Despite what you may think of the coach, you can’t blame him for the 2019 season.
The Dragons’ season was hijacked before it began by the off-field distractions surrounding Jack de Belin’s court case. The no-fault stand-down introduced in response to this combined with De Belin’s subsequent decision to fight it in court was the worst possible result for the team.
If De Belin had have been allowed to play, things may have returned to business as usual. If De Belin had accepted the decision, the Dragons could have moved on. While I don’t begrudge De Belin fighting the decision, challenging the NRL ensured the distractions continued throughout the season.
However, the team’s tale of woe did not end there. They lost captain and key playmaker Gareth Widdop early and for most of their season, and injuries to key players continued to punctuate the year.
St George can’t possibly have the same off-field dramas disrupting the 2020 season as they did 2019.
One 2019 issue that you can blame on the coach was a lack of cohesion among the spine. Paul McGregor was playing silly buggers with his spine early on. Matthew Dufty would come off the bench to fullback. This would push Widdop from fullback to the halves and Ben Hunt from the halves to hooker, with Cameron McInnes finally vacating the hooking role for the bench or back row.
No doubt this would have made it difficult to develop any continuity among the playing group. Just when Widdop’s injury looked likely to put an end to this, Corey Norman also got injured, ensuring further changes to the spine. Norman returned later in the season to play at fullback instead of five-eighth, meaning this discontinuity remained for the entire year.
Despite Widdop leaving the spine for 2020, on paper at least the team stacks up against any in the competition. McInness was the team’s one shining light in 2019 and is one of the better hookers going around. Norman and Hunt are two State of Origin representative halves. Both are fine players, even if their abilities don’t quite match their salaries.
After being anointed ‘the gifted one’ by Brad Fittler, Zac Lomax failed to live up to the hype, shifting between wing and centre last year. However, I look forward to seeing what he can produce in his favoured fullback position this year. Issac Luke, Tristan Sailor and Dufty provide plenty of depth of reasonable quality, though hopefully this first-choice spine has the chance to gel.
The forward pack is another strength for the Dragons. Tyson Frizell and Tariq Sims give the Dragons a pair of edge backrowers comparable with the best in the tournament. Australian representative Paul Vaughan is their leading middle forward. Though past their best, James Graham and Trent Merrin remain two quality players, while the likes of Blake Lawrie, Jackson Ford, Jacob Host and Josh Kerr will be better with the experience of last year.
Their backline in recent times has been hugely disappointing. Timoteo Lafai and Euan Aitken have at different times in their careers looked like world-beaters and park footballers. It remains unknown what they will produce this year, but surely a decent spine playing behind a quality forward pack should give them enough time and space to show their best.
Jordan Pereira will likely take one wing spot. He will do his job – nothing more, nothing less. The other wing will likely be filled by Jason Saab, but he will need to outperform Mikaele Ravalawa and Sailor this preseason to secure the position. A towering excitement machine who can outcompete any opponent in the air, Jason Saab only needs to add a bit of work rate coming out of his own end to be the complete package as a winger.
Most fans are highly critical of coach McGregor, and perhaps rightly so given his results. He has, however, shown the ability to have his team firing in the past only to badly fade late in the season. Given the strengths of the team I see no reason why he can’t get this side firing again early this season.
Norman holds the key. He left Paramatta with a point to prove, and a return to form by him will help those outside him return to their best also. Should this happen, and should the club address any remaining mental demons when things get tough midseason, there is no reason the Dragons can’t put themselves in the mix to be playing finals football.