Round 3 NRL kicks off with a desperate St George Illawarra heading north to Suncorp Stadium for a Thursday night battle with the Brisbane Broncos.
Brisbane have won seven of the last ten matches between these teams, but Broncos fans will most certainly remember their recent meeting at this venue. The Dragons dished out a surprise 48-18 beating in the first week of the 2018 finals to send the home side packing with their tail between their legs.
But that was then and this is now, as they say. Brisbane come into this game on the back of a 29-10 dismantling of the North Queensland Cowboys which followed a Round 1 loss to Melbourne where they had their chances to get something from the contest.
It’s been a horror winless start for St George Illawarra, a team many pegged as a top-four contender. They’ve staggered through their first two games scoring just 30 points and five tries while shipping 58 points in poor losses to North Queensland and South Sydney. Is Round 3 too early for Dragons fans to start looking around for the panic button?
Brisbane have made a reasonable start under new coach Anthony Seibold. They’re cutting down the errors (17, second lowest in the NRL) and growing in confidence with each outing.
Mention should also be made of centre Jack Bird, now injury-free after managing just eight games last year. In his two games so far, Bird already has three try assists, good for third in the NRL and already more than he managed for 2018.
Broncos winger Corey Oates, in particular, is enjoying having Bird alongside him, scoring an NRL-best four tries with 14 tackle breaks and four linebreaks. Oates is a fantastic talent to watch and has that knack all great wingers have of being where he needs to be to finish off an attacking move.
Halves Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima are second and third for engaging the opposition’s defensive line, bringing their forwards into play with a short ball the big boppers can hit at pace.
One such forward charging onto these short balls is Tevita Pangai Junior, who was electrifying against North Queensland and quite good against Melbourne. His energy and attack on the opponent brought his team and the Brisbane crowd to life.
Is this level of intensity how it’s always going to be from Pangai Junior, or does it only come out against the Cowboys and his former teammate Josh McGuire? St George will find out soon enough. In any event, Dragons prop James Graham isn’t one to tolerate that kind of stuff.
The Dragons have real problems in the forwards. It’s stating the obvious to point out the losses of representative players Tyson Frizell (injury) and Jack de Belin (suspension) have hit them hard. Opposition second rowers are feasting against them. North Queensland’s Jason Taumalolo rolled for 286 metres, then South Sydney’s Sam Burgess and Cam Murray gouged them for 163 and 134 metres respectively (and scored a combined three tries).
This week they’ll front up to a young Brisbane pack including Pangai Junior, David Fifita, Joe Ofahengaue, Jayden Su’A and Thomas Flegler, the 19-year-old prop who rumbled for an incredible 196 metres last week in just his second ever NRL game.
Dragons forwards Paul Vaughan, Tariq Sims and James Graham will have their work cut out for them trying to contain their opposite numbers.
Centre Zac Lomax could make his first appearance in red and white for 2019 with Tim Lafai in doubt due to a hamstring issue. Lomax flew to Brisbane with the team, a pretty good indicator Lafai’s going to struggle to get up.
The return from suspension of Korbin Sims could not have come soon enough for St George Illawarra. He’ll come off the bench against his old team keen to inject a big dose of aggression and urgency, hopefully focused in a productive way. The Dragons can’t afford him to miss any more games.
External pressure is ramping up even more on Dragons Coach Paul McGregor, mainly from criticism of his use of regular five-eighth Gareth Widdop at fullback, regular fullback Matt Dufty off the bench, halfback Ben Hunt at hooker and hooker Cam McInnes at lock.
McGregor explained this week that this jumble is “about getting your best players on the field, while we have a few quality players missing.”
That’s fair enough in theory, but when it’s clearly not working it might be time to put your best players back into the positions where they’ve made their names.
Widdop will likely be spending most of the night chasing down kicks from Milford and Nikorima, two of the best at gaining distance. Is that really the best use of the Englishman’s talents?
Current form and all the key stats over the first two weeks supports the general thinking Brisbane will win this with a leg in the air. That would keep with recent history between these two as well – only three of the last ten games between Brisbane and St George Illawarra have been decided by less than six points. Whoever wins in this match-up, it’s usually by plenty.
The Broncos should win, but we’re in for a pretty entertaining 80 minutes. The Dragons will lift – they have to – but Brisbane has the forward pack to keep things in hand and send the home fans home happy.
Brisbane by 12.
1. Darius Boyd, 2. Corey Oates, 3. James Roberts, 4. Jack Bird, 5. Jamayne Isaako, 6. Anthony Milford, 7. Kodi Nikorima, 8. Tevita Pangai Junior, 9. Andrew McCullough, 10. Joe Ofahengaue, 11. Alex Glenn, 12. David Fifita, 13. Matt Gillett
Interchange: 14. Kotoni Staggs, 15. Jaydn Su’A, 16. Thomas Flegler, 17. Shaun Fensom
Reserves: 18. Patrick Carrigan, 19. Patrick Mago
1. Gareth Widdop, 2. Jordan Pereira, 3. Euan Aitken, 4. Timoteo Lafai, 5. Mikaele Ravalawa, 6. Corey Norman, 7. Ben Hunt, 8. James Graham, 9. Cameron McInnes, 10. Paul Vaughan, 11. Jacob Host, 12. Tariq Sims, 13. Blake Lawrie
Interchange: 14. Jeremy Latimore, 15. Matthew Dufty, 16. Korbin Sims, 17. Luciano Leilua
Reserves: 18. Zac Lomax, 19. Mitchell Allgood
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