Most of the talk leading up to Thursday night’s derby between St George Illawarra and Cronulla was about who would play fullback for the Sharks.
But with Valentine Holmes shunted to the wing to accommodate Australian teammate Josh Dugan at the back in the black, white and blue, it was the performance of a diminutive local junior wearing the red V No.1 jersey that has shown there is life after Dugan for St George Illawarra.
Cronulla came with a plan to attack Matt Dufty in the air, through a merciless bombing raid in a swirling breeze from Chad Townsend and Matt Moylan, and on the ground as the Sharks attempted to use Dufty’s lack of size to their advantage.
The test doesn’t get much tougher in the NRL. A local derby in the shire, wearing the red V of their most fierce rivals, with a target on your back.
But Dufty came through his stern examination with flying colours as St George Illawarra launched a brave second half fightback to win 20-16.
“It was probably the toughest NRL game I’ve played so far in my career. To get the win out there was pretty special,” Dufty said.
“That’s my job at the back. It was probably one of the toughest winds and toughest catches I’ve had to make. I thought I handled it pretty well. I missed one but those things happen. It was a tough kick.
“I reckon I’ve caught about 1000, probably more. You just think catch it because the forwards do a tough job. They’ve got their job and I’ve got my job. So just trust myself and back myself to catch it.
“These games aren’t about all the flashy things that come out. It’s more about knowing I had to come out and play tough and get in front of people and make some tackles which I don’t usually have to do. But today the local derby that’s what it’s about. It’s not about the 80 metre runs and the line breaks it’s more about just having the boys’ back and them having your back. Just getting in and doing the dirty things.”
In only his ninth first grade game, the Penshurst RSL junior showed he is one player who fully understands the derby. St George Illawarra and Cronulla, their home grounds at Kogarah and Woolooware separated by only 10 kilometres and the Captain Cook Bridge over the Georges River, is arguably the best suburban derby left in the NRL.
It is an experience Dufty relished for the first time in first grade.
“I’ve never liked Cronulla. It was definitely good to get the win in my first local derby but hopefully it’s the first one of many,” he said.
“I’ve never liked playing [at Shark Park] ever since I was in Harold Matts [under-16s]. Coming here tonight it was probably equal fans out there, I saw heaps of St George fans. That’s what you come and play for, the fans. They love it and you love them coming.”
Dragons coach Paul McGregor praised the performance of his young fullback but stressed there was more to come from the 22-year-old.
“It was a tough night at the back. That wind in the first half was pretty strong. It died off a little bit in the second half. But it was very strong in the first half and they put him under enormous pressure,” McGregor said.
“And Duff’s what, nine games into a career. So it’s going to be great for him. So I’m really looking forward to what he took out of tonight going forward into next week against the Titans in Toowoomba.”
Dugan, the man Dufty replaced at the back for the Dragons, said Dufty would only continue to improve.
“He’s coming along well. He’s a young kid and he’s trying to make a stamp in first grade,” he said.
“He showed his toughness tonight. We had a plan to get a hold of him because he’s a little bit smaller but he handled it well and I thought he had a pretty good game.”