It was only this time last year that pundits and experts predicted a cellar-dweller finish for the mighty Dragons and, to be honest, it was hard to disagree with them.
Instead St George Illawarra burst out of the gates and raced to the top of the ladder within the first few rounds, and the red and white army made sure they didn’t book a holiday in September. However, in what has been a recent trend for the joint venture, they stumbled through an underwhelming second half of the season and finished ninth.
Looking ahead to 2018 we have seen some very aggressive recruitment drives, with teams looking more impressive than ever. It has been widely predicted that 2018 may become a three-horse race between the Melbourne Storm, North Queensland Cowboys and Sydney Roosters. Favouritism has never really meant much, and here’s why the Dragons can raise eyebrows in 2018.
Headlines have been dominated by player movements in 2017, and the catalyst of all of this was Ben Hunt signing a lucrative deal with the Dragons. A poor 40 minutes on the biggest stage of them all was all it took for Broncos supporters to have doubts over their star halfback.
Gareth Widdop has been a solo superstar at the Dragons but now finally has the opportunity to combine with a player of similar stature. Attack has been the main criticism of Paul McGregor’s team, and Hunt’s creativity combined with Widdop’s strong passing and running game can cause some big upsets in 2018.
Aaron Woods’s controversial move to the Bulldogs was considered one of the coups of the year. Starting Australian front-rower, prop of the year – who wouldn’t want him at their club? Well, maybe not Bulldogs fans, because subsequently skipper and fan favourite James Graham was pushed out.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, with the Dragons swooping immediately on the tough Englishman. It’s hard to go past names like James Tedesco, Cooper Cronk or Jordan Mclean as the top signings for 2018, but I would have no problem with the suggestion that James Graham may be the most influential.
As mentioned before, attack has been a constant problem for the Dragons, and the thing that makes James Graham such a large influence is his neat passing game. A front-rower with the ability to throw short crisp passes adds a whole new element to an attack.
Graham leads from the front and gets in the ears of his teammates, which is what the Dragons have lacked, especially in the second half of the season. James Graham and Paul Vaughan as the starting front-row combining with Tyson Frizell making tackle-busting runs and the Dragons have a formidable forward pack.
You are not a true rugby league fan if you are not disappointed with your team for not making the finals in any year. Once the disappointment of the ninth-place finish had subsided, Dragons fans must see 2017 as a huge step forward.
Many players had breakout years, but none more so than Jack De Belin and Cameron McInnes. De Belin had average running metres of 146.6, a resounding improvement on his previous seasons. Strong running combined with a very tight defence led to De Belin being included in the New South Wales squad as 18th man.
McInnes on the other hand, finished the year with the highest tackle count in the NRL, making 1,155 tackles. Another strong start to the season and Brad Fitler may be taking a very close look.
Whether the Dragons are successful in 2018 largely depends on the success of Matt Dufty. He is young, boasts speed and evasiveness similar to Billy Slater and has crafty ball skills. If the young gun can link up with his halves smoothly and be sound in defence, then Dragons fans should get excited. Considering he is still developing, the fullback spot does present question marks and will define the Dragons season.
It is extremely difficult to see the Dragons challenging the likes of the Roosters, Cowboys and Storm for the premiership, but I have seen weirder things happen. It might not be the year of the Dragon, but a strong recruitment drive and a year to build on may see the red and white fly high to snatch a top-four finish.