Pre-season preview: Will the Dragons choke in 2018?

Jack Aubrey Roar Guru

By Jack Aubrey, Jack Aubrey is a Roar Guru

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    The Dragons caught fire early in 2017, and then crashed and burned, culminating in a Round 26 defeat to the Bulldogs that cost them a finals berth.

    Winning eight of their first twelve games, it looked almost assured that the Dragons would be playing finals football. They had some aggressive forwards leading the charge, Gareth Widdop in some good attacking form, but most importantly they looked like a team that was playing for each other.

    With things progressing nicely the Dragons would re-sign Paul McGregor to a two-year contract. The move may have been slightly premature as the Dragons quite literally choked on their finals aspirations.

    Only managing to win three of their next ten games the Dragons two final games would be must-win if they wanted to play finals. They would conquer the first hurdle with a narrow win over the Panthers in Penrith. But in their final game of the season, and facing up against the lowly Bulldogs, the Dragons season would turn to dust.

    Paul McGregor rode the roller-coaster that afternoon, demonstrating what all Dragons fans must have been feeling as he lived every play until the 80th minute brought the curtains down on their season.

    It would have been a long off-season for McGreger, the player and fans of the Dragons. Contemplating ever moment and missed opportunity that cost them a finals berth.

    How does their roster rate?
    No doubt the headline recruit for the Dragons is Ben Hunt. He signed on with the Big Red V before 2017 had even started, on a five-year contract worth a rumoured $1 million per season.

    The other signing that is worth note is James Graham. When the Dragons were in form last year it was their forward packed and their direct style of attack that drew most praise. Graham gives them a leader in the pack and offsets the losses of Russell Packer and Joel Thompson.

    The other notable loss for the Dragons is Josh Dugan who departs for Cronulla. A host of other fringe first-graders depart the club, perhaps to facilitate the arrival of a couple of big signings.

    The Dragons have a pack that looks tough and durable. Paul Vaughan was one of the form props of the competition early last year. Tyson Frizell has gone to another level since his Origin debut in 2016. The form of Jack De Belin has had him on the cusp of Origin too. Tariq Sims adds some aggression. Their are a host of others vying for bench spots, and providing depth.

    The back-line isn’t among the best in the league, but we have seen some premiership winning sides do so without the biggest names in those positions. Jason Nightingale is an ever reliable presence on the wing. We have seen plenty of potential from Euan Aitken. Nene Macdonald is a big body who makes plenty of tough metres. Paul McGregor will be looking for more from Tim Lafai.

    The play making roles are an area of interest. Cameron McInnes was solid from hooker last year and McGregor should have no problem there. Widdop played at fullback in the world cup providing food for thought. The Dragons have some promising play-makers in their stocks. Dufty looked good in limited time last season. Jai Field has also been much talked about. Kurt Mann is another option somewhere in the back-line.

    While the Dragons may start the year with Hunt and Widdop in the halves, their are certainly some other options to consider if things don’t click.

    The Dragons two big buys make them a finals force. A leader in the pack. A play-maker who should take some pressure of Widdop. They look strong on paper, especially in the forwards. They also have some real depth.

    Gareth Widdop St George Illawarra Dragons NRL Rugby League 2017

    (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

    Ins
    Mitchell Allgood (Wakefield Trinity – 2018), James Graham (Bulldogs – 2020), Ben Hunt (Broncos – 2022), Jeremy Latimore (Sharks – 2018), Darren Nicholls (Panthers – 2019)

    Outs
    Levi Dodd (Townsville Blackhawks), Josh Dugan (Sharks), Kalifa Faifai Loa (Townsville Blackhawks), Jacob Hind (Sunshine Coast Falcons), Drew Hutchison (Leigh), Chris Lewis (Sunshine Coast Falcons), Mose Masoe (Hull KR), Tyrone McCarthy (Salford), Josh McCrone (Toronto), Taane Milne (Wests Tigers), Shaun Nona (Wynnum-Manly), Russell Packer (Wests Tigers), Joel Thompson (Sea Eagles), Siliva Halivi (Raiders), Will Matthews, Jake Marketo, Izaac Thompson, Yaw Kiti Glymin (released)

    Injuries/suspensions
    The Dragons should be fully fit for Round 1.

