Rugby League

Hunt on fire as Broncos bad boy Lodge endures forgettable NRL return

Rugby league has been good to Matthew Lodge this week, but the Brisbane bad boy received a stark reminder in St George Illawarra's win over the Broncos on Thursday that the sport can also be a harsh mistress.

Fifty-one minutes into the season opener after being mercilessly jeered all game by the 14,457-strong Jubilee Oval crowd, Lodge threw a wayward pass that hit Ben Hunt on the chest, allowing the ex-Bronco to run 50m unopposed to score a match-sealing try for his new club.

Hunt leads Dragons to opening night win

Oscar-winning screen writers could not have scripted this any better – for Dragons fans anyway, who celebrated a 34-12 win, following their recent form of starting the season with gusto.

Lodge's fortnight of endless scrutiny temporari

ly melted away as he crossed the white line after being cleared to play his first NRL game since 2015, but he would not have enjoyed his momentary escape.

"I wasn't disappointed in Matt, he had to start somewhere," Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett said.

"We got him on the footy field tonight and we got him playing football. He just needed to play football, first game back in the NRL tonight in three years and that's the best thing that's happened to him."

As Lodge and Brisbane struggled to complete their sets after a week under the most searing of spotlights, the Dragons produced an excellent showing with Hunt instantly settling into his new surrounds and fellow new signing James Graham providing plenty of grit in the middle.

Back to earth: Matthew Lodge is taken to ground by two Dragons defenders. Photo: Craig Golding

The giddy crowd revelled in the cohesion of their new-look side while taking every opportunity to remind Lodge he was rugby league's public enemy No.1.

The build-up to this match should have been about ushering in what promises to be one of the tightest NRL seasons in history, but Lodge's drug-fuelled antics in New York two-and-a-half years ago dominated headlines all week.

He apologised for his actions in an emotional interview, and just 24 hours after it aired he ran out wearing a Broncos strip playing his first NRL game since 2015 after failed stints with Penrith, Melbourne and the Wests Tigers.

Dragons fans were on his case from the outset, instantly identifying the fluro yellow boots, his slightly receding dark blonde hairline and ultra imposing prop-forward frame.

He helped effect the first tackle of the NRL season before his first hit-up where he careered into the shoulder of Australian back-rower Tyson Frizell.

And so it continued for Lodge, who also made an error and gave away a penalty in his first stint which measured almost 27 minutes.

All the while, new Dragons recruit Hunt was enjoying a memorable debut for his new club against his old.

There were certainly no major teething problems with new halves partner Gareth Widdop, and the pair almost produced a sensational try late in the first half when Hunt's pinpoint cross-field kick found the Englishman, who was found to have drifted marginally offside.

"These two are going to work well together," Dragons coach Paul McGregor said.

"The cohesion is going to be better when they play more footy. I thought both of our halves really dominated the game which was nice.

"If you look at Gareth and Ben, Ben's a genuine seven and Gareth's a genuine six. He [Widdop] has got enormous talent and he likes to play instinctive footy whereas when you wear the seven you've got to execute a gameplan and a kicking game.

"They complement each other really well, that was just the start of something we can build over the year. Ben likes to go to the game like Gareth so you've got two competitive players on the football field. We've got some strike on both edges."

It's a sentiment shared by Hunt's new halves partner.

"He's been good, the last few years we've had a few different half backs, to have Ben here, he's played many first-grade games, he's played Origin, he's played for Australia, he's well experienced and he's just going to add to this team," Widdop said.

"He's a halfback who will go to the game, he's not going to sit back and wait and that's what you want."

Hunt's best moment was his intercept. He hunted Lodge's poor pass during the prop's second stint on the field, instantly endearing himself to the Kogarah faithful.

James Roberts scored a double to ensure that Hunt's intercept try didn't completely seal the deal, but Euan Aitken, Jack de Belin and Jason Nightingale made sure there were no late-game jitters with second-half four pointers.

Brisbane had drawn first blood through a Jordan Kahu penalty goal as the Broncos centre opened the scoring in an NRL season for the third-straight year.

But the Dragons soon took charge, grabbing a pair of penalty goals themselves before Hunt's first significant involvement set up Frizell on the right edge.

Hunt's testing grubber speared horizontally across Brisbane's in-goal area before Frizell won the race to the ball to the satisfaction of the video referee.

Brisbane youngster Jaydn Su'a was put on report late in the game for a heavy shot on Dragons prop Paul Vaughan, who was taken off with rib soreness after another influential game.

Nightingale also finished the game in pain after landing awkwardly on his head while scoring the final try of the match.

Despite their physical discomfort, Vaughan and Nightingale will certainly look back at this one more fondly than the embattled Lodge.

ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA 34 (Frizell, Hunt, Aitken, de Belin, Nightingale tries, Widdop 7 goals) BRISBANE 12 (Roberts 2 tries, Kahu 2 goals). Half time: St George Illawarra 10-2. Crowd: 14,457 at Jubilee Oval. Referees: Matt Cecchin, Alan Shortall