After another two consecutive frustrating losses for the Dragons, finals footy is now officially out of reach.
Even with another eight weeks to go in 2020 it’s time to start looking ahead towards 2021. With a mere four wins and eight losses so far in 2020 it would take an unbeaten eight from eight to be sure of making the eight and with games against the Roosters and Eels coming up, there’s more chance that pigs will fly.
In this article I’ve broken down the top five areas that need to be addressed to help the club turn around its fortunes. And please keep Gus Gould out, a fat lot of use his 2019 review was. I’ll do it for free!
1. The coach
Coach Paul McGregor has now been the head coach of the Dragons for over six years after taking over from Steve Price mid 2014. He’s the longest serving head coach in the joint venture’s history and to say his performance has been underwhelming would be an understatement. Calls for his sacking go back over a year to 2019 when the Dragons slid down to 15th place.
Look at his past five years of results: 11th in 2016 and 2017, seventh in 2018 and eliminated in the second week of the finals, 15th in 2019 (the worst result in club history), and probably 11th or 12th in 2020.
I just don’t see how McGregor keeps his job this off-season based on his results. One finals appearance in five years just isn’t good enough. The Cowboys chopped Paul Green after a couple of bad years despite the fact he won a comp and made two grand finals.
The NRL is a results-based business but it looks like the brains trust at the Dragons are asleep at the wheel. Being a nice guy isn’t a good enough reason to keep your job in professional sport. At some point McGregor’s results need to be justified by the club.
Canterbury cut ties with Dean Pay despite the almost impossible position he’s been in the past two and half seasons and the Warriors sacked Steve Kearney despite the unbelievable disadvantage COVID-19 has placed on them this season.
If it’s the club’s plan to wait until 2022 when Shane Flanagan’s ban ends, that effectively dooms the Dragons to another year of mediocrity.
These are the choices I see: let the status quo remain and see if McGregor can turn things around in 2021, sack McGregor and appoint an interim coach – possibly Dean Young – until Flanagan can formally take over in 2022, or blow it all up this off-season and start again in 2021 by appointing a new long-term coach who can rebuild the team. I’m thinking Anthony Griffin, Geoff Toovey, Paul Green or Nathan Brown.
2. Recruitment and retention
The club has some tricky recruitment decisions to make. They need a quality second rower to replace Tyson Frizell and perhaps Jack de Belin as well.
Another person who should be under review is Ian Millward, director of player pathways. A number of his recruitment decisions haven’t worked out.
Corey Norman is an obvious one. Why spend big money on him when Adam Clune and Tristan Sailor were waiting for a chance? Another junior, five-eighth Jayden Sullivan, will be challenging for first grade in 2021.
I’m very concerned about recruitment for 2021. McGregor as coach isn’t going to help attract talent and depending on how things play out for De Belin he’ll have up to $1.4 million to spend in 2021.
A decision needs to be made on Euan Aitken. Do the Dragons keep him? I don’t see him as a centre. He doesn’t pass the ball. He’s a very hard runner of the ball so do they put him in the back row, similar to Beau Scott a decade ago?
The other player whose contract is up is Tristan Sailor. He’s had such limited opportunity this year. I’d really like to see him stay. I hate losing talented juniors.
But the immediate need is to replace Tyson Frizell. I was very disappointed the Dragons didn’t make a stronger play for Corey Harawira-Naera. With him gone, Bryce Cartwright is an interesting option to replace Frizell. Cartwright has asked for a release from the Titans he wants to return to Sydney. At 25, his best footy is still ahead of him.
3. Ben Hunt
The $6,000,000 question: what to do with Ben Hunt and what is his best position?
It appears he’ll be staying at nine for the remainder of the season under McGregor but I wonder if a new coach will have the same opinion?
Also, where would De Belin return if Cam McInnes plays lock. You’d effectively have three top quality locks in the team: De Belin, Trent Merrin and McInnes. If De Belin comes back into the team he’d have to be the starting 13, which then puts Hunt back to seven, on the bench or out of the team. It all hinges on Jack de Belin.
4. Junior pathways
After Illawarra’s SG Ball premiership win in 2019 there’s an outstanding group of juniors coming through the system.
Jason Saab at 19 has already played a handful of first grade games, while Zac Lomax debuted at 18 and has already established himself as one of the premier centres in the NRL.
Names to look out for in 2021 are Max and Matt Feagai, twin brothers who can play wing or centre, Jayden Sullivan, who is a very talented five eighth, Eddie Blacker, who is a hulking prop, and Cody Ramsey, who is a lightning fast fullback.
Ian Millward’s decision to recruit journeyman centre Brayden Wiliame only serves to block the pathways for juniors. If you are good enough then you are old enough. With Tim Lafai already gone, I would like Aitken repurposed to the back row so the Feagai twins can have the opportunity in the pre-season to show what they can do.
5. Learn from past mistakes
Never re-sign your coach until well into the second half of the season. McGregor was extended in early 2019 after four sketchy victories – most by one point – but the season ended up being a 15th-place disaster.
Use a better metrics system when determining the value of free agent recruits. Bent Hunt and Corey Norman have both been disastrous. At least Norman’s deal expires 2021.
Appoint coaching staff from outside of the family. Former Draagons players have never made great coaches. The club’s only premiership came from a outside the family – a career coach.
One thing is certain: it’s going to be a long, hard road to get back to top-four footy and a lot of things need to change. I only hope CEO Ryan Webb is up to the task.