A new St George Illawarra dawned to compound a horror week for Brisbane, with former Broncos halfback Ben Hunt claiming man-of-the-match honours on Dragons debut in a 34-12 opening-night drubbing.
The Broncos, mired in the Matt Lodge furore in the lead-up to Thursday’s showdown, coughed up a mountain of possession and got worse as the match wore on. Conversely, the Dragons finished with a wet sail and exacted full toll on their sloppy guests.
In a mid-1980s-esque start to the premiership, the first three scoring plays of season were penalty goals as the Saints edged to a 4-2 lead.
The Broncos had a try disallowed when Darius Boyd’s money ball to Corey Oates was correctly ruled forward. The visitors’ mistakes then started to mount, and Hunt took the first step towards repaying the Dragons’ massive investment by threading a deft grubber through for Tyson Frizell to dot down for the maiden four-pointer of 2018 after 28 minutes.
The home side almost extended their 10-2 lead just before halftime. Hunt hit halves partner Gareth Widdop on the chest with a pinpoint banana kick, but the England linchpin was ruled offside as referee Matt Cecchin nailed another crucial call.
Not ideal for the Broncos – but an eight-point deficit was a let-off after they completed just half of their sets and had just 33 percent possession.
The Dragons were sloppy to start the second half and the Broncos got on the board via a sensational try assist from wing newcomer Jamayne Isaako for James Roberts.
But in a moment that poetically encapsulated the biggest pre-game storylines, Hunt plucked controversial prop Matt Lodge’s pass out of the air and scooted 40 metres to push the Saints out to a 10-point lead with half an hour left.
Widdop added another penalty and produced an exquisite pass for a rampaging Euan Aitken to power over.
The Dragons up 24-6; the perennial heavyweights in dire straits.
Roberts gave the Broncos a sniff with his second try in the 64th minute.
But Jack de Belin scored a determined match-sealer with eight minutes left, before Jason Nightingale iced the joint venture’s biggest-ever win over Brisbane with a slick finish from another brilliant Widdop bullet.
St George Illawarra Dragons 34 (Tyson Frizell, Ben Hunt, Euan Aitken, Jack de Belin, Jason Nightingale tries; Gareth Widdop 7 goals) d Brisbane Broncos 12 (James Roberts 2 tries; Jordan Kahu 2 goals) at Jubilee Oval.
Dragons in the Hunt
After a patchy start, Ben Hunt’s club debut for St George Illawarra was all class. Took on the bulk of the kicking and playmaking responsibilities and came up with some massive plays, while his ability to immediately take control allowed their former main man Gareth Widdop to pick his moments.
It was a dreadful display all-round from the Broncos, but the performances of their key-position players were at the heart of it.
Halves duo Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima played with little conviction or direction, Darius Boyd – though positionally sound – still seems underdone and ran for just 29 metres (!), and the Sam Thaiday hooker experiment failed, with Andrew McCullough working his way back to full fitness.
Alarm bells are already ringing.
Let me preface this by saying Matt Lodge’s crime was horrific, he’s unbelievably lucky to be back playing elite rugby league, and the Broncos and the NRL handled his re-entry woefully.
Lodge was on a hiding to nothing coming into this game, and an intercept pass and a couple of errors gave the baying Jubilee Oval crowd more ammunition. But the hulking prop will play a key role in the Broncos’ campaign – he runs strongly (a team-high 107 metres tonight), takes a hit and likes to use the ball. Strong performance after three years out of the big time.
But yeah, the New York thing still…
St Helens to Saint George’s Cross to St George Illawarra
How good does James Graham look playing in the Red V? Just like pulling on the St Helens or England jumper. As always, played with Test match tenacity and already shapes as a magnificent buy.
Tribute to ‘Changa’
Nice touch by the Dragons retiring the No.1 jumper the late, Immortal Graeme Langlands excelled in so many times. Matt Dufty – who is shaping as the next in a long line of fine Saints fullbacks – wore the No.18. ‘Changa’, who passed away in January aged 77, played 227 games for St George and 45 Tests for Australia in one of the all-time great careers.
Taumalolo Mark II
Isn’t Tevita Pangai Jr a specimen? He’s got a mistake in him, but for a combination of size, mobility, footwork and skill, he’s potentially in the same class as a pretty handy player that wears the Cowboys’ No.13.