Coming into the 2017 season, questions galore filled the air at St George Illawarra Dragons headquarters, mainly coming from their fans.
Little did they know what was to come, as the side, in a surprising upset victory, blew heavy favourites the Penrith Panthers off the park.
Despite some recent inclement weather, the 7,000+ crowd that braved the weather at UOW Jubilee Oval were treated to a brilliant attacking display by the Dragons, a rarity based on their lack of success in attack in 2016.
Tipped by many to struggle in 2017, the win was the club’s highest over Penrith and easily bettering their 2016 best of just 32.
On a day when nothing seemed to go in Penrith’s favour, the Dragons simply went to second gear, third gear and then a fourth, seemingly in cruise control throughout the game.
With strong performances from club stalwarts Joel Thompson and Gareth Widdop, new recruits Cam McInnes and Paul Vaughan were also mightily impressive.
In the end, the Panthers failed to capitalise on their opportunities and it cost them frequently as time after time, it appeared the Dragons could do no wrong.
The surprising performer was Joel Thompson. A hard-working back-rower used to scoring a few tries a season managed to score that many in just one game, his first career hat-trick.
Quite simply, with such a masterclass like that, Dragons fans will be licking their lips and hoping such attacking spark continues whereas Panthers fans will be hoping that it was merely a one-off.
Slapped with the tag of favouritism as competition heavyweights by some fans and the punters, Penrith coach Anthony Griffin admits that despite it being Rd 1 only, the loss was a big reality check for the club.
“It might take care of that, yeah,” Griffin said post-game.
“That’s not anything that we speak about. We came here today, and obviously, we were looking forward to Round 1 but we got jumped really early with that run of possession and never recovered. It’s just disappointing from a team point of view, but anyway, it’s Round 1.”
Griffin spoke straight to the point and admitted that the Dragons were just far too good and clinical.
“I thought St George [Illawarra] were very good. They just got on a roll early in that first half and we couldn’t hold them. At times we got back into the battle a little bit but they were far too good,” he said.
“You could feel it watching it once they got a run of possession early. It’s a tough competition and they’ve got a big forward pack that had a lot of ball and they were just too good for us today.”
Penrith, who missed a whopping 50 tackles in the match know that defence is an area that has to improve.
“I just thought defensively we weren’t at the same intensity as they were. That’s a credit to them,” Griffin added.
“They came at us really hard on both sides of the ball. In the end, it led to us making a lot of errors. They were just far too good.”
Not wanting to dwell on 2016, Dragons coach Paul McGregor got the point of his own, praising his players hard work and perseverance throughout pre-season and now Rd 1.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in our playing group, and I’d just like them to value themselves very highly because not many people are out there, and we’re enjoying that,” the Dragons coach said.
“It’s certainly encouraging. The boys have worked very hard over the last 16 weeks. A lot of the blokes have been kicked during that period so it’s good to see them pull together and play like they trained.”
Player of the Game:
3. Joel Thompson
2. Gareth Widdop
- Cam McInnes
Dragons 42 (Joel Thompson 3, Gareth Widdop 2, Jack de Belin, Cameron McInnes tries; Gareth Widdop 7 goals) def. Panthers 10 (Waqa Blake, Tyrone Peachey tries; Nathan Cleary 1 goal) at UOW Jubilee Oval. Half-time: 18-4 Crowd: 7,283