After seeing the Dragons hit another post-Origin drop in form for the third time in four seasons, it made me wonder where this stems from – particularly given their irresistible start to the year.
But this year in particular, Paul McGregor’s side has played the middle part of the season with five State of Origin players, and four who played all three games, which is something McGregor has never had to deal with to this extent since he became an NRL coach.
From the outside looking in, it is the Dragons’ management of several Origin stars and their inexperience in this area that could be contributing to their recent ‘slide’, and it simply comes down to resting players.
In recent years with players getting bigger and more athletic and with greater injury risk from more powerful collisions, coaches have been known to rest their Origin representatives at any given point during or post-Origin.
Last year, Craig Bellamy and the Melbourne Storm proved how important this was in the long term after giving their Origin players more than enough time to refresh themselves before going on to win the Premiership.
Considering the top eight as it stands, the top four teams have had three or more State of Origin players who played in at least two games, and each those players have been rested or did not play at some point during or after the Origin period other than bye rounds.
For the fifth-placed Dragons – excluding Tariq Sims, who played one Origin game – just one of their four other Origin players, Tyson Frizell, was rested or did not play at least once during the same period of the season.
It was only about a month ago during a post-match press conference when McGregor to his credit, refused to make excuses for resting his Origin players and lauded his strength and conditioning staff on managing their individual workloads.
However, limiting the workload is not the vital issue. It is more to do with giving those players enough time outside of the day-to-day team environment for resting and rediscovering the early season form that got them into Origin contention in the first place. Or, in some cases, this can allow those players to use the Origin experience to better themselves in the back end of the year, such as Latrell Mitchell and Damien Cook for example.
Another factor is the significant roles of the Dragons’ Origin players in their state teams and their workloads during the series.
Tyson Frizell was one of New South Wales’ big-minute edge back-rowers, Paul Vaughan and Jack De Belin played as leading middle forwards, and Ben Hunt was a key playmaker in a Queensland side that was a heavily scrutinised following the representative retirements of Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Cam Smith.
This alone was reason enough to rest these players at some point despite having no post-Origin injuries, but because of the mentally-draining effect that Origin has on its players. And that’s exactly how those players look at the moment – mentally drained.
I cannot question the form that we saw of the St George back-row and new signing Ben Hunt in the first 16 rounds. The main reasons for the Dragons’ success so far have been Ben Hunt’s experience in the halves to take the sole playmaking pressure off Gareth Widdop, and the relentless aggression of Vaughan, De Belin, Ty Frizell and Tariq Sims in their defence and attacking runs.
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We know what the Dragons are capable of and what they can produce, based on the form that has kept them in the top four the whole year until now.
Their Origin stars are the key players needed to help the Dragons go far into the finals, but without a chance to properly refresh themselves after a gruelling Origin-affected season, I just can’t see them rediscovering their pre-Origin form.
My final thought is on the long-term effects that this year’s Origin series will have on the Red V, given this is the most Origin players that Paul McGregor has had since the start of his tenure in 2014.
Assuming Paul Vaughan, Jack De Belin, Tyson Frizell, Ben Hunt, and possibly Tariq Sims play State of Origin in 2019, St George Illawarra’s experience of the recent Origin period and its aftereffects could go a long way to helping them improve their position this time next season.