There were a few things coming into this season that people would consider certainties such as cliché post-game interviews, Craig Bellamy blowing up in the coach’s box and the Manly Sea-Eagles and St. George would not be playing semi-final football this year. I had Manly and St. George sitting at 14th and 15th. Unless you’re a die-hard fan of these teams nobody gave them a chance. There was even betting to see which coach would be fired first (turns out it was Jason Taylor from the Wests Tigers).
Let’s talk about the St. George Illawarra Dragons first. The first round came and everybody put in their tips for the weekend and I reckon nearly everybody would’ve been putting they’re lock of the week on Penrith to start their season with a great win, showing the rest of the competition why they will be a huge premiership contender this season. But something happened on Saturday 4th March. It wasn’t the Panthers that came out all guns blazing, it was the Dragons that fired out of the blocks and put 42 points on one of the premiership favourites.
Fast forward four more rounds and the Dragons are sitting nicely with wins over the reigning premiers Cronulla Sharks, New Zealand Warriors and the Wests Tigers. The one and only loss so far came in round two against the Parramatta Eels. The most impressive stat for the Dragons this year has been their attack, leading the NRL scoring with 128 points at an average 25.6 points in the opening five rounds. The second being the Canberra Raiders with 24.0 points per game. It’s a vast improvement on their 2016 campaign where they only managed 341 at an average of 14.2, second last to only the Newcastle Knights with 12.7.
The next few rounds will really test the Dragons to see if they’re just on a good run of form at the moment or they’ll be vying for the premiership coming into September. They play Manly, who I’ll get too in a minute, the North Queensland Cowboys, Sydney Roosters and the Melbourne Storm, and we know at least three of the four teams will be there at the pointy end of the season.
Now, let’s get to the other surprise packet of the season for me so far. The Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles: I sat on the couch on the first Sunday of the competition after seeing the Knights try their heart out and just coming up short against the Warriors thinking well at least there was one close game today. I thought the Eels were going to have a field day against the Sea Eagles, and to be honest they should have with all the possession they had. Manly’s defensive effort was outstanding that day. The Eels had 60% of the football and forced seven goal-line drop-outs, four of them being consecutive. That passage of play lasted 13 minutes where Manly had zero time with the football and frustrated the Eels so much that eventually they just took the two-point penalty goal. Parramatta still won that game 20-12 but that defensive effort, not only showed the Manly, fans but supporters of the game that they weren’t just going to lie down and accept defeat this year. They showed one of the most important things you need to have on a football field to win this competition, they showed heart.
Again, we’ll fast forward four rounds. Daly Cherry-Evans is in some of his career-best form and the only bad game they’ve had in that in that time-period which was their only other loss to the Rabbitohs. Out of the three teams they’ve beaten this year, two are considered heavy premiership threats in the Cowboys and the Roosters. People will say that they got the Cowboys at the best time since they’d come off two golden-point games in a row and a couple of key players missing, but it doesn’t matter what team the Cowboys put on the field these days, you have to play at your best to beat them – then add to that they were playing at 1300 Smiles Stadium and that adds an extra layer of difficulty. The other win came in the fourth round where they put the Bulldogs to the sword and again showed their defensive strengths. They won 36-0 that day. The Bulldogs were poor, but you still have to play for the full 80 minutes to not concede a try.
That leads me into what people would’ve called a dud game at the start of the year but now could possibly be the game of the round. Manly Sea Eagles verses the St. George Dragons at Lottoland. Manly are favourites with the bookies heading into the game but that can only be because they’re at home. Manly has Cherry-Evans using his running game better than ever straightening up his team’s attack and the Dragons have a big strong forward pack with the likes of Joel Thompson and Paul Vaughan, who could be the buy of the year. It’s so tough to split the two but I have to lean towards Manly only because they’re at home and Josh Dugan out with injury will hurt the Dragons, either way, this game will be a cracker but that’s just my two cents.
If you’d like to hear some of my other thoughts and tips for the week, check out my Rugby League show on YouTube called Shut The Gates. There is a new episode up weekly where we talk about all the hot topics and issues on and off the field. Watch below: