Former skipper Gareth Widdop’s departure from the Big Red V to Warrington in the Super League has left Dragons coach Paul ‘Mary’ McGregor with plenty of headaches heading into season 2020.
McGregor has been charged with the unenviable task of replacing not only his captain, but his fullback and goal-kicker as well.
It appears the leadership vacuum will be filled by one of either 2019 player of the year Cameron McInnes or NSW and Australia regular Tyson Frizell – both of whom are very worthy candidates – while Corey Norman (81 per cent kicking accuracy) and Zac Lomax (78 per cent), who both kicked reasonably well in Widdop’s absence this year, will likely fight it out for the role of first-choice kicker.
Finding a new fullback, though, is by far the most difficult part of replacing Widdop. Lomax, Norman, Matt Dufty and Tristan Sailor all played there at various points in 2019 while Widdop was injured, with Norman actually finishing the season at the back while Widdop played in the halves.
Norman looks set to shift permanently to his preferred position of five-eighth in 2020, leaving Dufty, Lomax and Sailor to fight it out for the fullback position.
By far the most experienced of the three, Dufty has made almost all of his 49 first-grade appearances at fullback for the Dragons, scoring 21 tries in the process.
After enjoying something of a breakout year in 2018, making 26 appearances and scoring 13 tries, his momentum slowed this year as he found himself in and out of form and in and out first grade.
Matt Dufty is a curious case. He’s a bit of a one-trick pony, although there’s no denying his one trick (incredible speed) can see him up there with the NRL’s most dangerous players on his day.
Despite the belief among the many of the Dragons faithful, he’s also not a horrible ball-player – certainly an improvement on the man he replaced in late 2017, Josh Dugan. However, there are some major deficiencies in his game.
He makes far too many errors under the high ball to be an elite fullback. Fixing this should be his number one priority through the preseason.
His size is also a problem. At just 83kg, he gets rag-dolled by opposition chasers far too easily when bringing the ball out of his own end. This is also a problem for him as the last line of defence – he doesn’t stand much of a chance one-on-one with big players who break through the front line.
It’s difficult to leave him out though because despite all this, there were plenty of times in 2019 when he was the only Dragons player who looked like threatening the opposition defence.
Simply put, if you want your fullback to appear on the highlights reel a few times a year, then Dufty is your guy. If you want your fullback to do a victory lap on grand final day, you might have to look elsewhere.
There’s plenty to like about this youngster from Temora. With just 18 games under his belt, the 20-year-old showed plenty of character in what was a tough initiation into first grade in 2019.
According to coach McGregor, Lomax is the front-runner at this stage to take over the fullback role for Round 1. This is despite the fact he has earned the vast majority of his junior accolades (Junior Kangaroos, Australian Schoolboys and NSW under-18 player of the year in 2017) as a centre.
At 190cm and 94kg, and with some growing left to do, it’s unlikely Lomax would suffer from the same problems Dufty did – that is being rag-dolled on every kick return. His extra height would also be advantageous when defending the high ball.
The big question mark over Lomax at fullback is his attack. In his limited opportunities in first grade over the last two seasons he has shown neither the ability to ball-play or break tackles. This makes it unclear exactly what type of fullback Paul McGregor wants Lomax to be.
At such a young age, Lomax certainly has the ability to develop into a top-line outside back – possibly even a fullback.
On the other hand, it’s pretty risky to put a 20-year-old centre at fullback when he’s only 18 games into his first-grade career. McGregor might be better off playing Lomax in his favoured position of right centre – particularly given regular right centre Euan Aitken’s poor form in 2019.
Tristan Sailor is the big unknown in this conversation. Firstly, because he’s only played three first-grade games. Secondly, because it’s actually unknown whether or not he will even be at the club in 2020 (although he is currently training with the Dragons and is expected to re-sign soon).
There’s plenty of hype surrounding the son of former Dragons winger Wendell Sailor, particularly after he scored a great solo try on debut against the Roosters in Round 23, 2019.
Tristan looked confident at the back fielding high balls, which you would expect from a Sailor. He’s played all over the back line in his junior career and clearly has plenty of footy smarts.
His major issue, like Dufty, is size. Built very unlike his father, Sailor is just 177cm tall and weighs only 80kg – that’s both shorter and lighter than Dufty. He also doesn’t possess Dufty’s lightning speed, although he’s not slow either.
His big strength that sets him apart from Dufty and Lomax, though, is his skill as a ball-player. Having played plenty of five-eighth in the juniors, Sailor might well be the best option of the lot in an attacking sense. He has good, solid speed and can throw a pass – exactly what you need in a fullback.
I’m going with Sailor, provided that he re-signs with the club, of course. Lomax can be better utilised at right centre where he’s played most of his football to date. As for Dufty, he needs to get his confidence back before he can play first grade again.
Dufty is the most talented player of the lot, but finishing 2019 on the wing in reserve grade would have shot his confidence to pieces. He needs to go back to reserve grade as a fullback and find form before he can be considered for first grade again.
It’s a big risk to put a three-gamer like Sailor in such an important position to start a season. But given the circumstances the Dragons find themselves in, it’s a risk they need to take.
Either that, or go to the open market and sign a more experienced fullback.