'The Dragons are the benchmark', says Craig Bellamy

On a day like this, at a ground like this, the best place to sit wasn’t behind the sterile glass of the press box but outside in the grandstand, among the Dragons faithful.

There’s no bigger or louder bandwagon worth climbing aboard when the Red V are firing … and holy hell are they firing.

Breathing fire: Tyson Frizell.

If St George Illawarra’s 34-14 win over defending premiers Melbourne Storm at a delirious Jubilee Oval doesn’t make them premiership favourites, then what are they?

Storm coach Craig Bellamy has an idea and it’s perhaps a greater compliment than cliched labels applied in May about who will win on grand final day in October.

“What we took from today is they’re the benchmark,” Bellamy said. “We know now that we’ve got some work to do. I just said that to the players in there. Because they are the benchmark, there’s no doubt about that. They’ve been playing great footy all season and if we want to play some footy in September we are going to have to improve.”

What bizarro world have we slipped into?

If someone had told you on the eve of the season that the Dragons, who bombed out of the finals race in the last round last year, would be setting the standard for the Storm, who won the premiership with apparent ease last year, you would ask them what were they on and where could you get some.

Because it’s not like Melbourne were off their game on this afternoon.

Five-eighth Cameron Munster was typically graceful on his feet and with his pass. Fullback Billy Slater remains lethal each time he slots into the backline.

And while captain Cameron Smith copped a stray punch to the big Adam’s Apple from Dragons forward Jeremy Latimore — Smith suggested afterwards it was deliberate — he still battled through to the end.

The match pinged from sideline to sideline, from end to end, yet it was the Dragons who tore away after leading 12-4 at halftime.

They did something similar to the Roosters on Anzac Day. They have done it to most teams in their eight-and-one start to the season. No wonder the bandwagon is running out of seats.

As far as Bellamy was concerned, the 15 minutes before halftime was most telling.

He refused to blame referee Matt Cecchin’s controversial decision to disallow a try to winger Josh Addo-Carr, instead giving them a penalty in front of the uprights for a Dragons’ ruck infringement.

Not happy: Cameron Smith copped a stray punch to the groin as his team were well beaten.

“They did a lot of good things today,” Bellamy said. “Our biggest learning today, with them being the benchmark, is we had a lot of ball there late in the first half but they defended their goal line a lot better than we defended our goal line. They’ve been doing that all season.”

Perhaps just as telling was the 10 minutes after the break with props James Graham and Paul Vaughan and lock Jack de Belin sitting on the bench, waiting to be unleashed.

As no-frills players like Kurt Mann and Latimore held their own in the middle of the park, the Dragons scored twice: the first came from hooker Cameron McInnes, who darted out of dummy-half; the second from centre Tim Lafai from a clever short-side play.

At the other end, the Dragons forwards were continuing their obsession of not just tackling the opposition but demolishing them.

Tyson Frizell plonked the massive Sam Kasiano on his bottom close to the line, forcing the ball loose. Every single Dragons player came rushing in, desperate to congratulate him.

All smiles: A swarm of dragons celebrate with Tim Lafai after his try.

There’s an energy and enthusiasm about the Dragons that makes them different this year.

It’s in their defence. It’s in the way the forwards shoulder each other out of the way just to support the teammate carrying the ball. It’s in the way they congratulated Frizell.

“When you’ve got belief,” Dragons coach Paul McGregor said, “your attitude is right. We’re not being complacent about what we do. There’s no ego here.”

We’re about to see the true strength of the club, though. What happens in the next month sets the Dragons up for finals footy.

McGregor’s squad is expected to be devoured by the Origin monster, such is the price of early season success. Just ask Bellamy: he’s been dealing with it for 15 or so years.

Centre Euan Aitken, McInnes, Vaughan and the entire backrow of Frizell, Jack de Belin and Tariq Sims are in line for NSW selection. Halfback Ben Hunt, you would think, will be somewhere in Kevin Walters’ Queensland team.

The Dragons play Souths (away), Raiders (home) and Panthers (away) before the teams are announced for the opening State of Origin at the MCG on June 6.

Told about Bellamy’s remarks, McGregor said: “That’s nice to hear off a great man and great coach”.

He said it with a smile and he can afford to. He’s got a good team on his hands. The benchmark, apparently.

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