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The Roar’s 2020 NRL preview series: Middle of the road

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1st March, 2020
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With six teams revealed in The Roar’s NRL preview series, we today move onto the final sides who won’t have anything to sing about when September rolls around.

10. St George Illawarra Dragons

Unsurprisingly, one of the teams who have attracted the most comments on the series thus far with regard to why they haven’t yet been covered are the Dragons.

The 2019 season was an all-time low for the joint-venture, with their lowest-ever finish in 15th place recorded. It was, to put it nicely, absolutely shocking.

But there were plenty of issues off the field as well as some big-name injuries that stopped the Red V from finishing in the finals, where a vast majority expected them to be preseason.

Jack de Belin’s standdown took the club by surprise and English half Gareth Widdop missed most of the season. From a position of relative control the Dragons fumbled and bumbled their way through the second half of the season.

What happened is well publicised, but even with Paul McGregor – who still hasn’t proven himself as a coach at this level – still at the helm, there are reasons for optimism, with the club able to better prepare to handle the off-field issues, as well as the arrival of Shane Flanagan.

Flanagan has a proven track record of success, and his work with junior players and their development should improve the Dragons backline. Their forward pack – on paper at least – continues to be one of the stronger ones in the competition.

Corey Norman passes the ball

(Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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Squad

Cameron McInnes (c), Euan Aitken, Eddie Blacker, Billy Brittain, Jack De Belin, Matthew Dufty, Jackson Ford, Tyson Frizell, Tyrell Fuimaono, James Graham, Jacob Host, Ben Hunt, Josh Kerr, Tim Lafai, Blake Lawrie, Zac Lomax, Joe Lovodua, Isaac Luke, Trent Merrin, Corey Norman, Jordan Pereira, Mikaele Ravalawa, Jason Saab, Tristan Sailor, Korbin Sims, Tariq Sims, Paul Vaughan, Brayden Williame.

Development players: Adam Clune, Mat Feagai, Max Feagai, Hayden Lomax, Jayden Sullivan, Cody Ramsey.

Coach: Paul McGregor.
Captain: Cameron McInnes.

Ins: Eddie Blacker (development), Billy Brittain (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Jackson Ford (development), Tyrell Fuimaono (Penrith Panthers), Isaac Luke (New Zealand Warriors), Trent Merrin (Leeds Rhinos), Brayden Williame (Catalans Dragons).

Outs: Mitchell Allgood (London Broncos), Gareth Widdop (Warrington Wolves), Jai Field (released), Jeremy Latimore (retired), Luciano Leilua (Wests Tigers), Lachlan Maranta (Wynnum Manly Seagulls), Darren Nicholls (released), Jonus Pearson (Gold Coast Titans), Reece Robson (North Queensland Cowboys), Lachlan Timm (released).

The best 17
1. Zac Lomax
2. Tristan Sailor
3. Euan Aitken
4. Tim Lafai
5. Jason Saab
6. Corey Norman
7. Ben Hunt
8. Paul Vaughan
9. Cameron McInnes (Luke to start while McInnes injured)
10. James Graham
11. Tariq Sims
12. Tyson Frizell
13. Korbin Sims
Interchange
14. Isaac Luke (Billy Brittain to play while Luke starting)
15. Blake Lawrie
16. Jackson Ford
17. Trent Merrin

Team overview
The 2020 season marks change in the backline of the Dragons. With Gareth Widdop out of the picture, Hunt and Norman come into the season as the side’s halves without a shadow of a doubt.

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With Matt Dufty seemingly on the outer, Zac Lomax will get first crack at the back, while young guns Tristan Sailor and Jason Saab will be lining up on the wings.

Euan Aitken and Tim Lafai hold onto their centre positions but will be on notice after poor showing throughout 2019.

Paul Vaughan and James Graham again line up in the front row, while McInnes takes Hooker once he’s passed fit. However, in the meantime, it’ll be Issac Luke lighting up in the No. 9 jumper.

Tariq Sims and Tyson Frizell and the undoubted second row is at the Red V, while Korbin Sims wears No. 13.

The bench is where things get slightly interesting, with Billy Brittain signed to create competition with Joe Lovodua for the utility spot, while Jackson Ford, Blake Lawrie, Trent Merrin, Jacob Host, Josh Kerr and young gun Eddie Blacker duke it out for the other spots.

Strengths
As mentioned, the arrival of Shane Flanagan at the Dragons should be a huge boost to the club in 2020. His expertise in dealing with juniors and off-field issues, which he faced plenty of in Cronulla, will be major boosts to the Dragons.