    Key men
    Ben Hunt. Five years is a very long time in rugby league. Hunt is on some serious coin now, reaping the benefit of a volatile halves market. The money he is on makes him in all probability the highest paid Dragons player and as a result the most under pressure to perform.

    Ben Hunt scores vs Titans

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    It is a gamble, their is no doubt about it. A wonderfully talented player on his day, Hunt looked like he was ready for a change from the Broncos. It has been a while since Gareth Widdop has had a halves partner of such pedigree.

    2017 was solid without being spectacular for the Broncos halfback. He had his lowest tally for tries, try-assists and line-breaks since making the halfback spot his own. It is a good indication it was a time for change.

    Hunt is so important for the Dragons because of what he does for Gareth Widdop. Widdop has had plenty of different halves partners at the Dragons and none that have really taken enough pressure off him. Marshall came close in 2015, but the best they could do together was a week one finals exit.

    Widdop has been inconsistent in his time at the Dragons, but it has been exacerbated by the fact he has been relied on so heavenly. Dugan provided very little in ball-playing at fullback, his halves partners have been a mixture of fringe first-graders and veterans. Hunt allows Widdop to play his own game.

    Hunt comes in with plenty of finals experience and proven match-winning ability. He looks best when he runs the football, as does Widdop. They need to get a tactical kicking game going between them but that shouldn’t be an issue.

    Hunt is under pressure and rightfully so. He hasn’t ever quite got back to where he was since the 2015 grandfinal. 2018 is a new challenge, a new start, and an opportunity for Hunt to write his own legacy.

    Where do they need to improve?
    Consistency and composure.

    In 2017 the Dragons had the fifth best attack in the league, the seventh best defence and the third best points differential.

    They are some remarkable stats to have and still miss the finals. On their day the Dragons looked every bit a finals bound side. It was composure and consistency that was their Achilles heel.

    They won eight of their first twelve games. Of the four games they lost, one was to the reigning premiers, one was to the runners-up, one was by a point to the Roosters. Even when they were losing the Dragons were putting up a fight against some top quality sides.

    They could pile on the points too, they dispatched of Penrith 42-10 in Round 1, and then smashed Manly 52-22. They weren’t the only big wins they had.

    But the Dragons couldn’t maintain the rage, and stay consistent. The went away from the direct, hard-running attack that saw them be competitive early, and instead fell back into old habits. One week they would be dismantling a team, the next stumbling and bumbling against a bottom four side.

    They also failed to stay composed. They lost eight of their last twelve, six of those to teams that would finish outside the top eight. In much the same way as the Raiders, when the whips were cracking and they desperately needed a result, they fell away.

    Dragons coach Paul McGregor

    (AAP Image/Michael Chambers)

    The Dragons perhaps missed a general outside Gareth Widdop. Widdop has been the Dragons go to man for the past few seasons. A clutch goal, try, field-goal, Widdop has delivered at times. Hunt and Graham bring more experience, in big games and must-win clashes and take pressure off Widdop to lead this side to every win.

    The Dragons also demonstrated that no matter how soft your draw might seem, this competition just does not work like that. If you can’t stay composed or consistent you are going to get burned. They lost six times to sides below them on the ladder, every games counts in the NRL.

    Top five clashes
    Round 1: Dragons versus Broncos, Jubilee Oval, March 8
    The first game of the season. The stakes are already high. Ben Hunt doesn’t have to wait long to face his former teammates as the season kicks-off in Kogarah. Dragons fans should get out in force, anticipating a solid first up performance from their side.

    Round 6: Dragons versus Sharks, WIN Stadium, April 13
    Josh Dugan returns home early in the season to face his old club. Dugan was never far from the headlines in his time at the Dragons. With both clubs having similar aspirations for 2018, will the Dragons be able to get one over their former star?

