With fans of the Red V pretty much at wit’s ends after just two appearances in the finals across the 11 seasons since the departure of Wayne Bennett, some see the vacant full-time coaching position as a poisoned chalice.
Steven Price, Paul McGregor and Anthony Griffin have overseen things since that time, all achieving results simply not good enough for supporters of one of rugby league most famous clubs, as well as fans of the oft-forgotten component of the joint venture, Illawarra Steelers.
With Griffin’s departure comes Ryan Carr’s so far impressive, yet assured to be short-lived, role as mentor and the club board must now make one of the best decisions it has made for some time, in appointing a new head coach to turn the fortunes of a club that is well off the NRL pace.
So who are the contenders and who is the best fit for the role?
There is plenty of speculation suggesting that former Melbourne and now Roosters assistant Jason Ryles could be appointed to the Dragons role by the end of this week or early next.
Having served under Craig Bellamy in Melbourne and now back in his home state to refine his skills and credentials further under Trent Robinson, the 44-year-old has long been touted as a head coach in waiting.
Strengths-wise, with the Red V in his veins and a decent apprenticeship done, it does seem to be a cosy fit. However, leaving two efficient and well established football department systems and being charged with somehow righting a sinking ship may well be a job beyond a rookie coach.
Another man with Dragon DNA and North Queensland coach Todd Payten has openly backed calls for Young to return to Wollongong and take the helms at the club for whom he played 209 NRL matches. Few bleed red and white like Young and at just 39, he could be the youthful, passionate circuit-breaker the club needs to truly re-invent itself.
There has been a sense of the Dragons repeating mistakes and bordering on insanity in recent seasons, with Young well respected as a tactical student of the game and blessed with new ideas and innovation.
However, as with Ryles, the enormity of the job might well require an appointment somewhat more distant from the disasters of the recent past.
Former Dragons half Ben Hornby has limited experience in the assistants role at South Sydney that he currently occupies, yet has been impressive enough for the Bunnies to be keen to hang on to him.
The 43-year-old looked like a coach in waiting throughout his 273 game career with the Red V, never the fastest or most skilful player, yet always competitive based on shrewd thinking and tactical know-how.
No doubt he would bring the above to the role, yet the step up to a senior position and an absence of the current cattle required to contend will make working closely with the board on recruitment and retention crucial.
Having advanced from a development coach to an assistant in 2021, one wonders whether Hornby is ready and experienced enough to build a team ready to contend in the short term future.
Back in 2019, John Morris walked into a problematic situation at the Sharks after the de-registration of former Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan. Previously a winner of the NYC coach of the year award, he guided the team to semi-final yet short lived finals appearances in both 2019 and 2020, before making way for Josh Hannay and eventualy, Craig Fitzbibbon.
Probably never really given the opportunity or credit he deserved at Cronulla, Morris showed a clear ability to nurture young talent in difficult circumstances, with many fans disappointed at his departure.
The current South Sydney assistant has the public backing of head coach Jason Demetriou and with first-grade success on his resume despite the salary cap challenges he faced whilst in his first two seasons in a top job, Morris could well be the most credentialed of the young coaches in consideration for the Dragons’ gig.
The stopgap option at the Sharks between the Morris and Fitzgibbon eras, Hannay has top-grade coaching experience at two clubs, and continues to be involved at Origin level in the Maroons camp.
Never really given a decent shot to prove his worth as a first-grade coach, the jury is a little out as to whether Hannay is what the Dragons are looking for or need.
However, perhaps his lens is exactly what the club needs, rather than past players and men fully aware of the fractures within the Dragons and who caused them. Alternatively, should the punt be taken on the guy that other clubs have looked past and then he fail, the fans will be demanding why a proven mentor was not employed in the first place.
Personally, it is difficult to understand why an NRL club would employ a union coach, ahead of others diligently doing apprenticeships as assistants. Cheika would no doubt bring an attitude, passion, management skills and nous, yet the ins and outs of strategy would be a challenge, as well as getting a grip on the psyche existing at the Dragons.
No doubt, Cheika did well as coach of Lebanon, yet the week to week cut and thrust at NRL level is not something the Dragons should feel confident that he would be able to master in the short term.
Everyone realises that former Sharks coach Shane Flanagan has a pretty clear idea when it comes to building an NRL roster and competing deep into the finals.
The key questions for the Dragons are firstly, can do it legally this time around and secondly, whether Flanagan’s questionable integrity in the coaching game after copping two NRL bans is something they really want associated with their club at this point in time.
The answer is firmly in the Dragons’ court, and the decision around a man who can obviously do the job despite some reputational damage is a huge one for them.
Clubs in turmoil need re-wiring and Des Hasler could be the circuit-breakers of all circuit-breakers. Like Flanagan, he comes with immense baggage, just ask the Bulldogs. Hasler brought the blue and whites to their knees, destroyed their salary-cap and left the club in ruin upon his departure.
With free rein to back end contracts and focus purely on short term success, Hasler ran his won show, before leaving in disgrace and somehow ending up at Manly again in 2019.
Colourful jerseys ended that stint and 458 games of NRL coaching experience now see him positioned as a potential saviour for the Dragons, in what could best be described as a “be careful what you wish for scenario”.
Perhaps Hasler is exactly what the wayward Dragons need; a man to crack the whip, slash the roster and bring a harder edge to the club. Or maybe he is exactly what they don’t need.
Current Canterbury assistant Mick Potter has few enemies in the game and proved in a short stint prior to the arrival of Cameron Ciraldo at the kennel that he still has what it takes in a coaching capacity.
Should the Dragons be keen to bring in one of their own and experience be high on their list of criteria, Potter could well provide them exactly what they are looking for. On the downside, a younger and and more innovative coach appears to be required, with the culture of the club also needing a shake-up.
The role looks far from a short term one and Potter might simply not have the time nor energy to undertake and complete what will be a monumental task at St George Illawarra.