Round 6: Brisbane Broncos v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (Suncorp Stadium, 07/04/16)

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For the first time in club history, St. George-Illawarra have suffered back-to-back losses, coming away from a two-week standoff with last year’s grand finalists without scoring a single point. With a match at Cbus Super Stadium on the horizon in Round 7, they’re nearing the end of their miniature Queensland derby without having scored even a penalty goal in over one hundred and sixty minutes of football, raising questions as to how Paul McGregor is going to deal with an more drastic disappointment than even the Warriors’ new Big Three. At least Shaun Johnson, Issac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck are starting to get into gear, but it feels as if the Dragons have decelerated week by week, to the point where putting down a single four-pointer is starting to seem like a major achievement.

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It doesn’t help, of course, that they played the Cowboys first and the Broncos second. Still high from their grand final rematch at Suncorp a couple of weeks ago, there’s no doubt that Brisbane are the best team in the game at the moment. Seeing them take on the worst team, then, was always going to be a bit painful to watch, but I don’t think anybody expected that St George-Illawarra would walk away with a crushing 62-0 loss to the Broncos and Cowboys combined. The defeat was all the more traumatic in that the Dragons undoubtedly have some of the best veterans and young guns in the game at the moment, begging the question of just what McGregor is doing with the team, or where his managing vision lies.

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With Mitch Rein and Jack de Belin putting in a total of 109 tackles – light years ahead of Matt Gillett and Andrew McCullough at 69 – it shouldn’t have been such a dominant effort by the Broncos, especially since Josh Dugan also managed to run 312 metres to Jordan Kahu’s 192, busting through the line in spectacular fashion at one point as well. Unfortunately, Dugan went off in the third minute with a neck injury, and while he made a valiant effort upon returning, it was clear that he wasn’t firing on all cylinders, bringing a bit of a desperate and disorganised quality to his game that occasionally made it feel as if it was still at centre, while destabilising Tim Lafai, Gareth Widdop and Euan Aitken in the process.

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Nevertheless, Dugan still put in one of the dominant performances of the game – which says a bit about the Dragons; consistency – since, like James Tedesco, he’s one of those fullbacks whose strengths shine even more brightly in adverse circumstances. As the Dragons and the Tigers seem to get worse and worse, Duges and Teddy stand out more and more as Blues custodians, with each week providing a fresh argument for why each of them deserves to wear the No. 1 for New South Wales. Facing up against the Broncos on Thursday night for a Maroons-like decimation at Suncorp, it wasn’t hard to see why Dugan is a Daley favourite, but my money is still on Tedesco. While he may be more unpredictable than Dugan, he’s arguably got more potential, as well as a more unusual skill set that may require an Origin jersey to really come into its own.

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If Dugan wasn’t fully there in spirit, things were made even worse by Benji Marshall’s last-minute absence after a hamstring injury sustained in last week’s match against North Queensland. While Marshall isn’t the most consistent half, and not an especially popular player, he’s enough of a figurehead and flagship at St. George-Illawarra for the team to suffer from his absence, and with only 38 percent of possession and 9/14 completions in the first half it felt as if some of the old Marshall magic was sorely needed.

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With Dugan and Marshall diminished as leaders, and even Gareth Widdop somewhat disorganised, it was no surprise that the Dragons’ stable tended to be a little imprecise. In the 18th minute, Jack de Belin landed over the try line with two Broncos defenders hanging off his jersey only for his arm to get between the ball and the ground in one of the most agonising replays in Round 6. Similarly, Peter Matu’utia somehow managed to bungle while storming through a gap in the Brisbane defence in the 43rd minute, knocking on the ball in the process. In a season that has been so defined by critical plays just before or half time, Matu’utia’s dash could have been a turning point – especially since the Dragons managed to rally and keep the Broncos trying until the 68th minute – but it was not to be, and instead the Broncos were empowered by the St. George winger’s fumble.

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On the other side of the Steeden, Brisbane were especially dominant in the opening and closing acts, with Corey Oates and Alex Glenn each racking up a try in the 4th and 30th minutes, and Anthony Milford and Jordan Kahu widening the margin with tries at the 73rd and 75th minutes. While Corey Parker wasn’t quite on his kicking game in the first five minutes – a recurring pattern this round – he managed to convert the remaining two tries while making up for it with two penalty goals that bolstered the Broncos bookend in the 16th and 69th minutes. With fourteen points notched up in nearly as many minutes, it was a sorry final quarter hour for the Dragons, and yet another indication that Brisbane have what it takes to win it in 2016.

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For all the contributions of Parker, Oates, Glenn and Kahu, however, it was the Brisbane halves that shone, with Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt playing a hand in every try scored for the maroon and gold. In the first quarter, Milford delivered the pass of the game to set up Oates’ opening try – a beautiful cut-out that sailed in front of three Dragons defenders before the Broncos winger put it to ground – while a perfectly placed grubber from Hunt helped Glenn bring down another four-pointer twenty minutes later. In the final quarter, Milford also put in the best try of the game – right on the dead ball line – while one of Hunt’s trademark flick passes helped out Jordan Kahu two minutes later. As with Dylan Napa the following evening, it was kind of crazy to think that such a dynamic halves pair would write themselves out of the Emerging Maroons for one night out on the town: more than any other game this season, it was clear that we were witnessing the future of the Queensland side, and the next great successors to Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston, at least as far as the Maroons jersey is concerned.

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With five wins out of six, Brisbane are now at the top of the ladder and likely to remain there for a while if the Storm is unable to bring home a win at AAMI Park tonight. Normally I’d say that’s unlikely but Melbourne have been so unpredictable in the wake of Billy Slater’s departure that it’s hard to say just what will happen. As far as next round is concerned, it’s unlikely that the Knights will put up much of a fight against Brisbane, although it’d be the upset of the year if they did manage to sneak in a victory at Suncorp. Perhaps being back in the Origin zone will help Trent Hodkinson and Jarrod Mullen continue to synergise as halves in the wake of this weekend’s match against the Tigers. At the very least, they are going to be desperate not to go the way of the Dragons, and that in itself is going make next Saturday’s match one to look out for.

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