The Roar
The Roar



Hook is cooked... but it'll mean nothing unless the Dragons change everything

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16th May, 2023
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St George Illawarra’s decision to sign Anthony Griffin at the end of 2020 was wrong at the time and it has only got worse over the past two and a half seasons leading up to his inevitable sacking on Tuesday morning, effective immediately. 

Griffin was adamant that the joint-venture club was not rebuilding when he took over from Paul McGregor but they were aiming for the finals each year – it was not the direction to take. 

You can’t be half pregnant. The Dragons signed experienced cast-offs from other clubs to paper over the cracks and the result was a mishmash of a team with young prospects getting frustrated while journeymen and veterans soaked up game time.

They became the embodiment of a “mediocracy” – everyone working towards the goal of not being terrible without ever being within cooee of getting great.

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 13: Dragons coach Anthony Griffin looks on after losing the round 11 NRL match between North Queensland Cowboys and St George Illawarra Dragons at Qld Country Bank Stadium on May 13, 2023 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Dragons coach Anthony Griffin looks on after losing the round 11 clash with the Cowboys. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

To be fair to Griffin, he never had the long-term security that a rebuilding coach needs – he was signed on a two-year deal (basically the minimum any club offers a new coach these days) with an option for a third. 

Griffin was always coaching for his job, rather than having the luxury of knowing he could take a few steps backwards before getting the team rising up the ladder. 

He dropped rising stars like Jayden Sullivan and Tyrell Sloan at the drop of a hat when they made the inevitable errors that players make when they’re finding their feet at NRL level. Unsurprisingly they each requested a release in the off-season before being convinced to stay put.


Griffin’s Wayne-Darius Mach II relationship with fellow Rockhampton product Ben Hunt prevented him from realising it was time to shift the skipper from halfback to hooker until it was too late. 

In the latest and what proved to be the last in a series of baffling selection decisions, he waited until Hunt’s 300th game last Saturday to finally try the 33-year-old at hooker with Sullivan starting at halfback.

But when Sullivan was sin-binned midway through the first half for a supposed professional foul which looked more like an amateur tangle after a cover tackle, Griffin brought Moses Mbye on at hooker after those 10 minutes and the young playmaker warmed the pine for the rest of the match while Hunt reverted to his usual role. 

Ben Hunt of the Dragons is tackled during the round five NRL match between St George Illawarra Dragons and Dolphins at WIN Stadium

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Hunt was strong at half for the Dragons last year but even better in the No.9 jersey for Queensland and Australia. At some point his club coach needed to recognise that looking after the future was better than trying to preserve the past. 

When there was speculation about whether Hunt would be re-signed laste last year, Cooper Cronk – a multiple premiership-winning halfback at the Storm and Roosters – questioned why the Dragons were in such a rush.

He pointed to his fellow Queenslander having been unable to get the team to the finals apart from in his first year after leaving Brisbane in 2018. Cronk knows better than most how much a halfback plays a huge part in a team’s premiership chances. 


Griffin’s shortcomings were not just confined to the blinkers he wore when it came to Hunt. His game plans were simplistic and despite a reputation as a disciplinarian, the Dragons were a rabble under his watch. 

Several players have been involved in off-field incidents, the lowlight being the infamous 2021 house party at prop Paul Vaughan’s joint during the height of the pandemic lockdown restrictions. 

There were all sorts of negative stories published during the off-season that painted the picture of a club where discipline was an afterthought and that’s not just on the coach. From minor scuffles at training and drunken arguments outside hotel rooms in the pre-season to much more serious matters involving criminal charges.

All sections of management have been culpable for allowing the lunatics to run the asylum to the point where one of the NRL’s most famous clubs will have to pay overs to attract star recruits. 

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 06: Assistant Roosters coach Jason Ryles looks on before the round six NRL match between the Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters at AAMI Park on April 06, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

Jason Ryles. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

After the bloodletting of Tuesday’s abrupt dismissal of Griffin by chief executive Ryan Webb and chairman Andrew Lancaster, the Dragons need to go back to their “blood and bandages” era by containing the damage (most of it self-inflicted) and starting afresh. 