However, it can’t just be the coaching staff who turn a club around, and the Dragons halves combination of Ben Hunt and Corey Norman should prove to be a good one with a full off-season under the belt.

Hunt’s kicking game, to go with Norman’s running and passing, and the speed in the youthful outside backs, like Tristan Sailor, should create a dangerous combination for St George.

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The front row should also be a major issue of concern for opposition clubs when facing the Red V, with Paul Vaughan leading the charge.

Ben Hunt runs

(AAP Image/Craig Golding)

Weaknesses
One big issue the Red V must overcome is the early injury to their star hooker, McInnes, who could miss anywhere up to half the season.

He was the life and soul of the struggling club in 2019, and while there is some talk he could have played at lock for a period of each game, before his injury he was undoubtedly on the State of Origin radar.

While St George Illawarra have Isaac Luke to take his spot, a widely criticised signing, and either Joe Lovodua or Billy Brittain to come off the bench, neither of those players are McInnes.

Lock is another issue, with Jack de Belin to miss another season under the NRL’s no-fault standdown policy.

While Trent Merrin has been signed and Korbin Sims is likely to start, there will be a stack of pressure on youngsters Blake Lawrie and Jackson Ford to make the Dragons bench one to be reckoned with.

The backline, at least defensively, could also prove to be a weakness. Being conducted by a rookie fullback, two rookie wingers will need to learn to trust their centres, Lafai and Aitken, if they are to succeed in keeping opposition sides to reasonable sides.

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Fixture breakdown

Round Date Time Opponent Venue TV
1 Sun Mar 15 6:15pm Wests Tigers WIN Stadium Fox
2 Fri Mar 20 6pm Penrith Panthers Jubilee Stadium Fox
3 Thu Mar 26 7:50pm Canberra Raiders GIO Stadium Nine/Fox
4 Sun Apr 5 4:05pm Parramatta Eels Bankwest Stadium Nine/Fox
5 Sun Apr 12 6:15pm New Zealand Warriors WIN Stadium Fox
6 Sun Apr 19 2:05pm South Sydney Rabbitohs ANZ Stadium Fox
7 Sat Apr 25 4pm Sydney Roosters Sydney Cricket Ground Fox
8 Sun May 3 4:05pm Melbourne Storm Suncorp Stadium Nine/Fox
9 Sat May 9 3pm Newcastle Knights McDonald Jones Stadium Fox
10 Fri May 15 7:55pm Brisbane Broncos Suncorp Stadium Nine/Fox
11 Fri May 22 6pm Gold Coast Titans Jubilee Stadium Fox
12 Sun May 31 4:05pm Manly Sea Eagles WIN Stadium Nine/Fox
13 Mon Jun 8 4:05pm Canterbury Bulldogs ANZ Stadium Fox
14 Sun Jun 14 4:05pm Cronulla Sharks Jubilee Stadium Nine/Fox
15 Thu Jun 25 7:50pm Wests Tigers Bankwest Stadium Nine/Fox
16 Bye
17 Sun Jul 12 2:05pm Sydney Roosters Sydney Cricket Ground Fox
18 Sat Jul 18 3pm North Queensland Cowboys Jubilee Stadium Fox
19 Sun Jul 26 2:05pm Canberra Raiders WIN Stadium Fox
20 Sat Aug 1 3pm Gold Coast Titans CBus Super Stadium Fox
21 Fri Aug 7 7:55pm Penrith Panthers Panthers Stadium Nine/Fox
22 Sat Aug 15 7:35pm Canterbury Bulldogs WIN Stadium Nine/Fox
23 Sat Aug 22 3pm Parramatta Eels Jubilee Stadium Fox
24 Thu Aug 27 7:50pm Cronulla Sharks Jubilee Stadium Nine/Fox
25 Thu Sep 3 7:50pm South Sydney Rabbitohs WIN Stadium Nine/Fox

Teams to play twice: Wests Tigers, Sydney Roosters, Canberra Raiders, Gold Coast Titans, Penrith Panthers, Canterbury Bulldogs, Parramatta Eels, Cronulla Sharks, South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Five-day turnarounds: 3
Seven plus day turnarounds: 13
Best home run: Rounds 11-14 (three out of four)
Worst away run: Rounds 3-10 (six out of eight)

The Dragons should have a chance to start their season on the right foot, with home games against the Tigers and Panthers.

From there though things go pear-shaped, as they play six of their next eight on the road, including a double-up of Canberra and Parramatta and a three-week trip sending them to Brisbane for Magic Round against the Storm, then to Newcastle and back to Brisbane.

