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The Dragons are back and they’re a real chance

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Expert
12th September, 2018
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To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the Dragon’s season were exaggerated. They are now that most hazardous of commodities: a side with nothing to lose and a point to prove.

That makes them possibly the most dangerous team left in the comp.

It is possible that – after the wheels appeared to have totally fallen off the Dragons’ wagon just three weeks ago as they trudged off Kogarah to the resounding opprobrium of their faithful, having just been pumped 38-0 by the struggling Bulldogs – the Red V have got their mojo back.

While the season-ending injury to Gareth Widdop has dampened the reborn optimism of St George Illawarra supporters, the authoritative manner of their away victory – and the reborn dominance of their hitherto struggling pack – means they can trouble any opponent.

Looking back through the two decades of the NRL, there are a number of examples of a roughie storming the pack come finals time to make the decider.

While there is no question that consistency and high standards are key attributes in achieving success in September, there is also a strong case that timing your run can be just as important.

The Dragons may have timed their run perfectly.

Have a look at these stats:

Season 2018

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Metres gained Metres conceded Missed tackles Tackle breaks Tries scored Tries conceded
1425 1386 23.6 32.8 3.6 3.3

Rounds 17-24

Metres gained Metres conceded Missed tackles Tackle breaks Tries scored Tries conceded
1400 1695 22 27.5 2.6 4.75

Round 25 and finals Week 1

Metres gained Metres conceded Missed Tackles Tackle breaks Tries scored Tries conceded
1400 1332 18 40 5.5 3

The Dragons’ metres gained remains relatively consistent.

While their missed tackles remain consistent across the season and during their Rounds 17-24 struggles, in the last two games their defence has been great.

When they weren’t doing well, their tackle breaks per match drop right down – but in their last two games, that rate has exploded. That also applies to their tries scored.

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This has had the flow-on of their tries conceded dropping back to sustainable levels.

What this tells us is that Paul McGregor’s men have never been bad at missing tackles but that when they miss them they often lead to ties and metres conceded.

Further – and most vitally – this is a side that does well when they are busting tackles.

And who busts the tackles for the Red V? Their backs mostly. Against the Broncos, Kurt Mann made seven, while Jordan Pereira, Tim Lafai, Nene MacDonald and Blake Lawrie made four each. However, high tackle breaks only happen when the forward pack is making room for them to move.

And that is what has happened in the last two matches.

Against the Broncos, Tyson Frizzel made 136, Leeson Ah Mau made 139 and Jeremy Latimore made 115.

Tyson Frizell of the Dragons celebrates with team mates after scoring a try

AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

Most vitally, the Dragons started playing positive footy again. They returned to the attacking and optimistic style that set them up so well in the first half of the season.

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There are quite a few suggesting that the club’s chances are gone with Widdop’s shoulder. But that isn’t true. For all the Dragons’ dominance against the Broncos, Widdop added only one try assist, one line break assist, and four kicks for 98 metres. He made just 11 metres from four runs.

Far more influential were the three line break assists laid on by Cam McInnes and Tariq Sims returning to his running best. And that was Ben Hunt’s finest match for quite a while – he’s got a point to prove too.

You could visibly see the side become a real force again. After weeks of us maligning them, saying they were shot ducks, booing them and burning our jumpers, the boys from Kogarah and Wollongong have had enough and they are clearly out to show us all just what they can do.

Any side in their way needs to be ready for the real deal. An opponent who underestimates St George Illawarra now will get swept aside, just as the Cowboys swept aside so many in their unlikely run to the 2017 grand final.

These type of Cinderella runs have popped up quite a few times in the NRL era.

In 1998, the Bulldogs qualified ninth for the finals series. Just to make that lowly ranking, they had won six of their final eight games. They then collected the scalps of the Dragons, Bears, Knights and Eels on their way to the decider.

Unfortunately, they came up against the behemoth Broncos side. However, it was a hell of an exciting ride!

The 2009 Jarryd Hayne-led charge of the Parramatta Eels has become folklore. Languishing in 13th spot, they won seven of their last eight games to qualify eighth. They then beat the top-placed Dragons, followed by the Titans before, despatching the Bulldogs on their way to the big dance.

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Only a salary cap breaking Storm side – as well as a very dodgy penalty when the ball was clearly dropped cold – stopped the fairy tale being completed.

Jarryd Hayne is congratulated by his team mates. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Robb Cox)

AAP Image/Action Photographics, Robb Cox

In 2010, the Roosters sat in ninth spot after Round 13. They then won eight of their last 12 to qualify fifth for the finals. Once they got there, they eliminated the Wests Tigers, the Panthers and the Titans en route to the grand final where they were easily bested by the Dragons.

In 2011, the Warriors won seven of their last nine home-and-away games to climb from ninth to sixth. They then went on an away winning spree, beating Brisbane, the Tigers and Melbourne, before falling short against the Sea Eagles in the decider.

The Cinderella run that has the most resemblance to that of the Dragons’ chances this season is that of the Cowboys just last year. North Queensland, without their talismanic leader Johnathan Thurston, lost five of their six last regular-season matches and only scraped into the finals when the Dragons gave up 12 late points to go down in their final-round match against the Bulldogs, ceding their place in the finals.

However, once they were in, the Cowboys defeated the Sharks, the Eels and the Roosters, before getting thumped on the first day of October.

Why did their form improve so sharply in the finals? Because they had nothing to lose and decided to back themselves. They played without fear. They played with optimism. They were unburdened by worries of losing because – like Jon Snow – their season had already been dead and buried.

The Dragons are now exactly in the same mindset with a point to prove to the likes of me, who totally wrote them off.

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Do not be surprised if they are able to go one better than all of the Cinderella runs that have come before them.