GERRINGONG’S Tariq Sims and his St George Illawarra Dragons stormed to the best start to a season in the joint-venture’s history, with a 30-12 win over Newcastle at a packed WIN Stadium on Sunday.
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A 4-0 start has been something akin to a four-minute mile for the club, having gone 3-1 through the opening month of the competition on six occasions.
Wayne Bennett won three of his first four games in all three of years in charge between 2009 and 2011, while his successor Steve Price did the same in 2012 and 2014.
Paul McGregor also went three of four to start last season, but Sunday’s victory in front of 18589 fans took the club to 4-nil for the first time in 20 seasons.
It sees them sit at the top of the ladder after four rounds, with the Warriors the only other undefeated side in the competition following their 30-6 win over the Roosters on Saturday.
The performance puts a 5-0 start the season well within reach when they take on the seventh-placed Rabbitohs at Jubilee Oval this Friday night.
It’s a flying start no doubt, but McGregor has seen enough in his previous three seasons not to get carried away with the figure.
"We are a month into the season, there's 21 rounds to go," McGregor said.
"We looked over last year and, certainly the journey over 2017, we were second best in the competition at halftime but we didn't make finals.
“Over the [last] three years, we've led the comp twice until round 10.
"At the moment, the boys are getting what they deserve and I'm certainly very impressed about how hard they've gone about their work.
“We needed to work hard and get a really good conditioning base and a good technical understanding of what we were doing
"I feel that I'm a lot more comfortable in he box in how the guys are game-managing around the important times and winning field position.
“The experienced guys we've brought in, with the learning the guys had from last year, we're playing some good 80 minutes.
"It's good to see how much enjoyment they're getting out of working hard.
“I'm privy to it every day, there prep's really good to go out there and have the enjoyment they're having at the minute."
Gareth Widdop and Ben Hunt continued to build on their burgeoning reputation as the most lethal halves combination in the game.
The marquee pair linked seamlessly to lay on four tries between them, but it was the Dragons big men who really did the damage.
Jack de Belin, Tariq Sims and Paul Vaughan all strengthened their claims for Origin debuts while James Graham managed a whopping 176 run metres to go with his 36 tackles.
Winger Nene Macdonald again put his hand up for Origin selection with a double, the second via his third miraculous finish in as many games midway through the second half.
Referee Grant Atkins wasn’t as whistle-happy as his colleagues have been during round four, with the penalty count sitting 8-7 in the Dragons favour at fulltime.
The count was 6-1 against his side through the opening 35 minutes but McGregor said discipline had been a focus for his side in the lead-up.
"We did speak about it, only briefly [on Saturday]," he said.
"We talked about self-discipline first and team discipline. They're trying to clean up the play-the-ball, that was why there's so many penalties that have been blown.
“They're not going away from it so we've got to make sure we're clean in that area and, if we're not, we're able to defend it.
"With the other one, being off-side, you can make sure you're not off-side, you just take an extra step. It's quite easy.
“It's challenging at times but we were 6-2 down at halftime so we weren't that clean. We certainly fixed it up in the second half.
“You'd like some consistency in the decisions they're making. If they're consistent you can wear it."
It was the only relief the Knights got with the Dragons scoring three tries in the space of 10 minutes midway through the opening stanza to lead by eight at the break.
It came after they trailed 6-nil three minutes in, with Knights centre Tautau Moga suffering a season-ending ACL injury in posting the opening four-pointer. It saw him take no further part in the match, with Jamie Buhrer shifted to left centre.
Ponga converted for a 6-nil lead but de Belin’s crunching shot on Sione Mata’utia to win back the ball proved a turning point.
Tariq Sims barged across from close range four plays later with Widdop converting the square things at six apiece after 13 minutes.
The hosts jumped ahead four minutes later when Lafai produced a freakish flick pass for Macdonald to cross in the left-hand corner.
It followed a break from Dufty and a pin-point long ball from Widdop, who also nailed the sideline conversion for a 12-6 lead.
The Knights again opened the door via a mistake, this time from Mitch Barnett who was hammered in a tackle by Vaughan.
Euan Aitken finished off a sweeping back-line move a couple of rucks later as the lead swelled to 12 with Widdop’s conversion.
Just as things started to look ominous for the Knights, a penalty saw them march up the paddock and score through Chris Heighington. Ponga converted to bring his side within six 11 minutes before halftime.
After another near miss at their own end, Widdop gave his side and eight-point cushion with a penalty goal in the 35th minute to take a 20-12 lead into the break.
Leeson Ah Mau muscled his way over 14 minutes after the resumption to push the margin out to beyond a converted try,
It was all the Dragons from there, with Macdonald reeling in a grubber from Hunt and planting it millimetres inside the chalk five minutes later to push the final margin out to 18 – to secure the Dragons the Alex McKinnon Cup.
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