Brutal Dragons back row seven years in the making
IT'S taken seven years, but St George Illawarra has finally put the finishing touches on the most feared back row in the NRL.
Way back in 2011, the future faces of the Dragons' stoppage squad - Jack de Belin, Tyson Frizell and Tariq Sims - made their NRL debuts in wildly different circumstances.
De Belin was the only one to do so in the Red V, running on as a humble bench utility.
Frizell grew up in Wollongong, almost signed with the NSW Waratahs, then chose the Cronulla Sharks to earn his NRL stripes.
Gerringong-raised Sims was immediately hailed as the next big thing after starring for North Queensland, going on to join the NSW Origin team at training as a 21-year-old prodigy.
There have been many twists and turns on the journey, but Frizell finally saw the puzzle pieces fall into place over summer.
While Frizell, Gareth Widdop, James Graham and Jason Nightingale were enjoying time off following their respective World Cup campaigns the rest of the Dragons squad were slaving away doing an intense pre-season.
It was here - in the absence of some of the Dragons' bigger names - that Sims and de Belin started to lay the foundations for a surprising start to the season that has them top of the NRL ladder and second favourite behind Melbourne to win the NRL title.
Sims, who has played 138 games across three clubs, and De Belin, who has played 137, knew they had to lead an inexperienced side before Christmas.
"Jack, Tariq and Cameron McInnes were now the senior guys," Frizell said. "They knew they had to lead with a few of us away. They were the ones leading the way. That's why they've been able to start the year so well."
The Dragons have the most potent back-row in the competition. The Frizell, Sims and de Belin combination is the only backrow in the NRL to have started every game this season. Fox Sports Lab statistics obtained by The Sunday Telegraph reveal the full extent of the trio's stinging defensive game.
They have the fewest missed tackles and the equal most times pressuring the kicker, while in attack they have scored the equal most tries and sit second in tackle breaks.
"It's not only us but the whole forward pack," Frizell said. "You try and go into every game and you always want to be more dominant than the other pack. It's easy to do it this time of the year. We've come off a good pre-season and there are opportunities ahead for the boys. We need to be consistent."
The trio are in serious contention for NSW spots. Frizell is a walk-up start on one edge and while Blues skipper Boyd Cordner will hold down another starting spot despite his scratchy start to the year, Sims and de Belin are pressing hard for places in the 17.
Frizell said the duo are ready for the step up.
"They bring impact especially through the middle," Frizell said. "You can start them, you can bring them off the bench. They are players who aren't going to fill a hole. They can make a difference in the team.
"Those opportunities will come. They came for me a couple of years ago. I'm still trying to hold my spot. When they get the opportunity they'll make the most of it.
"In terms of us as a team, (playing rep football is) something we don't speak about. It's not what is driving us. You do want to be there.
"Origin is all about big moments … Tariq and Jack have been creating big moments and momentum shifts in games. Hopefully they can continue to do that for us.
"They are ready for (Origin)."
The Dragons face Melbourne today in the match of the round. This time last year the Dragons had lost just one extra game before faltering to fade out of the competition without making the finals.
Now with just one loss, Frizell said there is a greater sense of belief.
"It's easy to say when you are winning but I do think there is a different feel," Frizell said. "Even the way we've started to put games together. In the past we've struggled to win tight games. The grinding footy that generally gets you in the top eight or top four.
Last year and years before we've been able to blow teams off the park but we struggled to win those tight games
"If you looked at our games last year, all the games we won we were able to blow teams away because of certain individuals playing out of their skin mostly through the middle of the park. Now you see everyone contributing. You won't see boys racking up massive metres."