There is no problem in rugby league that can not be fixed by winning. It cures everything.
Coach under pressure? Win some games. Want a new contract? Win some games. Newspapers on your back? Win some games. Fans not showing up? Win – and this can not be stressed enough – some games.
If you suggested two weeks ago that the Dragons hosting the Tigers would be close to the match of the round, they’d have called the men in the white coats because you would clearly be a danger to yourself and others if you would entertain such delusions . They were not really playing football – football was just kind of happening to them.
And yet here we are, with the joint ventures going head to head on Sunday in a match that intrigues and excites despite the sides sitting 10th and 13th on the ladder. That’s what winning can do. It can transform a game between two teams who were flat out beating a drum not long ago into the people’s match of the round.
If that sounds stupid, it’s probably because it kind of is. Both teams enter this game on two-match winning streaks, both secured in dramatic fashion, but it would still take a brave or foolish fan to say either of them is finals material.
Parramatta’s clash with North Queensland in Darwin will likely have a far greater bearing on the race for the premiership. It will likely be of higher quality than Dragons-Tigers.
But in Dragons-Tigers, we see the hidden truth of rugby league – the quality of the play or the caliber of the teams involved is not as important as how the game makes you feel, because perfectly executed football and football that lives on in your heart are not always the same thing.
Most of us do not know what it’s like to have greatness on our site every week. Only a precious few fans know what it’s like to support a team like Penrith, who are beginning to look like one of the most dominant teams in NRL history, or Melbourne, who have been so good for so long that any loss is treated like a death in the family.
Everyone can watch those teams and enjoy them, but not everybody can know how that feels.
This Dragons-Tigers match is what most of rugby league living really is – hoping against your better judgment that this time, the progress your team is making is for real, that they’ve really turned a corner and you will not have to pretend to believe because the proof will be right in front of you.
It’s true that two wins in a row are not many, and three aren’t much more than that. Unless the Saints put the cleaners through their opponents, neither team will finish the week in the top eight. But it’s been a while since either side had something like this to feel good about.
The last time the Tigers won three in a row was when some guy named Ivan Cleary was coach, back in 2018. The Dragons did it last year, but that’s the only time they’ve saluted for longer than a fortnight since 2019.
No Wests or Saints fan is foolish enough to believe that three straight wins in the first half of the year guarantee a finals berth. Regardless of who wins, these are probably not teams who will still be playing in September.
But who cares what happens months from now if you get one more week where you can turn to the fan beside you and say something stupid like, ‘I tell you what, we could really have something here’, and feel like it’s true, and the existential despair that’s currently enveloping Canterbury and sneaking up on Canberra can be avoided for at least a few more days?
Unless your team is a genuine chance of winning the premiership, pushing that feeling back for another week is the greatest gift they can give you.
The Tigers and Dragons have been there, and they’ve done that, and they know exactly how empty it feels to be staring May in the face and knowing everything is already over until next March. The path to the end of the season is long and arduous when you’re already dead.
Of course, there’s a risk involved here – hope is a dangerous thing, because true despair at your team falling apart can not happen without first believing they are meant for bigger things. Tigers fans know this all too well. It’s a hard-learned lesson from their long finals drought.
They have seen this scenario play out many times because there have been so many false dawns between 2012 and now. It’s not easy for them to believe, because they have been hurt so many times, but every time their dreams are crushed it means they’re one step closer to the time when they’re not.
It’s only slightly different for the Dragons. One premiership in the last 42 seasons is not the stuff of powerhouses. Two finals berths in the last 10 years, where they finished the regular season in eighth and seventh respectively, is not the record of a blue blood.
It has been a long time since they had anything true to believe in and they have been waiting for it almost as long as the Tigers have. These are two sides on similar levels, who are still putting things in place for the future. The Tigers have two serious players coming next year in Api Koroisau and Isaiah Papali’i. The Dragons will have enough cap space to fill a swimming pool with money and invite free agents to dive into it like they’re Scrooge McDuck.
There are plans in place for both clubs that make it easy to sell their fans a dream for tomorrow. But it’s hard to be patient and if you can offer some temporary success now, the fans will snap it up like it’s cold beer in hell because even the most beaten-down fan wants, in their heart of hearts, to believe in something again .
It helps that these two teams have good points to latch on to. Many words have been written and said about Jackson Hastings and how he matured as a player and man during his time in England because rugby league loves a redemption story, but the Great Britain international has retained enough of the swagger and confidence of his days as a prodigy to give the Tigers something they’ve sorely needed. Luke Brooks called it a “f ** k you attitude” after the win over the Rabbitohs.
It means Hastings bows to nobody on the field, not because of arrogance but because he is sure of what he wants his team – and through virtue of his personality, it has quickly become his team – to do and how they’re going to do it.
The presence of Jack de Belin and George Burgess make the Dragons a more complicated prospect, but it’s impossible not to respect Ben Hunt and enjoy his success. Because of some of his gaffes in big games, including the grand final drop that many will never forget, it does not feel right to arbitrarily declare him a “winner” like we do with so many other great players, even though anybody who gets near greatness has to have lost a couple of times to get there.
But Hunt’s winning quality is that he never stops trying to win and never puts anything other than everything he’s got into it. A lot of players and teams say they give it all but Ben Hunt actually does, every time, no matter how lost the cause may seem.
Neither player is perfect. Hastings looks the goods, but two good weeks are still just two good weeks. Even after nearly 300 NRL games, Hunt’s last-tackle options can sometimes leave something to be desired. But again, who cares. They work it out. Their flaws make them more human. Their lows make the highs all the sweeter.
They are good enough to give their team and their fans something to believe in, and that’s all anyone can really ask. These are the good feelings and they’re real as long as we believe they’re real. This is why we all watch footy in the first place.
So let’s do this together. Let’s have a bit of faith. Let’s be brave or stupid or both. Let’s risk getting our hearts broken again.
Let’s watch on Sunday, or sit in the stands if you can get down to Wollongong, and let’s talk about Hastings and how he changed things and let’s ask each other if there’s ever been a better performance on Anzac Day than what Hunt did on Monday. And if your team wins, let’s talk about the finals even though it’s still April, ’cause dreaming does not cost a thing. Let’s look up at the sky and wonder if it was always so open.