With the Finals over and the November 1 contract deadline passed, we can officially declare the NRL’s silly season open.
Into the morass of gossip and conjecture, we will bring sanity, with the relaunch of Smart Signings, our dissection of where clubs are weak, what they need to improve and where they might find it. Expect stats, profiles and insights, with options that are available and realistic. Don’t expect rumours.
St George Illawarra are a team that could do with a marquee signing. This column isn’t really about that, of course, but sometimes recruitment is done with the idea of making everyone feel better about themselves rather than what is actually going to make them a better team.
The central narratives out of the Dragons in 2023 were that their coach was going to leave and so was their best player. One happened, with Anthony Griffin sacked, but one didn’t, despite Ben Hunt’s attempts to force his way out.
Now they’ve got a new coach, Shane Flanagan, and Hunt is hanging about until the end of this year at the very least, barring some major developments.
That’s good: Flanno is an improvement on Hook as a coach and Hunt remains their captain, talisman and central creative output.
There’s a school of thought that holds that a new coach can often profit from immediately dispensing with a team’s best player.
It’s called the Ewing Theory, after basketball player Patrick Ewing, after various people postulated that his New York Knicks team got better when he wasn’t playing despite him being clearly their star.
Ange Postecoglou, sat atop the Premier League having immediately sold Harry Kane, Tottenham’s greatest goalscorer, is another more recent example.
For the Dragons, this might be tempting: Hunt wants to go anyway, and it’s possible that collective would do better if they weren’t constantly reliant on one guy to do everything on the field, or if they weren’t constantly distracted by his future off it.
Flanagan, however, is hardly likely to do this. He doesn’t need to make a statement, as perhaps Ange did, and his style might actually be helped by having a somewhat simplified attack to start with.
Everyone has assumed that Flanno will turn the Dragons into Cronulla 2016 2.0, but that’s pretty far fetched at the moment. They don’t have the sort of hard-nosed players they might need, and it’s debatable whether that style would work at all in the Six Again era anyway.
St George Illawarra weren’t that bad defensively, either, somewhat negating the idea that they need to toughen up or become harder to beat.
They were middle of the pack for metres conceded, and among a cohort of lower middle sides, such as Parramatta and the Cowboys, in terms of line breaks conceded. Not great, but also not dreadful like the Tigers, Titans, Bulldogs and Dolphins.
Where they were truly rubbish was in attack. Ryan Carr did a little to up their levels of adventure, but that was from an all-time low under Griffin, where aimlessly completing sets and then chucking it to Hunt as about as far as the plan went.
Throw in that they have lost Jayden Sulliivan, to the Tigers, and Junior Amone, at the very least to the no fault stand down policy if not to prison, and things suddenly start to look pretty shaky indeed. The five eighth role is clearly where reinforcements are needed, and quickly.
Internal options are thin, but there are a few.
Zac Lomax has pitched himself for the role, and he might actually be the best option given that he’s often their second most creative player anyway, and that’s from being stood catching a cold in the centres. That said if he moves, who plays centre?
Kyle Flanagan has joined and is at least a recognised half, though he’s rarely been a 6 and does his best work as an organising 7 or, of late, as a pretty serviceable hooker. Flanno jnr should be bench 14 and Hunt’s Origin back-up.
Tyrell Sloan is a lightweight but occasionally brilliant fullback and definitely should get first crack there, unless Lomax somehow ends up in the 1 jumper, in which case it’ll be another coach who doesn’t trust him and likely the exit.
Jack Bird is also around, but let us never mention him playing five eighth again. Been there, done that, doesn’t work. Zach Herring is the next cab off the rank at junior level, but is yet to debut.
So who is available right now? On the face of it, it’s fairly slim pickings. Top of the list would be Matt Moylan, who is out of favour at Cronulla, but was signed to the club by Flanagan and could certainly do a job for a year at the very least.
The Sharks don’t really need him anymore, given the emergence of Braydon Trindall as their starting five eighth, plus the option of Connor Tracey as a utility, Daniel Atkinson as a decent back-up at Newtown, Niwhai Puru as a development half and Manaia Waitere already playing men’s footy after starring in under-20s.
The big issue about Moylan in his later years has been his defence, but with a change of system that mightn’t be as big a problem, and as mentioned, it’s points that the Dragons need more.
Moylan is contracted through to the end of 2024 but was being shopped to the Catalans Dragons in Super League last year, so there’s more than a chance that Cronulla would let him go.
There’s Tyson Gamble too, who has a high stock at the moment on the back of the Knights’ strong run to the second week of the finals, but who is also in a fight for his jersey when he returns to training on the back of Will Pryce’s arrival from the Super League.
Gamble has a year left and might decide to stay on and back himself to start the year for Newcastle, but a more sensible plan might be to cash in on a contract now elsewhere, were a deal to be found by St George Illawarra.
On the youth angle, Khaled Rajab was bombed out by the Bulldogs, who are mid-salary cap squeeze, and was probably unfairly treated. A chance alongside an experienced halfback in a side that is (slightly) less chaotic might suit him.
Dean Hawkins at South Sydney remains one of the best halves in NSW Cup and could certainly do a job at the Dragons, at least in the interim. He’d be better than what they have.
If we assume that the 6 jumper is just a big shrug for 2024, then we can move on to 2025 and the huge mess that might occur. Only eleven Dragons of the top 30 are contracted beyond then, including Hunt, who doesn’t want to be there, leaving a massive swath of salary cap to spend and a whole host of options available.
Almost the entire forward pack is up, as are Sloan, starting centre Moses Suli, winger Mat Feagai and fullback Cody Ramsey, who has been out ill for a year.
They should probably extend Suli and backrower Jaydn Su’A, but could free up a whole heap of cap by letting Jack de Belin, the Molo brothers and Ben Murdoch-Masila walk, as well as Bird and Amone.
That in turn allows a huge amount of wiggle room for marquees and, yes, smart signings. Joey Manu would certainly make a point, as would Jarome Luai – as if – or Ezra Mam or Tom Dearden. Luke Keary and Kieran Foran are also options, though they would only be stopgaps and might end up with a situation where both halves leave at the same time.
Given that the roster is so open from 2025 onwards, Flanagan can really throw darts at the board and hope for the best. Jordan Riki, Toby Rudolf, Nick Meaney, Jacob Saifiti, Sunia Turuva, Tom Burgess, Isaiah Tass, Angus Crichton, Nat Butcher and Bradman Best are all the sort of players a cashed up Dragons could go for.
Year one of the Flanagan era will likely be attempting not to be as bad as 2023, with very little expectations. With only Hame Sele added to the pack and numbers lost from the halves, this roster is probably weaker than the one that finished 16th.
But it’s the start of something, as evidenced by the numbers that will be allowed to leave. Expect the rumour mill to kick into overdrive, because Manu is just the beginning.