It’s a funny old game rugby league. The pre-season noise was all about the mighty Storm repeating last year’s minor premiership and the Roosters making it to the final two. The Parramatta Eels were touted as having a top four worthy season and JT and Matt Scott returning from long-term injuries were set to see the Cowboys making the finals again.
Few would have picked that after five rounds there’d be just two unbeaten teams at the top of the ladder and a top eight featuring the West Tigers, Knights and Titans.
The Dragons and the Warriors are the only teams to have held their nerve and are unbeaten in what’s been a topsy-turvy start to the season. This weekend the Dragons take on the Sharks at Shark Park and the Warriors are home to an inconsistent Broncos outfit.
Wins for both teams would see them unbeaten in six games and with Dragons vs Warriors Round 7 showdown looming on Friday 27th April, the big question is who will lose first?
St George Illawarra Dragons
Here’s the rundown of why it won’t be the St George Illawarra Dragons.
Their Forward pack
State of Origin might be two months away but three of the forward pack of the Dragons are playing their way into Blues jersey contention. Tyson Frizell, Paul Vaughan and Jack de Belin are wrecking ball, metre-eaters in 2018. Frizell made his Blues debut in 2016 but missed out in 2017 through injury. Vaughan was controversially snubbed in 2017 and de Belin has played Country Origin but never made it to the big dance. All the pre-Origin noise has been for de Belin who believes “he’s made for Origin” and is averaging just one missed tackle a game.
Young, exciting fullback – check. Rising star hooker – check. The best-performing player in the comp – check. A halfback who signed for $1 million – check. The Dragons have it all – from Matt Dufty at the back to the hooker playing out of his skin in Cameron McInnes. There have been 11 new halves pairings in the NRL in 2018 and the combination of Ben Hunt and Gareth Widdop has to be one of the best. These four all have their team lockers next to each other and spend most of their time together. Whatever they are doing is working – the balance is right in this spine.
St George and the Dragons
The presence of two English players in the St George team can’t be overlooked. James Graham was a huge buy in the pre-season and brings leadership and game management to the side. Graham reckons their playing form is sustainable and says they aren’t playing above themselves – he’s confident the form will outlast round seven, when in 2017 their season changed. Gareth Widdop has been electric in the halves and is the best half in the comp on current form. His kicking off the tee has been solid this season and his combination with Ben Hunt has fast become one of the most lucrative new pairings of the league. A solid World Cup performance from the English side has spilled over to the 2018 Dragons.
On the Bus
The name ‘Tonya’ might not be the most obvious one in relation to a group of rugby league stars – but its the name of the Dragons’ mini-bus. A group of Dragons players decided to buy a mini-bus for getting to and from training and she was given the name ‘Tonya’ after ice skater and battler Tonya Harding.
Now with her own Insta following – she’s come to symbolise the playing group’s closeness and proof that teamwork makes the dream work.
New Zealand Warriors
RTS is the youngest captain in the NRL and was chosen because of the way he battled back from injury in the 2017 pre-season. Last year, the captaincy looked like it was weighing RTS down, but 2018 has seen a revived RTS. He’s playing with the attacking electricity of his pre-injury form at the Roosters and has added a professional gravitas to the Warriors. His multiple try-saving tackles on the Warriors line – including possibly the save of the season in Round 1 in Perth against Souths – and his reaction afterwards, has embodied the new resilience the Warriors have been lacking for years. RTS is leading by example, setting the standard for the rest of the team and showing maturity beyond his young years. Having committed to the Warriors for four more years he’s also showing a commitment to making the franchise a winning one.
The Right Edge
The Warriors attack has always been entertaining but they’ve lacked the consistency or firepower in seasons gone by. This year, the right edge has provided a solid attack. The inclusion of Blake Green in the halves has straightened up the attack and the right edge combination of Tohu Harris, Peta Hiku and David Fusitu’a looks unstoppable. Fusitu’a has scored six tries so far in 2018 and Harris brings a solid temperament and ball playing ability to the side. Hiku’s off the ball running is impressive and Harris’ combinations with both Green and Shaun Johnson in the halves have really tested teams in the opening rounds.
In seasons gone by the Warriors’ defence has folded like a cheap suit under pressure but the 2018 Warriors have been defending their line like their lives depend on it. After five rounds, the numbers back up their new defensive attitude. The 2018 Warriors have only conceded 65 points so far, the fewest points scored against them in their history. Not since 1996 – when they conceded 82 points after 5 rounds – have the Warriors been so good without the ball. Their fitness has made them sharper and they are now able to think under fatigue. The little extra efforts are manifesting in the results. Their defence has become something to be feared – with seven of their players rating over 90% tackle efficiency over the first five games.
The Breathing Huddle
Its been referred to as their ‘yoga’ breathing or their ‘kombaya’ moment – but after they score a try or have tries scored against them, the Warriors gather into a group and breathe their way back to an even keel. They first showed the huddle in Perth against Souths and everyone wondered what was going on. It soon emerged that a visit from All Blacks captain Keiran Reid was the origin of the breathing exercise that the Warriors have now committed to in every game. Reid said it was a technique some of the All Blacks players did after big plays or moments in the game and the Warriors’ unit decided to adopt it. The huddle allows them to refocus and re-group after big plays, getting the focus back for the next play ahead. Its looks almost spiritual but seems to be working for them.
Whether you back the Dragons to keep roaring their way to success or whether you’re on the Warriors 2018 bandwagon, the next two weeks will show who is the real deal and who can remain unbeaten.