Paul McGregor has failed as coach of St George Illawarra.
In 2019 the team conceded the most points in a season in St George Illawarra history (575), and scored the second fewest (427), and achieved the worst differential.
The problems underlying this failure are longstanding. McGregor has repeatedly demonstrated conservative management of his team and squad, failed to develop players and refused to accept responsibility for his errors or learn from his mistakes.
The current board also failing. In addition to overseeing the club’s worst finish in 98 years, the club has managed the worst ever crowds at Wollongong (5578 versus Melb on 4 June 2019) and Kogarah (6532 v Titans on 10 August). The club is demoralised, their football is terrible, and the fans are either revolting or uninterested.
Dragons’ ladder finishes under McGregor: 2014 (11th), 2015 (eighth), 2016 (11th), 2017 (ninth), 2018 (seventh) and 2019 (15th).
McGregor’s results make for poor reading. Between 2014 and 2019, he has a highest finish of seventh and a lowest of 15th. In a 16-team competition, with a well regulated salary cap, this is an objective failure.
All else being equal teams should finish around eighth or ninth most of the time, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. McGregor’s teams have finished higher than the median just once in six years.
In addition, in 2012 and 2013 as reserve grade coach, he led teams to sixth and ninth.
2019 has been the worst year of McGregor’s long tenure, in addition to being the Dragons’ worst since their grading in 1921.
Sympathetic commentary has sought reasons including the loss of Jack de Belin and the injury to Gareth Widdop. Losing quality players is an issue, but not one unique to the Dragons.
The Storm performed without Cooper Cronk, and the Dragons won four of their first six without de Belin. The problems at the Dragons are deeper, and will not be solved with McGregor at the helm.
End of season fade-outs
Setting aside 2014 (McGregor’s first half-season), the Dragons have run out of puff mid-way through every year. In 2015 they did not win between Rounds 12 and 21. In 2016, they registered just two wins after Round 16. In 2017, they won four after Round 13. In 2018 it was just three wins after Round 16.
In 2019, after re-signing McGregor for a further two years, the Dragons managed just four wins after Round 6. Two of these were against the atrocious Titans, one against the 14th-placed Cowboys, and one against the then last-placed Bulldogs.
McGregor has not been able to identify or fix these problems. The flip side to this is that for the last three years the Dragons have started the season well.
Rumour has it that the Dragons board is determined not to admit that they erred in re-signing McGregor so soon, and have set him an early 2020 test that he needs to pass in order to retain his position. History suggests he will pass this test, then fade again.
Inability to nurture up and coming talent
In 2016, the Dragons reserve grade side won the premiership and interstate cup under Jason Demetriou. Demetriou was moved on the next year. In 2019 the Dragons reserve grade side is in the preliminary final under Matt Head. There are reports he will be sacked at the end of the year.
The Dragons’ development systems are full of talent that does not get a look into McGregor’s teams, and either atrophies or looks for opportunities elsewhere.
For example Lachlan Timm leads the reserve grade competition for runs, decoy runs, metres, post contact metres and tackles. McGregor could not find a place for him in his top 21 all year, nor explain to fans why.
Jackson Ford, who just trailed Timm in numerous categories, was given a start in Round 21 with the season long gone. Jason Saab was handed a jersey in Round 19. Zac Lomax was demoted to reserve grade after starring at the back end of 2018. Reuben Garrick, starved of opportunities, fled to Manly where he starred.
Pat Herbert found a start at the Warriors. Josh Kerr, Mikaele Ravilawa, Jai Field, Taane Milne were and are ignored. Coach favourites Josh McCrone, Jeremy Latimore, Euan Aitken, Tim Lafai and others have been automatic selections, and opportunities presented to journeymen like Lachlan Maranta and Patrick Faufusi.
This phenomenon is not new. As early as 2016 articles about this coaching technique destroying the Dragons were written after McGregor “left the great red and white hope and off-load machine, Luciano Leilua, on the bench” in a crucial game until the team was 30 points down and the season done.
The highly talented Leilua remains a fringe first grader in 2019. In 2017, Brendan Bradford asked whether it was “time for McGregor to start playing some of the young-guns the Dragons have in their ranks?” McGregor circa 2019 appears to disagree still.
Sympathetic commentators point out that squad deficiencies are not McGregor’s fault. Apart from the fact that McGregor himself says he ‘has the roster he wants’, those same commentators would do well to acknowledge that McGregor lost responsibility for recruitment and retention after a disastrous 2016 season at the recommendation of Mark Coyne and the board.
This change was meant to allow him to focus on results.
Inability to accept shortcomings and demonstrate leadership
Andrew Webster recently wrote about the Dragons ‘season from hell’, noting the de Belin and Widdop issues, but also questioning some of the other excuses offered.
For a period McGregor’s press conferences became a catchphrase bingo as he noted the opposition scored tries from kicks (as if they don’t count) among other odd pronouncements.
In April after losing to the Roosters, McGregor repeatedly referred to them as ‘the best team in the world’.
In June he said that ‘If we stop the game after 30 minutes we’re in the top four’.
In July he said the team had “next level distractions and no element of luck”.
When the team had slid to 14th McGregor declared that “we can win [the comp]”.
McGregor is well supported by a revolving cast of assistants who appear to take the fall for the team’s results.
In addition to Demetriou and Head being moved on despite their success, reports are that Ben Hornby, Mick Crawley and maybe Dean Young are also on their way out after 2019.
They join the numerous other backroom staff that the Dragons have cycled through in the McGregor years. Across town, Trent Robinson supported the ambitious Adam O’Brien’s interest in the top job at Newcastle, saying “That’s what head coaches are there for. We are there to develop and progress, and he is good enough for the job.” The difference in leadership philosophy and respect is stark.
Throughout 2019 there has been a deafening silence from the Dragons CEO and board as records tumbled.
The club made prominent noises about a Gould review late in the season, only for it to appear to be a sham. The press release noted that Gould had ‘agreed to take part in aspects’ of the review.
Gould later acknowledged he was not being paid, and was involved “as a favour to Dragons coach and good friend Paul McGregor, who will not be under pressure.”
The Dragons are crumbling with McGregor at the helm.
Removing responsibilities has not worked and nor has cycling through assistants. For the sake of the fans, I hope that there is more happening behind the scenes than it appears.