Nicho dominates on return, but Dragons need to have long, hard look at themselves

Cronulla Sharks, featured, League, NRL, Rugby League, St George Illawarra Dragons

It was worth the wait. Nicho Hynes has been a big miss for the Sharks in the first three round of 2023, with coach Craig Fitzgibbon promising that his star man would not be risked until his calf injury was absolutely behind him.

He returned against St George Illawarra, and it was no surprise that the Sharks’ best performance of the season followed. The halfback began his defence of his Dally M Medal from 2022 in style, giving the 2023 judges the easiest decision of the year.

The scoreline was 40-8 in favour of the visitors, and Hynes was worth ten of them with the boot, plus three try assists from the hand. He ran the show.

Anthony Griffin was told this week that he will have to reapply for his job going into 2024, and this was the worst possible start. His style, prioritising conservative play and endless hit ups, was destroyed by a free-flowing uninhibited Cronulla.

The blowout scoreline belies how well the Dragons began the game – they led 8-6 at the half hour mark – before collapsing in a heap from there out. 34 unanswered points tells its own story.

There was a borderline Bunker call that went against St George Illawarra for a Jesse Ramien try, but the manner of the capitulation removed any chance of it influencing the result.

“It’s disappointing,” said Hook in a muted post-match press conference. “The first half we weren’t quite there, but we got ourselves into the game. Second half, they were way too good. We weren’t good enough.”

Ben Hunt stuck up for his coach and apologised to the fans.

“He’s not the one out on the field out there, it’s us,” said the captain. “He’s not the one missing the tackles. 

“They were too good for us. They ran harder, tackled harder and we couldn’t go with them. I thought it was very embarrassing. I don’t think there’s a guy on our side who could say they played well in that second half. To dish that up in front of your own fans isn’t good enough.”

Welcome back, Nicho

It was like he’d never been away. Braydon Trindall proved an excellent deputy, but Nicho reminded every just what they’d been missing with a dominating performance, orchestrating everything in black, white and blue. 

It was vintage stuff, always threatening the line and playing with the ball in two hands, permanently setting the defence on notice that the run and the pass were on. His teammates, who know this playbook inside out, ran excellent lines and gave Hynes options.

The only black spot was a one-on-one miss on his opposite number, Ben Hunt, that resulted in the Dragons opening try, but beyond that, it was a masterclass.

The way that the Sharks attack requires a halfback who can run and pin the defence to the centre of the field. They tell their wingers to attack the corners, their forwards to run supports and their halves to interest the defence as much as possible in the ball before sending it wide.

Typically, when deep in the field they go for the wingers and close in they play short to the forwards, but the decision making is the difference. Hynes showed when to go tight, as with Briton Nikora’s try, and when to go long, such as Siona Katoa’s late in the second half.

The system worked well enough without him, but was exceptional with him.

“He got excited at times, but it was a strong performance considering the lack of training time and lack of connection time with the guys,” said Craig Fitzgibbon.

“He seamlessly fit back in. His teammates stepped back up also and he was the beneficiary of a better team performance. 

“Nicho has chemistry with the guys that works out well. I thought it was a strong performance to come back like that and I’m proud of everyone else around him.”

An incomplete plan from the Dragons

Maybe they were demob happy, with Hook almost certain not to be offered the Dragons job beyond this year. Maybe they thought the way to beat one of the most expansive sides in the NRL is to out-pass them. Maybe, just maybe, there had been a change of heart from the completion rate king.

Either way, something strange happened to St George Illawarra tonight early on. They actually threw the footy around. Last year, their middles were so conservative that it took until midyear for Tariq Sims to make a single completed pass. 

Alright, this wasn’t quite the razzle-dazzle Dragons, but they did have more of a go than usual. Of course, it couldn’t last.

The Dragons reverted to type – or were told to rein it in – and with the move, their attack totally disappeared. Both Ben Hunt and Jaydn Su’A had profited from men in motion and a willingness to put air under the ball, but once the passing licence had been revoked, it was same old, same old.

Zac Lomax managed a grand total of three passes in the entire game, and that was better than Moses Suli on just one. The heart bleeds for the wingers who have to stand outside of them.

One only needed to look at the other side, where Jesse Ramien and Siosifa Talakai were running riot, to see the difference.

The completion rate, since you’re asking, was above 80% but they’d offered very little in attack. The Sharks completed at 69%, but had made five line breaks and scored five tries. 

It plummeted thereafter as the Dragons lost the plot, but the die was cast well before that. Up the jumper footy doesn’t work against the good teams, and the sooner Griffin learns this the better.

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