    Round 8: Roosters versus Dragons, Allianz Stadium, April 25
    Anzac day. A real highlight of the rugby league calendar. The instalment last year was a thriller. Nene Macdonald crashed over with less than five minutes on the clock. In what was probably the highlight of Josh Dugan’s season he would boot the Dragons into golden point with Widdop off injured. While they would lose, the Dragons should fancy their chances of revenge this year.

    Round 12: Panthers versus Dragons, Panthers Stadium, May 26
    They had two equally important wins over the Panthers last season, both memorable in different ways. The second win was a narrow two point effort in Penrith to keep their season alive. Can they keep the run of good form against the Panthers going?

    Round 24: Dragons versus Bulldogs, Jubilee Oval, August 26
    Could it come down to a game against the Bulldogs once again? Mentally for the Dragons you would hope not. The Dogs ended their season in 2015 and 2017. Their penultimate game of the season, and moving this fixture from ANZ, can the Dragons exorcise some demons of 2017 by defeating the Bulldogs?

    How will they go?
    The Dragons had the stats to show that they were extremely unlucky not to play finals footy in 2017. They were not unlike the Raiders in that had a few key moments gone their way, they would have been playing in September.

    Ben Hunt and James Graham are huge acquisitions. Moving Dugan on was equally important, and the timing was right. To have another genuine half who on his day is proven match winner is invaluable.

    The Dragons have some tough as teak forwards, many of which could or should be pushing for Origin jerseys. I rate Gareth Widdop very highly. They also have some very exciting kids yet to play much first grade.

    St George Illawarra Dragons player Gareth Widdop

    (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Robb Cox)

    Paul McGregor is under huge pressure. If the Dragons can’t make it this year, he might not make it to the end of the year. This is very much his team, and they have shown their potential in the first half of last year.

    If the Dragons keep it simple they are a top eight team. Go forward, play direct, let Widdop and Hunt run first. What they did to start last year is a great blue-print.

    It won’t come down to the last round this year. If the Dragons are to be a success they will be steaming toward September, or have crashed in a heap long before. They have to start how they intend to finish.

    The Big Red V will be in the finals in 2018.

    Predicted finish
    7th

    The New South Wales State of Origin team for the 2018 series remains a mystery, with new coach Brad Fittler facing plenty of selection headaches. So we want you to tell us - and all your mates - who should start for Blues in Game 1 with our team picker.

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    The Crowd Says (56)

    • February 13th 2018 @ 5:16am
      Duncan Smith said | February 13th 2018 @ 5:16am | ! Report

      Quite a good and detailed article … but again with the ‘choke’ thing? A bit harsh and Dragons’ fans must be sick of it.

      The word ‘choke’ has several meanings, one of which is:

      4: to lose one’s composure and fail to perform effectively in a critical situation e.g. ‘he had a chance to win the game but he choked.’

      If you’re going to say they choked on their finals aspiration, fine, but to say they ‘quite literally’ did so makes it sound like they were having them for dinner.

      • February 13th 2018 @ 6:34am
        peeko said | February 13th 2018 @ 6:34am | ! Report

        this is correct Duncan, a late season slump is not a choke, Bad title , good article

    • Roar Guru

      February 13th 2018 @ 6:54am
      The Barry said | February 13th 2018 @ 6:54am | ! Report

      The Dragons will be an intriguing team to see how they turn out in 2018.

      They were tough and gritty in 2015 and made the 8. They were absolutely dire in attack in 2016. Then last year they were red hot to start the season playing dynamic, offload based footy before falling into a black hole and missing the unmissable semis.

      Which is the real Dragons?

      Then you’ve got their new signings but both come with baggage. Hunt hasn’t seemed the same since the 2015 grand final. Will the move to Sydney get him back to his best? Will he be able to strike up a combination with the mercurial Widdop?

      James Graham is a legend. But his contribution has been diminishing over the past couple of seasons with an ongoing neck problem and frequent concussions. His ball playing has also been shelved, but whether that’s his fault or his former coach’s remains to be seen. But it will be fascinating to see what the Dragons are getting.

