There was a sense that the loser of Thursday night’s clash between the Dragons and Rabbitohs at Kogarah may have seriously struggled to play finals footy in 2020, and the game didn’t disappoint.
While South Sydney came away with the win, there were plenty of positives to take out of the game for both sides, one of whom might as well start preparing for 2021.
It may not have resulted in a victory for the Dragons, but Matt Dufty’s rapid improvement has been special to watch in the last eight weeks.
The much-maligned Dragons fullback, rated as one of the best players of the future during his formative rugby league years, has struggled to make the jump to first-grade.
While there were moments of brilliance and bright spots that reminded fans of his talent, there were more negatives than positives, and the struggles became so extreme that he wasn’t wanted by the club just a couple of months ago.
But the last eight games have turned Dufty into one of the competition’s form players, with the Dragons’ season flipping from wooden spoon contenders to top eight hopefuls in the space of six weeks.
Given results over the last fortnight, the Red V will not make the finals now with a tough run home, including the Roosters and Eels in the next fortnight, but the positive signs and building blocks are there.
In ten games this season, Dufty has ten tries and eight try assists to his name, with all of the assists and eight of the tries coming since the resumption of the competition following the COVID-enforced lockdown.
And while others, like Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Harry Grant and the Newcastle duo of Kurt Mann and Daniel Saifiti have all come on in leaps and bounds during the first half of the 2020 season, it could be argued none have made the same impact on their respective teams as Dufty has on the Dragons.
While the first two rounds before the COVID shutdown weren’t great, by the time Round 4 rolled around, following back-to-back horrendous losses to the Warriors and Bulldogs where the Red V didn’t register a single try, valid questions surrounding where the next Dragons try, let alone a win, was coming from.
It was around that time the Gold Coast Titans were supposedly snooping around for the immediate release of Dufty too.
And while there are other factors in the Dragons’ turnaround, such as the move of Ben Hunt to hooker, if you had told me the joint venture would have been able to compete the way they have in high-scoring, free-flowing games over the last fortnight against the Sharks and Rabbitohs at that time, I would have called you crazy.
While Dufty couldn’t bring a win to his club last night, his involvement in the opening exchanges was outstanding as he scored the opening try in support, set up the second for Euan Aitken on the left edge and was a general menace for Souths with his passing game. He then set up the third try of his own, providing the pass to create the break before finishing to get a double.
He may not have stayed on that level for the entire game, and the Dragons were mowed down by South Sydney, but even then, he was excellent, running for north of 150 metres and being heavily involved in the Dragons’ attack.
It used to be the running game of Dufty which was concerning for opposition, as illustrated during last year’s Anzac Day game against the Sydney Roosters, but the past weeks have shown he is turning into a complete fullback.
And while it wasn’t enough for the men in red and white to take victory over the Rabbitohs, it was enough to say there are better days ahead at the club.
It wasn’t just Dufty, but a host of young stars who turned out at Kogarah, with Dufty joined by Zac Lomax, Euan Aitken, Jacob Host, Jackson Ford, Black Lawrie, Josh Kerr and Tristan Sailor, in a sign the club’s youth system is finally doing the job desired of it. While it could be another 12 months before the Dragons stamp their claims as a dominant club again, they have the nucleus of a good young team.
Their potential late push for the finals may have been thwarted over the past fortnight, but the victors from Thursday night’s game live to fight another day.
Speaking of improved players, and it was Cody Walker who led the way for the Rabbitohs.
In the absence of Adam Reynolds, who was taken out with an injury in the first ten minutes after landing awkwardly in a Tariq Sims tackle, Walker was the star of the show for the Rabbitohs.
He grabbed a double himself, but orchestrated their attack beautifully in what was a crazy sort of game, which ebbed and flowed, and had six tries in the first half.
In fact, given South Sydney’s struggles in recent times, which included losses to the Raiders and Knights, and unconvincing wins over the Tigers and Bulldogs before that, it could be claimed they looked better as Cody Walker’s team.
Their forwards aimed up after a sloppy start, the edge defence improved and after a period of adjustment, Walker almost had the same clinical touch as Dufty with the footy in hand.
Plenty of comparisons could be drawn between the pair, given their explosive speed, acceleration, wonderful ball handling and seemingly, ever-improving passing game.
More importantly for South Sydney, they played with real pace again. It’s the first time they have done so in some time, and it allowed Walker to be at his best, as he was some time ago on a damaging left edge for the Rabbitohs, while Damien Cook also showed signs of life.
It’s those elements and attributes which will allow Souths to play a free-flowing brand of footy, and unless their opponents are prepared, roll to multiple victories.
The Dragons were ill-prepared at best, as shown by Paul McGregor’s interchange strategy. It’s little wonder the Dragons’ energy levels dropped off after halftime, given they only made two changes in the first half, and didn’t introduce Tyrell Fuimaono until the 55th minute or Tristan Sailor until the 65th.
Regardless, South Sydney were the better team in what was one of the more entertaining games of footy you’ll see, in no small part thanks to Dufty and Walker, the stars of the show as the men from Redfern keep pushing to play finals footy in the abridged 2020 season.