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Can the Dragons keep living up to expectations?

James Graham of the Dragons. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
15th April, 2018
43

After six rounds, the St George Illawarra Dragons remain the only undefeated team in the NRL, and their hot start can be attributed to the high expectations surrounding the club following the arrivals of recruits Ben Hunt and James Graham.

The pair’s impact has been instant, with the club sitting atop the ladder ahead of tough clashes against the Warriors and Roosters in the next ten days.

They have already beaten bitter rivals the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks twice, as well as the Brisbane Broncos, Gold Coast Titans, Newcastle Knights and South Sydney Rabbitohs.

The clash against the Warriors in Auckland this Friday night will be the first genuine test of the Dragons’ season, with the Kiwi club having had their undefeated start to 2018 ended by the Broncos last week.

Prior to that, the Warriors had recorded their own best-ever start, winning their first five matches including defeating the Rabbitohs and Roosters on both sides of Australia, as well as a struggling Cowboys outfit at home in Round 5.

Had the Auckland side beaten the Broncos, this Friday night’s clash would have seen the only two undefeated teams go head-to-head in what would have been the unlikeliest of potential grand final previews, with both teams having missed the finals in 2017.

Instead, the Red V have a chance to open up a four-point buffer at the top of the ladder, though the Panthers and Wests Tigers do have winnable matches against the Sharks and Knights respectively later in the round.

So, what is exactly behind the side’s best ever start to a season since the merger came into effect in 1998?

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You’d think that it’s their two big-name recruits – Hunt and Graham – who are already proving their worth and playing to the price tags attached to them.

But there are others playing their roles, including fullback Matt Dufty, NSW representative Tyson Frizell and potential future Origin teammates Jack de Belin and Paul Vaughan.

Hunt’s partnership with captain Gareth Widdop in the halves also gives the club their most stable halves since Jamie Soward and Ben Hornby earlier this decade.

Every player in the starting side, except Graham, has scored at least one try, highlighting the evenness.

After starting 2017 as the short-priced favourite to be the first coach dismissed, Paul McGregor won the backing of the board after their impressive start to last season and signed a contract extension which will expire at the end of the 2019 season.

The six-match winning streak is his second of this length, after another six in the early part of the 2015 season – the year they last made the finals.

Against the Warriors on Friday night, they will be shooting for their seventh straight win – which would mark the first time since 2011 that they have won as many matches in succession.

They also only need to score six points to become the quickest side this season to crack 200, while the 80 they have conceded is equal second-best with the Panthers (only the Wests Tigers have conceded fewer, with 67).

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The last side to start a season so impressively were the Storm, in 2013, as they won their first seven matches of the season before eventually finishing third and bowing out of the finals in straight sets.

They also won their first nine matches of the 2012 season before eventually going on to take out that year’s premiership.

Last year, the Dragons won eight of their first 12 matches, however injuries and poor form saw them eventually stumble down the ladder, finishing ninth after losing to the Bulldogs in the final round.

While it was a bitterly disappointing finish to the season after such an impressive first half, it was still a good result given the low expectations laid on the club at the start of 2017.

However, with the arrivals of Hunt and Graham, as well as lessons learnt from their capitulation in the second half of last year, the expectations are high, and the club are living up to them.

Ben Hunt Dragons

Ben Hunt (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

They were faced with a first-up clash against the Broncos, a team they had previously struggled against for the most part of the last decade, with only one win against the Queenslanders dating back to 2010.

However, buoyed by home-ground advantage, and most likely Hunt having a point to prove against his old club, the Dragons won 34-12 to keep their opponents winless at Kogarah Oval since 1998.

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Now the challenge is to maintain their form on a consistent basis and, who knows, it could end with a premiership many considered unlikely three years ago.

The Origin period, in which the club is likely to be the hardest-hit, given the number of players that are in form, will also prove to be a challenge, with Hunt likely to inherit the Maroons’ number seven guernsey vacated by Cooper Cronk.

Tyson Frizell is also certain to be absent during this period, and if Jack de Belin and Paul Vaughan can maintain their impressive individual form, both also look set to be selected by new Blues coach Brad Fittler.

But that all lies ahead – before then, this Friday night there is a tough clash against the New Zealand Warriors in Auckland to look forward to, before the annual Anzac Day clash against the Roosters, in which the corresponding fixture last year led to their slow fall down the ladder.