Are St George Illawarra the best team in the NRL at the moment?
Seven rounds in and the Dragons are flying high. They held off a fast-finishing North Queensland to win 28-22 at WIN Stadium on Saturday night to maintain their place at the top of the table.
It’s only early days but the table doesn’t lie. St George Illawarra have only lost once so far this season, have scored the most points and have the best for and against in the competition.
Not only that, but the brand of football they are playing is a seismic difference to what they produced last season. They are aggressive and disciplined in defence. With the ball, they are strong coming out of their own end – and thrilling at times down the other.
The Dragons took an early lead through Nene Macdonald after nine minutes before Gideon Gela-Mosby hit back for the Cowboys.
The visitors might have thought they were back in the game. But before they knew it, they were all but out of it.
Four tries in 16 minutes before half-time – two to Tim Lafai and one each to Kurt Mann and Gareth Widdop – blew the Cowboys away, handing the Dragons a 28-4 lead at the break.
Credit to North Queensland. Like the champion side they are they came out after the break and chased the game. Three quick tries to Ben Spina, Michael Morgan and Scott Bolton dragged them back to trail by six points and set up a thrilling final 15 minutes. But the damage was done, and the Dragons held on for their sixth win of the season.
Dragons coach Paul McGregor was an animated figure in the coach’s box throughout the second half but was measured in his response post-match.
“I think it's good learning for us. We haven't been in that position, to be in front by that scoreline [at half-time],” McGregor said.
“Obviously the first 40 [minutes] we played some really good footy, defended strong on the back of that [and] created opportunities, scored points.
“In the second half we had a 5-1 penalty count discipline-wise, certainly collectively we didn't do anything together with our defence which created opportunities for the opposition and a bit of space.
“I thought our intent was good, I just don't think collectively we did it together. We went one out a little bit too much with the footy when we had it and without it we didn't control any of the tackles. We let three tries in off kicks which is not good enough.
“I think every game you got something to grow with and I think this game, certainly we got something to come out of it. This competition’s pretty tough so we'll take the two points and we'll learn from what we done right and we'll certainly improve on what we done wrong.”
The Cowboys clash was the first in a tough run of games for the Dragons. Their Anzac Day clash with the Roosters is up next Tuesday, followed by home matches against 2016 grand finalists Melbourne and premiers – and fierce local rivals – Cronulla.
This next month might tell us whether St George Illawarra are the real deal. At the moment, all signs point to emphatically yes.
St George Illawarra Dragons 28 (Tim Lafai two, Nene Macdonald, Kurt Mann, Gareth Widdop tries. Widdop four goals)
North Queensland Cowboys 22 (Gideon Gela-Mosby, Ben Spina, Michael Morgan, Scott Bolton tries. Kyle Feldt three goals)
at WIN Stadium, Wollongong
Leader man of the match: Gareth Widdop (Dragons)
Dragons’ next three: Roosters (away), Storm (home), Sharks (home)