St George Illawarra landed in a parallel NRL finals universe

Last laugh: Dragons coach Paul McGregor is plotting a run deep into the NRL finals series. They face South Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night. Picture: Adam McLean
Last laugh: Dragons coach Paul McGregor is plotting a run deep into the NRL finals series. They face South Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night. Picture: Adam McLean

What parallel rugby league universe have we just stumbled into?

A weird zero-gravity place where St George Illawarra head into an NRL semi-final without an overwhelming sense of expectation?

A reality where Paul McGregor is actually praised by Dragons fans – and doubt lingers over whether Wayne Bennett has a job next year.

But here we are, bizarro world.

The curiously-timed “chaos” surrounding South Sydney and allegations of players exposing themselves to a young woman on webcam has ratcheted up the heat at Redfern.

While the full circumstances of the incident are being investigated by the club and NRL integrity unit, Souths have the small matter of beating the Dragons and keeping their premiership hopes alive to worry about. 

Back here in Wollongong, there’s a whole different vibe going on. 

The Dragons are unshackled from the usual millstone of pressure around their neck, which halted their campaigns in one form or another in 2005, 2006, 2009, 2011 and last year.

The win over the Broncos was McGregor’s finest hour.

Even the Twitter trolls had begrudging respect for his coaching efforts to turn it around.

A season sliding out of control, saved just as they were about to hurtle off the cliff. Dragons fans even had time to exhale with about 12 minutes left, knowing victory was theirs.

A mixture of relief and celebration washed over them, as boom rookie Zac Lomax pulled out the party tricks, with a perfectly-timed kick for Matt Dufty to streak away and score in the final moments.

It was a sensation not felt since Jason Nightingale, then Dean Young and Nathan Fien scored tries in the space of 10 minutes to seal the premiership in 2010.

And few expect the Dragons to progress any further this year, which is their biggest asset. 

Lomax, Jordan Pereira and Blake Lawrie are unburdened by past failures.

Tyson Frizell and Tariq Sims appear to have tapped into the State of Origin mentality which helped NSW win the series. 

Ben Hunt looked like he was actually enjoying his footy again, though Gareth Widdop’s latest injury raised the performance bar for him against the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night. Rugby league players spend so much time being controlled, from recovery to game day.

They’re characterised as chess pieces and robots by the supporter base.

The season review will be fascinating, evaluating how it all went horribly amiss before the Brisbane recovery mission, with players let off the leash.

This is rugby league bizarro world and the Dragons are suddenly revelling in it. 

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