Brutal defence and the brilliance of halves Ben Hunt and Gareth Widdop helped the St George Illawarra Dragons secure their best start to a season in the 20 years since the formation of the joint venture with a 30-12 defeat of the Newcastle Knights at WIN Stadium.
Cheered on by a near capacity crowd of 18,589 the Dragons turned on another impressive performance in both defence and attack to record their fourth win and remain unbeaten at the top of the Telstra Premiership alongside the Warriors.
It is the first time the Dragons have won their opening four matches of the competition. History suggests they will be serious premiership contenders.
Of the 20 teams to have gone four straight since 1998, when the NRL was established, 14 have finished in the top four and four of those teams have gone on to win the grand final.
Hunt and Widdop orchestrated the win, as they have done in recent weeks against Brisbane Broncos, Cronulla Sharks and Gold Coast Titans. But the foundations were set by the hard-hitting defence of forwards Paul Vaughan, Jack De Belin and Tariq Sims.
With North Queensland Cowboys prop Jordan McLean set to be sidelined by a foot injury requiring surgery, NSW Blues coach Brad Fittler told viewers on Channel 9 that the trio could be contenders to join Dragons second-rower Tyson Frizell in the Origin side.
The Dragons bruising defence paid dividends for their attack, with each of the home side’s first half tries being scored off the back of opposition errors.
Match: Dragons v Knights
Round 4 -
Venue: WIN Stadium, Wollongong
The first came in the 13th minute when Knights centre Sione Mata’utia lost the ball in a crunching tackle by Jack De Belin 40 metres out from his own line. The error was compounded by a penalty against Tautau Moga’s replacement Jamie Buhrer for holding down.
Moga had been helped from the field, with a suspected torn anterior cruciate ligament, in the third minute after scoring the opening try.
De Belin then had a hand in the try when he charged the ball into the line and offloaded to halfback Ben Hunt, who threw a deep pass for Sims to crash over.
PNG winger Nene Macdonald scored five minutes later to give the Dragons the lead after Knights forward Herman Ese’ese lost the ball in and the home side immediately looked to capitalise through a Matt Dufty break.
Quick hands and quick thinking saw Macdonald score in the opposite corner after Hunt threw a cut-out ball to Widdop, who in turn fired a long pass which enabled centre Tim Lafai to put his wing partner over with a deft flick pass.
Another handing error by Mitch Barnett from a heavy tackle, with De Belin and Vaughan combining to greet him as he ran the ball, resulted in a third Dragons try in the 22nd minute after Widdop wrapped behind Tyson Frizell and linked with Dufty to put Euan Aitken over.
Match Highlights: Dragons v Knights - Round 4; 2018
However, the Knights refused to surrender and star halfback Mitchell Pearce got them back in the game when he forced a knock-on by Widdop with a clever grubber kick to win a repeat set before putting veteran forward Chris Heighington over in the 29th minute.
However, thoughts of a Knights comeback proved short lived and after going to the halftime break with a 20-12 lead courtesy of a 37th minute Widdop penalty goal, interchange forward Leeson Ah Mau used his footwork to get over the try line 12 minutes after the interval.
Macdonald got his second try in the 57th minute off a Hunt grubber from dummy half to extend the Dragons lead to 30-12 and ensure the Dragons remained unbeaten at the top of the Telstra Premiership ladder after winning their opening four games.