Punting Ace’s Nick Tedeschi writes:

Rugby league has changed a lot over the last twenty years. There is no longer a five-metre rule. The days of the part-timer and the amateur are long gone with rugby league now a fully-fledged professional code. Super League came and went but its legacy still lives on today. Interchange rules seem to change as often as refereeing interpretations. Scrums today are a pale and languid ghost of days gone by. There are no North Sydney Bears but instead we have teams in Auckland, Melbourne and Townsville.

One thing remains the same though: Wayne Bennett is a winner.

Eighteen years after winning his first premiership with Brisbane, he claimed his seventh title and his first with the St George-Illawarra Dragons. He ended a 31 year drought for St George fans and he provided Illawarra with their first ever premiership. Bennett, according to most good judges, pushed past the legendary supercoach Jack Gibson on Sunday night as the Dragons surged to the 2010 title. In only two years, Bennett has turned the Dragons from a team built on glitz and a reputation of individualism with a soft underbelly to one made of steel and heart with a team-first ethos.

The Dragons were simply too good against a dogged Roosters outfit just as they had been too good for most of the competition all year. There is no doubt the most deserving team won the 2010 premiership.

The Roosters certainly jumped the gun early but the first half was marked by two poor officiating decisions. The first allowed the Dragons to open the scoring after Brett Morris had been taken into touch. The touch judge’s flag remained down though and Mark Gasnier soon had a Grand Final try. The second was far more sordid and to the surprise of nobody it was video referee Bill Harrigan in the middle of it. Harrigan somehow reached the conclusion that Joseph Leulia had not knocked the ball on when trying to place it over the tryline before being knocked out by Jamie Soward’s leg, Braith Anasta subsequently diving on the loose ball. Bill Harrigan was dropped only two months back for his decision to award Mark Gasnier a controversial try yet was somehow appointed to the Grand Final. Robert Finch has plenty to answer for.

Though the Roosters led at the break and the Dragons had played uncharacteristically poorly, particularly in regards ball-handling, an 8-6 lead did not seem big enough. The Roosters had all the run of play in the first half yet the Dragons had weathered the storm.

And when the sky did actually open up in the second half, the Dragons grew an extra leg, taking power from the rain like Samson did his hair. Their most attacking football was saved for the worst of conditions. With some deft footwork, Jason Nightingale put the Dragons in front and they are a very hard team to run down once leading. The Roosters did not provide another crow.

Nightingale added to his tally on sixty minutes and Dean Young and Nathan Fien quickly followed, blowing the final score out to 32-8. Young was unlucky not to be awarded the Clive Churchill Medal. He was outstanding but again paid the price for not being showy enough, his grimy trench-work again going unnoticed and without individual recognition. The Churchill Medal went to Darius Boyd, who was solid enough at the back for St George-Illawarra.

The era of defence still reigns. The Melbourne Storm based their four straight Grand Finals on defence as did Brisbane in 2006 and Manly in 2008 and again it reaped rewards. The best defensive unit again won the premiership.

Truth be told, the best team won the title. No team since Wayne Bennett’s 2000 Brisbane Broncos have been as dominant. The Dragons had a Randy Couture-like choke hold on the premiership since the Storm salary cap scandal broke and they didn’t disappoint their legions of fans who today are delirious with the unquenchable joy only a premiership can bring.

A thought must surely be spared for Roosters coach Brian Smith. Yet another year has passed sans a premiership. 2010 must surely be considered a success for both him and the Roosters, however, and he should be mighty proud of what he has achieved. The Roosters were an embarrassing rabble in 2009 and had been for much of the decade, from the last days of the Ricky Stuart Era through the Chris Anderson debacle and most of the way through the Brad Fittler tenure. Yet in 2010 they played steely, determined and cohesive rugby league and lifted themselves from the canvas of the wooden spoon to a Grand Final in which they led at half-time. 2010 was Brian Smith’s finest season as a first grade coach and he has laid the building blocks for another Roosters era of premiership contention. There is no shame in losing to a better team.

In the modern era of talent equalisation, there is something tremendously rewarding about seeing the best team with the best coach win a premiership in dominant fashion. The Roosters gave their all but they were merely the best team of a pack well beaten by a Dragons outfit who gapped them like Vo Rogue and then finished like Kingston Town. The 2010 St George-Illawarra Dragons may not go down in history as a team packed to the brim with stars but it will go down as one of the greatest teams ever to win a title.

And they were led by a coach like no other, the great Wayne Bennett, the finest coach in any sport Australia has ever produced.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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