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

Dragons coach Paul McGregor needs to shake his team selections up. (AAP Image/Michael Chambers)
Roar Guru
12th February, 2018
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1084 Reads

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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Predicted finish
7th