      I’m also looking forward to seeing Matt Dufty get a legitimate crack at the no. 1 jersey. He comes with big wraps and looked the goods in his debut game against Manly.

      I hate to labour a point, but Frizell has not taken his game to the next level since 2016. If anything he has regressed. His game is behind where it should be in terms of workload and impact. Joel Thompson has been a far greater contributor statistically over the last couple of seasons but doesn’t get anywhere near the wraps.

      In 22 games last season Frizell had just one try and four line breaks which is exceptionally poor for what a destructive ball runner he can be. There are probably Dragons fans ready to call me a Frizell hater. I’m really not. I love watching him play when he’s at his best but can’t remember the last time I saw him play his best footy.

      In Frizell’s defence I think he has been almost criminally misused by McGregor and spent too much time in the middle third of the park as a battering ram.

      Speaking of McGregor, he must be under pressure now. He has had roster excuses for a while now, inheriting a bit of a basket case. He has his own team now, as they say and there must be pressure on him to create a legitimate style of attack and consistent performance. What is the Dragons style? It’s still difficult to really explain.

      • Roar Guru

        February 13th 2018 @ 9:08am
        Scott Pryde said | February 13th 2018 @ 9:08am | ! Report

        As I said below TB, I reckon the Dragons style is going to be really second phase, quite entertaining this year. A lot of offloads with the ball runners we have floating around could be a real recipe for some exciting rugby league.

        I’m cautiously optimistic though and I think what you say about Frizell is pretty true. The loss of Thommo is going to be huge and we really need Friz to stand up.

      • February 13th 2018 @ 10:24am
        Jack Aubrey said | February 13th 2018 @ 10:24am | ! Report

        Tough and gritty in 2015 is probably correct, but they haven’t won a finals game since 2011.

        Change will be as good as a holiday for Ben Hunt. To have to try and move on from 2015 must have been extremely hard, he has copped some real criticism in his career to date that comes with wearing the Broncos number 7.

        No doubt Graham has been hampered, but I feel change will be as good for him.

        I was astounded by Frizell when he came into Origin. I didn’t realise what a good player the Dragons had on their books. But as you say he is being misused at the moment. McGregor should probably have a look at his game at Origin level and what they can do to promote that attacking style he has.

        • Roar Guru

          February 13th 2018 @ 12:31pm
          The Barry said | February 13th 2018 @ 12:31pm | ! Report

          You know your club has problems when Laurie Daley is utilising your players better than your club coach…

      • Roar Rookie

        February 13th 2018 @ 11:06am
        Joe said | February 13th 2018 @ 11:06am | ! Report

        Agree with your comments and similar to the Raiders we’ll find out which is the real Dragons. 2016 or 2017. Also on Frizell I do think he was misused by McGregor. Joel Thompson plays on Widdops side so they had a decent combination going as opposed to Frizells side which was forever changing. Can’t build any sort of combo with your half who can really make a 2nd rower look good…e.g those 2nd rowers who played outside Cronk and in the Storm system…Blair, Proctor, Hoffman, Harris. I think having Hunt should greatly improve Frizells performances in this Dragons team.

        • February 13th 2018 @ 12:55pm
          KenW said | February 13th 2018 @ 12:55pm | ! Report

          Good point Joe, combo between Hunt & Frizell could be something to look out for.

    • February 13th 2018 @ 7:01am
      BA Sports said | February 13th 2018 @ 7:01am | ! Report

      Good write up.
      Would it surprise me if the Dragons made the eight? No.
      But I can’t say I am quite as optimistic. The acquisition of Graham doesn’t offset the loss of Packer and Thompson. He might be a minor upgrade over one,but not both. If one of the other acquisitions steps up they might have covered their losses.

      I think we are seeing regression in Graham, so I am wary of writing that up as a game changer for the Dragons

      Hunt may have played in a Grand Final, played Origin once and played a few games for Australia, but his mental strength will be tested if he gets off to a poor start because the Kogarah component of the Dragons fans are an impatient lot and will turn on an outsider pretty quickly.

