragons had shown some impressive strategic moments over the course of the game, then this was a display of pure strength, and a testament to De Belin’s preseason bulkup and training regimen, as the big lock forward dummied to duck under Pangai’s tackle, drag Thaiday forward along the ground with him, and still get the ball to ground despite Lodge also coming in on the tackle. Given that Pangai had been one of the strongest players on the Brisbane side, it was important symbolic moment for the Dragons to simply plough through him, and with Widdop adding the extras they soared forward once again.
They did score once more, but it was a bit of a painful final try, as Nightingale stormed up the wing and then somersaulted over to bounce, head first, before grounding the Steeden. Given that Vaughan had just been taken off following a pretty cheap shoulder charge from Jaydn Su’A – and it takes a lot to fall Vaughan – the end felt a bit ginger for the Dragons, then, since despite an amazing scoreline of 34-12 they’d had to work hard to beat a Brisbane outfit that were clearly not performing at their peak. It’s going to be interesting, then, to see how they go next Thursday against the Sharks, while Brisbane will be keen to build on Pangai’s brilliance when they take on the Cowboys at Suncorp for the first Queensland Derby of the year.