That all means there are more home games on the run home, but what it doesn’t say is their double-up list, which includes the Roosters, Raiders, Eels, Sharks and Rabbitohs.

Ben Hunt (L) of the Dragons celebrates with Zac Lomax (R) after scoring a try

(Matt King/Getty Images)

9. Penrith Panthers

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Penrith underperformed big time last year and will be looking to turn that around and play at their potential in the new season.

Despite that, the top eight may well still be beyond them, with player turnover seemingly at an all-time high and a possible lack of direction on the park.

While the same concerns that plagued their 2019 season still exist, the Panthers have also attempted to turn over a new leaf with their preseason moves and should be sniffing around the top eight.

The fact Ivan Cleary also goes into his second season with the club should help as they begin to learn his structures and nuances.

Plenty of pressure will again hinge on his son, Nathan, as well as the forwards being able to lay a platform for him to play off, with reports suggesting players like James Tamou are in good shape.

Squad

James Tamou (c), Caleb Aekins, Dean Blore, Shawn Blore, Billy Burns, Matt Burton, Kurt Capewell, Jed Cartwright, Nathan Cleary, Stephen Crichton, Dylan Edwards, Kaide Ellis, James Fisher-Harris, Jack Hetherington, Mitchell Kenny, Viliame Kikau, Apisai Koroisau, Spencer Leniu, Moses Leota, Jarome Luai, Josh Mansour, Liam Martin, Tyrone May, Brayden McGrady, Brent Naden, Zane Tetevano, Brian To’o, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, Dean Whare, Isaah Yeo.

Development players: Shannon Harris, Daine Laurie, Glenn McGrady, Charlie Staines.

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Coach: Ivan Cleary.
Captain: James Tamou.

Ins: Dean Blore (development), Shawn Blore (development), Billy Burns (development), Matt Burton (development), Kurt Capewell (Cronulla Sharks), Apisai Koroisau (Manly Sea Eagles), Spencer Leniu (development), Brayden McGrady (Tweed Heads Seagulls), Zane Tetevano (Sydney Roosters).

Outs: Waqa Blake (Parramatta Eels mid-2019), Reagan Campbell-Gillard (Penrith Panthers), Wayde Egan (New Zealand Warriors), Tyrrell Fuimaono (St George Illawarra Dragons), Tim Grant (Thirroul Butchers), Sione Katoa (Canterbury Bulldogs), Nick Lui-Toso (Northern Pride), James Maloney (Catalans Dragons), Sam McKendry (retired), Tyrone Phillips (Newtown Jets), Paea Pua (released), Hame Sele (released), Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (Canterbury Bulldogs mid-2019).

The best 17
1. Dylan Edwards
2. Josh Mansour
3. Dean Whare
4. Brent Naden
5. Brian To’o
6. Jarome Luai
7. Nathan Cleary
8. James Tamou
9. Apisai Koroisau
10. Zane Tetevano
11. Viliame Kikau
12. Isaah Yeo
13. James Fisher-Harris
Interchange
14. Moses Leota
15. Spencer Leniu
16. Kurt Capewell
17. Kaide Ellis

Team overview
It feels like at some point this year the next generation of the Penrith junior nursery that has been harped on about for years will finally take full toll, with Matt Burton and the Blore brothers among those in their top 30.

None of the trio is likely to be there for Round 1, though, with Nathan Cleary to be joined by Jarome Luai in the halves, as he replaces the departed James Maloney.

Most of the backline will resemble what it did last year, although chances are Dylan Edwards misses the start of the year through injury.

The departed Reagan Campbell-Gillard is replaced by Zane Tetevano, who joins from the Roosters, with Viliame Kikau, Isaah Yeo and James Fisher-Harris completing a strong back row.

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Apisai Koroisau joins the club and will start at hooker, meaning Kaide Ellis battles with Mitchell Kenny for the bench utility spot.

Moses Leota and Kurt Capewell are almost certain starters from the bench, while Spencer Leniu, who has impressed in the junior ranks, should get a chance to show his worth with more game time.

Nathan Cleary of the Panthers runs the ball

(Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Strengths
The Panthers have no reason to not rate their back row incredibly strongly, and it’s where they will look to build this season. Fisher-Harris is one of the better locks floating around, while Kikau at his best is damaging and Yeo is consistent at worst.

Capewell in backup on the bench is a handy pick-up from Cronulla as well and combined with Tamou’s captaincy responsibilities and the hard-hitting combination of Tetevano and Leota up front the Panthers, on paper, have a very strong forward pack.