      But it is McGregor and the juniors that I think actually control the Dragons destiny. Dufty, Field, Leilua Aitken and Sele. These guys need to be given opportunities and need to step up. McGregor has shown no ability to manage the integration of players from lower grades up to the NRL and no patience to allow relationships to form. Kurt Mann,is a good player, find him a position. Milne miss used, Where does Field stand, Host up and down like a yo-yo for no apparent reason … He reacts and over reacts too much and seems to impatient and emotional in his decision making.

      • February 13th 2018 @ 12:19pm
        Albo said | February 13th 2018 @ 12:19pm | ! Report

        I pretty much agree with all that BA !
        I am not sure the James Graham acquisition will compensate for the losses of Packer & particularly Thompson ?
        The loss of Dugan too has been understated as he has been a solid performer at fullback or centre in recent times. Whilst Hunt is now the hope of the side, he will have some pressure on him to perform . I hope he does well as I think he was often treated unfairly at the Broncos. A lot will depend on the relationship he can develop with Widdop in how best to run the team around the park, and how he links with their pack. However , if Hunt doesn’t work out for some reason, I have my doubts about the Dragons progressing any better than last year. I can’t see any improvement to their roster apart from the addition of Hunt, who is yet to prove himself in the Red V. Perhaps the natural improvement in their current young players like Sele, Leilua, Dufty & Field would be expected to enhance their chances. Time will tell.

      • February 13th 2018 @ 1:06pm
        KenW said | February 13th 2018 @ 1:06pm | ! Report

        I’m not sure what they will be getting out of Graham. His last NRL season was not impressive, but he’s not that old – a change might reinvigorate him.

        Regardless of what he puts out though he’s probably worth inclusion just for his leadership qualities, and being the sort of veteren hardhead which all packs need. The Dragons have some promising young forwards in Host, Lawrie, Leilua, Sele, etc so, even if his personal performances are no longer what they once were, his influence may well be very valuable.

        Hunt’s mental strength? It’s not wrong that Dragons fans can be brutal but with the attention he has got at the Broncos post-2015 being in fresh surroundings must make him feel like he hasn’t a care in the world.

    • February 13th 2018 @ 7:36am
      Peter Phelps said | February 13th 2018 @ 7:36am | ! Report

      If by choke you mean not winning the premiership or not even getting there then yes they will. There are simply too many better (on paper) teams ahead of them for them to be a serious threat. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the eight this year but I doubt that they will progress very far.

      Still, its pre-season when every fan is allowed to dream.

    • February 13th 2018 @ 7:46am
      Greg Ambrose said | February 13th 2018 @ 7:46am | ! Report

      I made an outlandish call last season when Saints were flying high and Penrith were not that they would swap positions on the table. It was a similar feeling I had watching the Dogs make the eight in 2016. Although both teams were successful if you looked at the table, something was wrong and I saw grim times ahead.

      This season I haven’t got a clue yet but Ben Hunt at his best with a licence to thrill could be a major difference. Both teams had the work ethic and effort but the licence and or the ability to be creative and play the game as it unfolded each week was lacking I believe. This in turn lessens the enjoyment and the downward spiral accelerates.

      • Roar Guru

        February 13th 2018 @ 9:09am
        Scott Pryde said | February 13th 2018 @ 9:09am | ! Report

        Agree about Hunt – I reckon he will have that licence. Playing on the back of our pretty mobile pack could be a godsend for him.

    • Roar Guru

      February 13th 2018 @ 9:05am
      Scott Pryde said | February 13th 2018 @ 9:05am | ! Report

      I’m really over the word choke. It’s just something people throw around, but I don’t think a lot of people understand what it actually means. To choke in sport means you were expected to do great things, but failed to get there. For example, the Roosters turning three minor premierships into only one premiership would be considered choking. Or if the Storm didn’t win last year, same deal. It’s not when you are a side like St George Illawarra and aren’t expected to do anything great anyway.

