The Dragons have assembled a roster which could challenge for the 2017 NRL premiership.
They also have the makings of a squad which could be a contender for the 2027 title.
But when it comes to the 2022 premiership race, St George Illawarra have too many players whose best days are behind them or are a few years away from the prime of their career.
On the back of losing their last eight matches to finish the 2021 season after the Paul Vaughan barbecue brouhaha, the imbalanced roster is hardly the ideal scenario for coach Anthony Griffin heading into the second and final year of his contract.
The club has an option to renew Griffin’s deal for 2023 but they could also opt to start again with a new coach unless he can make the team competitive.
He will be on the hot seat from the word go and the draw announced on Tuesday has done him no favours, with seven finals teams looming in the first ten rounds.
If recent history is any guide, the joint-venture board will be looking to make a call on Griffin’s post-2022 tenure midway through the season and by that stage, they could be well and truly stuck among the also-rans at the bottom of the ladder.
They’ve boosted their playing stocks with the addition of Maroons forwards Francis Molo and Jaydn Su’A, and Manly centre Moses Suli, whose arrival will likely mean Jack Bird switches to the forwards.
Most of their remaining key players are entering the final phase of their career like 30-somethings Ben Hunt, Andrew McCullough, Tariq Sims, Josh McGuire, Jack de Belin and Aaron Woods or young guns with potential still a few years away from being integral parts of a title-contending team like Zac Lomax, Tyrell Sloan, Talatau Amone, Jayden Sullivan, Cody Ramsey, and the Feagai twins, Mat and Max, who re-signed earlier this week until the end of 2024.
This all adds up to a side which will struggle to compete for the finals and unless club directors see similarities with Griffin’s ultimately ill-fated stint at Penrith in which he blooded several future premiership-winning stars, his long-term future looks shaky.
Much has been made of the Dragons’ supposed Moneyball-style approach to picking up recruits from other clubs who are still paying a portion of the player’s contract.
There’s usually a reason why clubs are happy to shell out dollars for a player to go elsewhere – and it’s rarely a good one.
Moneyball was actually a different beast altogether – signing baseballers that were strong in statistical areas that were undervalued. And Major League Baseball clubs operated in a system with wildly different sums at each franchise’s rosters – the NRL has a uniform salary cap.
St George Illawarra’s approach isn’t necessarily a bad one to get players at a reduced rate but it’s unlikely to result in a premiership-winning squad based on results thus far.
Like communism, boy bands and AFL, it sounds good in theory but once you see it put into practice, something’s just not quite right.
The pack has been beefed up by Molo and Su’A, ex-Test prop Aaron Woods and English front-rower George Burgess out of retirement.
Manly second-rower Jack Gosiewski and journeyman centre Tautau Moga will provide extra depth and Moses Mbye will bring utility value.
Tariq Sims is set to stay, despite the NSW forward having permission to explore his options elsewhere, while the club has farewelled hooker Cameron McInnes – who did not play last season due to a torn ACL – to Cronulla, fullback Matt Dufty to Canterbury and released erratic five-eighth Corey Norman.
Star on the rise
Tyrell Sloan showed in scoring six tries in five appearances in 2021 that he can be a dynamic attacking option at fullback. The club will look to add bulk to his teenage frame in the off-season so he can handle the weekly rigours of the NRL.
With Matt Dufty gone to the Dogs, he is likely to be given a chance to make the vacant No.1 jersey his own.
Who’s under the pump
No one more than the coach. Anthony Griffin doesn’t react much to external pressure. Win, lose or draw, his temperament stays on an even keel. But the board will need to be convinced in the first half of the season that his methods are working and the investment in youth will pay dividends. Otherwise there’ll be no shortage of coaches submitting their résumé.
If the Dragons can get the best of their oldies and their young guns fire, they could be a challenger for one of the last spots in the top eight. They need captain Ben Hunt injury free and to find him a complementary halves partner from the likes of Jayden Sullivan, Talatau Amone and Mbye, or perhaps Jack Bird.
They get off to a slow start, the fed-up fans start raging about Anthony Griffin’s position – there’ll be some hashtag along the lines of #TimeToHookGriffin – and the gloomy atmosphere affects the younger players.
If that happens, don’t be surprised to see the club make a call on the coach sooner rather than later.
Some of the senior players need to provide true leadership – it would help if the likes of Josh McGuire, Mikaele Ravalawa and Tyrell Fuimaono can stay out of judiciary trouble. McGuire incidentally copped a five-game ban in the final round of last season so won’t be sighted on field until April, anyway.
Predicted Round 1 team
1. Tyrell Sloan
2. Cody Ramsey
3. Zac Lomax
4. Moses Suli
5. Mikaele Ravalawa
6. Jayden Sullivan
7. Ben Hunt (c)
8. Josh Kerr
9. Andrew McCullough
10. Jack de Belin
11. Jaydn Su’A
12. Tariq Sims
13. Jack Bird
14. Moses Mbye
15. Francis Molo
16. Jackson Ford
17. Blake Lawrie
Others: Tyrell Fuimaono, Aaron Woods, Josh McGuire, Jack Gosiewski, Talatau Amone, Daniel Alvaro, Billy Burns, Mat Feagai, Max Feagai, Jaiyden Hunt, Poasa Faamausili, George Burgess