If you are one of the few remaining diehard Dragons supporters, the past decade will have not only sorely tested your loyalty to the Red V, but also your enjoyment of the game as a whole.
Under the inept coaching of Paul McGregor and Anthony Griffin, the Dragons have become a shadow of the club that won the competition way back in 2010, and mediocrity has become the norm. No one really takes the club as a serious threat anymore.
Just look at their results over the last ten years. Their highest finish was 7th back in 2018 when they made it as far as the semi-finals, and their only other top 8 result was in 2015 when they crept into 8th place only to promptly disappear in week 1 of the finals.
On average, they’ve finished in 11th place over the past decade, just missed out on the wooden spoon last year, and will probably challenge the Tigers for last place in 2024.
Fortunately, Griffin has now been returned to Fox Sports and the club has now put its faith in the premiership-winning and highly controversial Shane Flanagan to hopefully revive the club before someone finally pulls the plug on the respirator.
The question is, does Flanno have the players to do it? I think the short answer to that question at the present time is a resounding no, certainly not in the short term, and the best outcome the Dragons could expect during Flanagan’s three-year tenure is to restructure their playing roster to the extent that they will be highly competitive from 2026 on.
Let’s not forget the insane recruitment and retention decisions made under Griffin, many of which can’t easily be resolved, so roster management will be the key to St George Illawarra’s future success.
In good news for the club, they have 18 players off contract, either currently or from the end of 2024, so it’s a great opportunity to get rid of some dead wood, free up some cash and get active in the player market. Billy Burns, Tyrell Fuimaono, Nick Lui-Toso, Tautau Moga are all off contract now, and only Moga should be offered an extension in my view, as he’s performed well when given the opportunity and will provide good cover for Zac Lomax if he’s moved to fullback.
A further 14 players come off contract at the end of 2024 and can begin contract negotiations from next week. Of that cohort, only the Molo brothers, Jaydn Su’A and Moses Suli look worth locking down before they go to market, while Talatau Amone should have his contract torn up ASAP after being found guilty of a serious assault.
I’ve now seen enough of the Feagai twins to be happy to let them go, Tyrell Sloan has proven to be the worst defender in the competition since Matt Dufty and should be set free, Cody Ramsey is highly unlikely to ever make it back on the field following his illness, Jack Bird was once a good player in 2016, while Jack De Belin and Ben Murdoch-Masila will be pretty long in the tooth by the time 2025 rolls around. Let them all go I say, and the sooner the better. After all, these are the players who have been setting the standard, and a poor standard at that.
Flanno also has “wantaway” captain Ben Hunt to deal with. Hunt will be 34 by the time the 2024 season kicks off, and although contracted to the Dragons until the end of 2025 at $1.1m per season, should be let go sooner rather than later if his heart isn’t in it. The club doesn’t need a sook for a captain.
Even if Hunt stays, the Dragons have a big problem with their spine. They stupidly let halfback Jayden Sullivan head to the Tigers this year, Amone should get punted as previously mentioned, the fullback options in Sloan and Ramsay are both injured, and the highlight reels of dummy halves in Jacob Liddle and the, as yet unsigned Connor Muhleisen will hardly keep opposition coaches up at night.
It really makes you wonder what, if anything, the Dragons were thinking? The only good news, if that’s what you call it, is that they’ve signed Kyle Flanagan who can play either half or hooker.
Looking through the players currently off contract at rival clubs there’s clearly not much for the Dragons to choose from, although the Roosters pair of Corey Allan and Billy Smith could be worth pursuing.
Allan is just 25, was in good form towards the end of the 2023 season and could immediately solve the fullback problem for the Dragons, at least in the short term, while Billy Smith is just 23, and is a very good outside back who’s finally playing injury free.
Signing Smith would allow Moses Suli to shift to the wing where he would be far more effective considering he’s passed the ball about four times since joining the club.
Of more interest to the Dragons will be the players coming off contract at the end of 2024, and here are some names that they certainly should have on their wish list:
Connor Tracey (Age 27) – The Cronulla utility would be a great fit at the Dragons and is equally at home at fullback, five eighth, or in the outside backs.
Nick Meaney (Age 26) – The Dragons should have signed him when he left the Bulldogs in 2021. A great fullback who also provides some utility value, Meaney might soon be feeling the pinch at the Storm with the return of Ryan Papenhuyzen and the sudden emergence of Sua Fa’alogo.
Jordan Riki (Age 23) – Another underpaid Bronco star who had a sensational year in 2023 would be a readymade replacement for Jaydn Su’A if he signs elsewhere.
Jacob Saifiti (Age 27) – Saifiti is a big, mean customer and would make a great enforcer for St George Illawarra, and it’s rumoured that the Knights are struggling to find the cash to keep him.
Tom Dearden (Age 22) – The Cowboys will try hard to keep this energetic little playmaker, but I doubt they’ll be able to come up with his current market price. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Dragons pay overs to sign him.
Sunia Turuva (Age 21) – Turuva is the latest gun to emerge from the Penrith system and would look good in the Dragons’ No.1 jersey. He’ll be in hot demand, should be earning “fullback money”, and surely he doesn’t want to wait in the queue until Dylan Edwards hangs up his boots?
Nat Butcher (Age 26) – Butcher is one of the hardest working forwards in the game and would make a great forward leader at the Dragons. He might be hard to shift from Bondi, but money talks.
Mitch Kenny (Age 25) – Kenny has been a revelation since taking over at hooker from Apisai Koroisau and has played a big role in their premiership wins in both 2022 and 2023. I suspect he isn’t on big dollars at the moment and Penrith may struggle to pay him what he’s worth.
These are just some of the recruitment options for the Dragons, and clearly they won’t be signing them all, and there’s at least a dozen more quality players they should be looking at. Given the Dragons have got the same money to spend as every other club, they need to get active in the market now.
I suspect that 2024 could be another grim season for St George Illawarra fans, but I’ll be happy if the club can at least take the first steps to build a squad that Flanagan can work with.