Of course the problem is that on paper they had a strong pack last year and it just didn’t fire. Realistically, they should be able to keep teams on the back foot with their defence and get enough powerful running going that there is time and space for the likes of Cleary to weave magic.

Playing on the back of that time and space, it should also make the elusive Koroisau an asset to the side.

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Weaknesses
There is no way on Earth that Nathan Cleary should be in this section, but playing without Maloney alongside him, and on the back of desirable form, that is where he and the Penrith halves are going.

It could work one of two ways, of course. Cleary could blossom into a leader, and the player he was always supposed to come without Maloney, or he could crack under pressure.

Jarome Luai and Matt Burton are both talented but don’t have the control of Maloney, which means Cleary must take over that part of Penrith’s game plan.

On top of the need for Cleary to stand up and match his enormous price tag, is the need for their backline to click in defence. It was downright awful at times last year, and while a lack of continuity in positions and some youth made it understandable, the Panthers are a team who, on paper, should make the eight this year – they won’t do it without good defence on the edges.

Fixture breakdown

Round Date Time Opponent Venue TV
1 Sat Mar 14 7:35pm Sydney Roosters Panthers Stadium Fox
2 Fri Mar 20 6pm St George Illawarra Dragons Jubilee Oval Fox
3 Sat Mar 28 5:30pm Melbourne Storm AAMI Park Fox
4 Sat Apr 4 7:35pm Brisbane Broncos Panthers Stadium Fox
5 Sun Apr 12 4:05pm Canberra Raiders Panthers Stadium Nine/Fox
6 Sun Apr 19 4:05pm Wests Tigers Panthers Stadium Nine/Fox
7 Sun Apr 26 4:05pm Newcastle Knights McDonald Jones Stadium Nine/Fox
8 Sun May 3 6:25pm Gold Coast Titans Suncorp Stadium Fox
9 Sun May 10 2:05pm Cronulla Sharks Carrington Park Fox
10 Sun May 17 2:05pm Canberra Raiders GIO Stadium Fox
11 Sun May 24 4:05pm Parramatta Eels Bankwest Stadium Nine/Fox
12 Bye
13 Sun Jun 7 2:05pm Newcastle Knights Panthers Stadium Fox
14 Fri Jun 12 7:55pm Wests Tigers Bankwest Stadium Nine/Fox
15 Fri Jun 26 6pm Manly Sea Eagles Panthers Stadium Fox
16 Thu Jul 2 7:50pm Brisbane Broncos Suncorp Stadium Nine/Fox
17 Fri Jul 10 6pm Cronulla Sharks Jubilee Oval Fox
18 Thu Jul 16 7:50pm South Sydney Rabbitohs Panthers Stadium Nine/Fox
19 Fri Jul 24 6pm Gold Coast Titans Panthers Stadium Fox
20 Fri Jul 31 6pm New Zealand Warriors Mt Smart Stadium Fox
21 Fri Aug 7 7:55pm St George Illawarra Dragons Panthers Stadium Nine/Fox
22 Thu Aug 13 7:50pm North Queensland Cowboys Panthers Stadium Nine/Fox
23 Sun Aug 23 4:05pm Canterbury Bulldogs Bankwest Stadium Nine/Fox
24 Sun Aug 30 4:05pm Manly Sea Eagles Lottoland Nine/Fox
25 Sun Sep 6 4:05pm Parramatta Eels Panthers Stadium Nine/Fox
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Teams to play twice: Canberra Raiders, Newcastle Knights, Wests Tigers, Brisbane Broncos, Cronulla Sharks, Gold Coast Titans, St George Illawarra Dragons.
Five-day turnarounds: 1.
Seven plus day turnarounds: 18.
Best home run: Rounds 18-22 (four out of five).
Worst away run: Rounds 7-17 (seven out of ten).

Apart from a horror stretch that sees the Panthers play seven out of ten games between Rounds 7 and 17 on the road (with only two of those in Penrith), their draw seems fairly good on the surface.

They have strong home runs early and late in the season and have the Knights, Titans, Broncos, Dragons and Tigers in their list of teams to play twice, while drawing only Canberra out of last year’s top four.

We will, however, get a good idea of how the Panthers are travelling early on, with games against the Roosters, Storm and Raiders inside the first five rounds.

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Prediction

9. Penrith Panthers
10. St George Illawarra Dragons
11. Newcastle Knights
12. Brisbane Broncos
13. Canterbury Bulldogs
14. Gold Coast Titans
15. New Zealand Warriors
16. Wests Tigers

Part 1: The bottom two
Part 2: Rounding out the bottom four
Part 3: Not terrible, not good, just average