Oh When the Saints

Round 13 Photo credit: Paul Barkly/Melba Studios
Round 13
Photo credit: Paul Barkly/Melba Studios

As game two of State of Origin approaches, it signifies that half way point of the NRL season. I’ve long held a fantasy of being a sports journalist, or more accurately a rugby league writer. Up until recently I had a 13 year collection of Rugby League Week magazines to prove it (but I still have the special editions)! So without further ado, I present my review of my team’s season so far. However, before I start I’d like to acknowledge the following:

  1. My team, the St George Illawarra Dragons, will be referred to in the possessive pronoun from this point. I get laughed at when I refer to the Dragons as ‘us’, ‘we’, ‘our’ or even ‘I’, but as the saying goes, Red V is a part of me!
  2. I won’t be sprouting stats, nor referring to specific plays in specific games. Instead this season review will come from the heart and what I know. I’m a rugby league fan of 20 years, not David Middleton.

Since our unbelievable come-from-behind win in round 3 against the Raiders, there have been growing calls suggesting that we’re among the genuine contenders for the 2015 premiership. Now at round 13, we are sitting fourth on the ladder (come on Cowboys, lose a game already!) with the equal best defence in the competition. While I certainly like what I’ve seen so far, I’m reluctant to make 2010 comparisons. Coming into this season, I was anxious to see how our Kiwi and English halves pair would go second time around. The mercurial Benji Marshall had mixed form when he returned from his ill-fated Rugby stint but Gareth Widdop, despite our poor 2014 season, was a sensation for us last year. The loss of Brett Morris to the Bulldogs cut me deep, and I wondered how we’d possibly cover him – I even wrote an email addressed to our recruitment and retention manager asking how this travesty happened. The fact he wanted to play with his twin again warmed the cockles of my heart, but this is business and I demanded answers. I wondered why on earth we’d bought Gorgeous George when there were so many sensational forwards on the market at the end of 2014 – and this was on the back of learning that our best forward Trent Merrin had signed with the Panthers for 2016.

The 2015 season was barely underway when I jumped on board, without hesitation, to a social media campaign called #SaveOurSaints. It was generated by a group of passionate fans (is there any other kind?) in response to our awful start to the season: Widdop was missing, Marshall appeared uninterested, our “soft” forwards weren’t doing their job and my fear of what a Morris-less backline would do to our finishing power was being realised.  I wanted Doust and the Board gone, a systematic review of our retention and recruitment policies, and I feared for Mary’s short term prospects as coach. Along with Rod Wishart, Mary was one of my favourite players as kid, so I couldn’t bear the thought of his own club, my club, potentially ditching him as the scapegoat. And as both of us are Illawarra juniors, the sting would have hurt even more. I’m certain he was the short-priced favourite as the first coach to get the axe for season 2015. Those odds would have shortened even more going into round 3 – we hadn’t beaten the Raiders in Canberra since 1999 (incidentally the year the premiership was stolen from us). Then the unthinkable happened in the nation’s capital, and with the exception of a couple of hiccups we haven’t looked back since: we’re using our big men to their strength (which incidentally is not their size), our use of decoy runners and our kicking game is largely effective (Widdop is even converting at an impressive 78%) and we seem to have a handle on our fifth tackle options.

The Forwards:

“Defence wins premierships” would have to be the most uttered phrase in rugby league, or is it “yeah nah, the boys put in a big effort tonight”? Anyway, the forward that has impressed me most this season is Jack De Belin, who I’ve not-so-lovingly referred to as Jane for the past couple of seasons (anyone remember Dane Carlaw?) De Belin’s not even close to being the best forward in the game, let alone our club, but he’s improved out of sight this season: making metres and solid hit-ups, albeit with his ridiculous hair. He, Merrin, Tyson Frizell and even perennial thug and referee favourite Joel Thompson have led the way this season. This go-forward has allowed Mitch Rein to get amongst it at hooker and build wonderful consistency. The Impenetrable Red Wall is now a commentary favourite.

The Backs:

The second most uttered phrase in rugby league, by Gus Gould at least, is “you can’t coach speed”. Most people would think of Josh Dugan and rightly so, he’s in the form of his career. He was another signing I wasn’t too impressed with at the time, but he continues to prove me wrong. He looks settled and confident and his Brett Mullins-esque style has been beautiful to watch in open space and under the high ball, despite giving me a heart attack every time he struggles to get up from a tackle. He’s the deserved NSW fullback, and thanks to Jarryd Hayne’s departure he’s got it for as long as he wants it. I was doubtful when I learned we were going with green Fijian Eto Nabuli as Morris’s replacement. But despite having an absolute howler yesterday against the Bulldogs, he’s shown himself to be a good finisher and a nice fit for our club.  Many have argued that Marshall hasn’t played as well as he is now since his Wests Tigers won the 2005 premiership. He’s currently leading the Dally M tally. However, I think we should all remain calm, and reflect on what is actually happening here: he’s a different player. (Mostly) gone are the ballerina feet, dumb fifth tackle options, general form inconsistency and erratic trick plays. We now see a less selfish and steadier Marshall working with a halves partner in Widdop who feeds beautifully off his second phase options. I think Marshall responds well to Widdop’s understated and solid playing demeanour, which means both men are in control of their respective roles.

So are we marching toward the finals? Definitely. It doesn’t mean I’m ready to start practicing our club song for October…but good thing I know the words anyway!

“And now ladies and gentlemen, here’s one you can all sing with us” Louis Armstrong, 1961.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyLjbMBpGDA (posted to YouTube by xakyxak, 26 July 2006)

And even though the Red V is part of me, I am an Illawarra junior. It’s never too early to hear it for the men so strong…COME ON MIGHTY WOLLONGONG!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gZgKayN184 (posted to YouTube by TheWheelieBin, 12 April 2010)

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