Interim coach Ryan Carr has pulled the right rein by bringing centre Zac Lomax back into the starting side for Friday’s clash with the Roosters at Kogarah while Jacob Liddle also deserves a recall. 


However, naming Hunt back at halfback, Sullivan on the bench and Liddle as the starting hooker is not the right rotation for the trio. 

Lomax’s struggles have reflected the team as a whole. He’s not short on talent but the Dragons have failed to harness his strengths or eliminate his glaring weaknesses. 

If they can get him clean ball in space, he can create points for teammates and score plenty himself. And if he can be told not to go for the million-dollar play so often, he will ironically live up to his lucrative contract. 

And of course the big question for the Dragons now is who replaces Griffin. 

Roosters assistant Jason Ryles is the frontrunner ahead of former St George Illawarra teammates Ben Hornby and Dean Young. 

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 20: Talatau Amone of the Dragons runs the ball during the NRL Trial Match between the Parramatta Eels and and St George Illawarra Dragons at CommBank Stadium on February 20, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Junior Amone. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Ryles is reportedly seeking a five-year deal after Cameron Ciraldo was offered that by the Wests Tigers last year despite being a rookie before opting for a deal with the same timeframe with Canterbury. 


No coach in the NRL should be handed that kind of tenure unless their surname happens to be Bellamy, Robinson, Bennett or Cleary and they have the premiership rings to put up as collateral when the sign on the dotted line. 

It’s a great time to be an assistant in the NRL if clubs are willing to take such an enormous risk on an unproven coaching commodity. 

The new coach will need to overhaul the roster. 

If Hunt makes good on the threat to explore his options elsewhere now that his mentor has been run out of town, then is that the worst thing for the Dragons? 

He’s under contract until the end of 2025 as the club’s highest-paid player but while his experience, toughness and all-round ability is still valuable, very few players get better in their mid 30s. Club bosses at the fans forum on Tuesday night stated that he has not get-out clauses in his contract and that they want him to stick around.

The Dragons can’t totally roll out a team full of rookies and prospects like Sullivan, Sloan, five-eighth Junior Amone, Max and Mat Feagai, and teenage forward Toby Couchman, they still need veterans. 

But they need to choose their young nucleus and invest in those players, complementing these potential representative stars of the future with solid first-graders and role players, not taking on the subsidised contracts of over-the-hill has-beens from other clubs which has mistakenly been described as some kind of Moneyball strategy.  

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 03: (L to R) Jamie Soward, Wayne Bennett and Dean Young of the Dragons celebrate after the NRL Grand Final match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Sydney Roosters at ANZ Stadium on October 3, 2010 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Jamie Soward, Wayne Bennett and Dean Young celebrate after the 2010 Grand Final win by St George Illawarra. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Josh Kerr is already off to the Dolphins, Mbye, Tautau Moga and Tyrell Fuimaono are off contract while the likes of Jack de Belin, Mikaele Ravalawa, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Francis Molo and Zane Musgrove come off the books next year. None of these players scream “long-term building blocks” so the new coach should have plenty of wriggle room to fashion a new-look team even if Hunt’s big-dollar deal remains on the cap.

Dragons fans have been waiting 12 long years for the club to have a clear path back to premiership contention. 

There has been very little in the form of playoff success since the 2010 Grand Final triumph under Wayne Bennett, a title-winning team that was formed from the best young talent the club had on its books, boosted by quality imports in key positions like Darius Boyd, Jamie Soward and Nathan Fien.

That is the blueprint for success for a club like St George Illawarra, which should have the advantage of being a destination for free agents on top of being one of the NRL’s most productive junior nurseries. 

As local juniors who became rep stars at the club, Ryles, Hornby and Young all know what makes the Dragons tick.

Hornby was the captain of that premiership-winning team 13 years ago and Young was their heart and soul in the pack.


Ryles, funnily enough, witnessed his former team hold the trophy from the beaten Roosters side after being told a few years earlier by Bennett that he was not the kind of player that suited his coaching style. 

He finally got to be part of a premiership win two years later at the Storm and that’s where he cut his coaching teeth as an assistant under Craig Bellamy.  

Changing the coach is the first venture in rebuilding the joint but St George Illawarra need to commit to a long-term strategy to get better in all areas on and off the field before they can become a premiership force again.