It’s hard to think of a more emphatic argument for Josh Dugan as Dragons fullback than occurred on Sunday, although ironically it took his stint at centre to prove it. In front of a small but volatile crowd at Seaside Stadium on a gloomy Wollongong afternoon, a late try from Dugan out of centre in the 77th minute put the Dragons ahead by 14-22 for one of the most resounding victories of the season so far. Dugan’s achievement felt even more emphatic in that neither team scored a full four until the 53rd minute, with Gareth Widdop putting in a penalty goal in the 10th minute, and Jamie Soward landing the same in the 63rd, but neither team actually managing to place it across the line until Euan Aitken made a run for the try-line shortly into the second half.
The result was the sharp distinction between first and second halves that has been so characteristic of this season of football, with the first playing out as the grittiest, grimiest, muddiest dirge of Round 4 – it looked as if the rain was coming in right off the ocean – only to give way to an ultrarapid second half, at least in comparison to some of the slogs that have chewed up the back forty so far in 2016. Dominating it all was Dugan, who ran 170 metres, crashed through six tackle breaks and notched up a line break for what felt like a one-man win, especially since the Panthers only took the lead for the first time in the 73rd minute, with Josh Mansour crossing the line with his signature flair. While Dugan’s try was scored from the centre, it was built on his momentum at fullback across the game, as well as Gareth Widdop’s superb kicking effort and vision as captain, which was especially impressive in the last ten minutes, where he did everything to prevent Penrith making the same kind of sneaky, last-minute dash that allowed Dugan to shine.
Unlike a lot of recent football games, it felt as if the winners here were the team that actually deserved to win, partly because this was virtually the only game so far this round that wasn’t plagued by bunker controversy, but also because the Panthers were clearly operating with a fairly depleted outfit. With Matt Moylan, James Segeyaro and Dean Whare out for the count, Penrith put in a particularly bad first half, racking up ten penalties, most of them clustered around the half-hour mark when both teams were desperately raring for a try. Fortunately for the Riff, there were no further penalties in the second half – another one of those weird contrasts so typical this season – with the high point arguably Mansour’s try in the 73rd minute, along with a good overall performance from Trent Merrin, who got the loudest boos from the resident Dragons crowd at WIN Stadium.
Unfortunately, Soward’s kicking game wasn’t as consistent as it has been so far this season, with his missed conversion of Mansour’s try occurring at about the worst possible time in the game. Sure, the Dragons might still have won, but there’s a particular confidence and conviction that comes from a six-pointer at such a critical stage, and it certainly felt as if Soward was deflated for those last crucial minutes. With Bryce Cartwright taken off with a broken thumb and Will Smith concussed after a field kick, the Panthers’ injuries woes also continued, and while the game might have been free of bunker-specific scandal, the procedural uncertainties that have marked this year’s play – most recently evident in the Titans’ interchange issue – came to the fore in the question of whether or not Peter Wallace had continued to play in a concussed state.
Nevertheless, the Panthers came away looking pretty good, given how many players are missing from their stable. While the first half may have been fairly sloppy and error-prone for both teams, it was also a testament to their defence: you don’t go for that long without a try unless both teams have a pretty good sense of how to protect the ball. From that perspective, it was one of the most exciting bouts of defensive footy this round, although forty minutes without a try is a bit like a day without sunshine – or Jason Taylor’s gluten-free Tigers diet.
Speaking of the Tigers, while it’s great to see Dugan firing again, it’s a bit worrying to consider how this will affect James Tedesco’s Blues chances, especially since the Dragons game more or less coincided with the launch of the 2016 Origin season. While Dugan is obviously the more experienced fullback, Tedesco is so close to his peak that it seems a crime to think he might not get a representative spot this year, especially since Mal Meninga has suggested that Greg Inglis is a lock for Kangaroos fullback, despite his ongoing knee injury. When it comes to Origin football, timing is everything, and I hate to think that Teddy might miss his opportunity due to Daley’s conservatism and caution when it comes to the Blues. Although the New South Wales lineup has been more varied than the Maroons over the last few years, it’s also – somehow – felt less flexible as well. Here’s hoping, then, that even if Teddy isn’t chosen as fullback he’ll be placed at centre – he’s certainly as good as Dugan was at his age, and deserves the chance to shine at a representative level.