      Moving on from that little rant though, I’m really looking forward to watching us play this year. I think we could be one of the more exciting teams in the competition and that owes to the number of running players we have in the side. Ben Hunt and Gareth Widdop are both running halves, Cameron McInnes is explosive out of dummy half and Matt Dufty (who I think will be rookie of the year – provided he still qualifies, and I’m certain he does) is an amazing talent – probably the best young fullback since Billy Slater, and I highly doubt that’s overstating it.

      With the spine the Saints have, you pair them up with guys who can offload quite well like James Graham, Jack De Belin, Paul Vaughan (who should both play Origin this year) or Tyson Frizell and I think there is the potential for a lot of second phase play there. You saw what Hunt did at the back end of last year on the back of the Broncos pack.

      Taking all that with a grain of salt in a lot of ways though because I’m not sure where the organisational stuff comes from. I think Widdop can play that role as he tended to at times last year, but I’m just not sure how his and Hunt’s combination will work.

      Regardless, I’m optimistic and I think your prediction is about right – somewhere between 6th and 8th for mine.

      • February 13th 2018 @ 10:36am
        Jack Aubrey said | February 13th 2018 @ 10:36am | ! Report

        After 12 games last year, with only 4 losses, all to sides that would end up in the top 4, it would look almost certain the Dragon would be playing finals. Their would have certainly been some sort of expectation, casting an eye over their “soft” run home that they would play finals. If my side got off to that sort of start, and then crashed out in that manner I would call it a choke, but I guess it’s a little bit down to how you view things. I think the pre-season expectations are a bit null and void once you turn on that run of form to start the season.

        I would be excited as a Dragons fan. They have shown what they can do already, they need to be able to sustain it but I think they can. As you say they have some really quality and talent across the park, and if Dufty is as good as you say he is then really they have no excuse.

        Between Hunt and Widdop the organisational stuff will come. I think they have enough between them to make it work. I’d be very optimistic about the Dragons chances this year, only some real minor areas to fix from last season and they are finals bound.

      • Roar Rookie

        February 13th 2018 @ 11:11am
        Joe said | February 13th 2018 @ 11:11am | ! Report

        Matt Dufty’s first game last year he really looked like a Billy Slater type player. Faded a bit towards the end of the year so hope he can bring some consistency in his game and more great performances. Nothing better than watching one of the smaller blokes carving up the opposition.

      • Roar Guru

        February 13th 2018 @ 12:44pm
        The Barry said | February 13th 2018 @ 12:44pm | ! Report

        Choke is a subjective term and one I don’t like using but given the way the Dragons collapsed last year it’s not an outlandish way to describe their season.

        They were leading the comp after seven rounds and top three after 13. With the position they were in and the draw they had for the remainder of the season a top eight spot should have been a formality and a top four finish well and truly on the cards.

        In the latter half of the season they lost to the Bulldogs twice, Titans, Raiders, Knights and Rabbitohs, who all finished bottom seven and below the Dragons.

        If they win just one of those games they make the eight. Win four and they make the top four. Coming into round 26 they just had to beat the battling Bulldogs to make the semis and we know how that ended. Losses to the Bulldogs bookended their period of disaster.

        As I said I don’t like using the term choke but if it’s defined as losing when winning looks inevitable, then you could certainly put a convincing argument forward that the Dragons choked several times last year.

        • Roar Guru

          February 13th 2018 @ 1:29pm
          Scott Pryde said | February 13th 2018 @ 1:29pm | ! Report

          Fair call TB. I see where you’re coming from, I just tend to think we made the most of an easy draw and given our pre-season expectations wouldn’t class it that way.

          Going into 2017, I was going to be quite content if we didn’t win the spoon.

      • Roar Pro

        February 14th 2018 @ 1:06pm
        Wolly said | February 14th 2018 @ 1:06pm | ! Report

        I have a distinct memory of the Dragons winning the minor premiership in 2009 and then being knocked out in straight sets. That’s choking in it’s purest form, in fact I’m pretty sure it’s first and only time it’s happened.

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