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2024 is the Year of the Dragon, but it looks like St George Illawarra didn’t get the memo

Roar Guru
20th January, 2024
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Roar Guru
20th January, 2024
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There’s nothing like a brand new year and the prospect of another footy season to fill you with both optimism and excitement, unless of course you’re one of the many Dragons fans who’ve lived through a decade of disappointment under coaches Paul McGregor and Anthony Griffin.

For them, “optimism” and “excitement” are often replaced by “apprehension” and “resignation”, as under that pair of dud coaches, the Dragons played over 200 games for a win rate of just over 44 per cent, finished on average in 11th place, and played just three finals games in 10 years. That’s a failure by any measure.

The good news for their fans is that the club has not only somehow managed to avoid the wooden spoon during this lean period, but also now has a new coach in Shane Flanagan, the first Dragons coach since Wayne Bennett who knows what it takes to play finals footy, and who understands the “chemistry” required to actually win a premiership.

That said, any Dragons fans seriously expecting Flanno to significantly enhance the club’s performance this year must be on something, as Flanagan has largely inherited Griffin’s dud roster and is already being hampered by misfortune on the recruitment front, with recruits Corey Allan and Ronald Volkman scratched before the competition has even started.

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 06: Dragons assistant coach Shane Flanagan looks on before the start of the round 17 NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the St George Illawarra Dragons at QCB Stadium on September 06, 2020 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Shane Flanagan. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Flanagan has been signed for three years, and given the Dragons’ poor track record and the shape of their current squad, it would have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall at his job interview. Surely the words “Ben Hunt”, “rebuild” and “roster” would have been mentioned far more often than “finals” and “premiership”.

Just on Hunt, Flanagan has managed to keep him at the Dragons for the time being, but he’ll be 34 at the start of this season, and like most players, finds it much easier to look good in a quality side like Queensland than he does at the Dragons.

At a reported $1 million per season, Hunt’s beginning to look to look more like a part of the problem than part of the solution for the Dragons, and I’d be surprised to see him still at the club in 2025.

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Realistically, the best outcome for Flanagan this year is to both avoid the spoon and take a butcher’s knife to the roster in the hope of putting a far more competitive side on the field in 2025 and beyond.

He’ll soon know which players are prepared to give 100 per cent each week and which ones are just making up the numbers and taking up salary cap space, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see another dozen players moved on before the end of the year.

Corey Allan, Jack Bird, the Feagai twins, Cody Ramsey, Ben Murdoch-Masila and Paul Turner are all happily off contract this year and should be farewelled, and Tyrell Sloan should join them unless he improves dramatically under the new coach. I’d also be happy to see Hunt leave at the first sign of sulking and wanting to return north.

It’s well documented that their Achilles heel is their spine (if that’s medically possible) and the 11th-hour losses of Allan, Volkman and Junior Amone are a blow that Flanno wasn’t expecting.

Add to that the potentially career-ending illness of Ramsey and Tyrell Sloan’s impersonations of a witch’s hat in defence, and Flanagan’s spine options are so limited that he may have to shift centre Zac Lomax to either five-eighth or fullback, try Sloan at five-eighth, or actually select Bird in first grade (heaven forbid).

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 12: Jack Bird of the Dragons is tackled during the round two NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Gold Coast Titans at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on March 12, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Jack Bird. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

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With the 2024 season just over six weeks away it’s probably too late for Flanno to recruit anyone significant for this year, so he’ll probably just have to make do with what he’s got and get serious on the recruitment front for next year.

It’s well known that the Dragons have so far failed to land a big fish when it comes to recruitment, particularly in the key spine positions, but it’s certainly no time to give up, as they’ve got the same salary cap as the next club, and with Australia’s richest man in Andrew Forrest now sponsoring the club, they just might be more than competitive in the third-party agreement space than they were previously.

Perhaps Forrest can learn a few tricks from the Roosters’ Uncle Nick here?

But why come to the Dragons? Quite simple, players want to play first grade and to earn the big dollars, and many will have a better chance of doing that at the Dragons over the next couple of years than with their current clubs. “Playing for premierships” is a myth, just ask any of the players who have left the Storm and the Panthers in recent years.

Here’s just a few players off contract this year who wouldn’t look out of place in a Dragons jersey in 2025:

Joey Manu (Roosters)

Still stuck behind James Tedesco in Bondi for the fullback role, and he has to be worth more than the $1.4 million per annum earned by Kalyn Ponga. Turning 28 this year, his next contract could be his last real opportunity to cash in.

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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 15: Joseph Manu of the Roosters reacts during the round 20 NRL match between Sydney Roosters and Melbourne Storm at Sydney Cricket Ground on July 15, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jeremy Ng/Getty Images)

Joey Manu reacts during the Round 20 loss to Melbourne. (Photo by Jeremy Ng/Getty Images)

Sunia Turuva

Earning chump change on the Panthers wing when he’d be on fullback money at most clubs. The road out of Penrith is well-worn now, and he could be the next to leave.

Nick Meaney

A top-quality performer and accomplished goal kicker who just might become the Storm’s third-choice fullback before the season’s out. A player the Dragons should have signed when he left Newcastle back in 2019.

Tyson Gamble

A real competitor in the halves who may find himself to be the odd man out this year at Newcastle. His will to win is just what the Dragons need.

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Kodi Nikorima

One of the Dolphins’ best last year but not guaranteed a spot in the top 17 going forward. A very useful utility who could plug a lot of gaps at the Dragons.

Mitch Kenny

A tough and clever dummy-half could be the next off-contract Panther looking for a considerable financial upgrade.

Billy Walters

A player whose game has come ahead in leaps and bounds over the last two years. A hooker who now has three rivals for his spot at the Broncos.

Tyson Smoothy

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Another dummy-half option stuck in a four-way tussle for a starting position in Brisbane.

Beyond this cohort there are many players stuck in the queue at other clubs who are looking for regular first grade time and the money that goes with it.

Who knows, maybe Dragons juniors in Tyran Wishart and Jayden Sullivan can be lured back to the club, or could Flanagan kill three birds with one stone by signing five-eighth Tyrone May from the Super League, along with his brothers Taylan and Terrell, and help them fulfil their dream of playing together?

It’s the year of the Dragon Flanno, so let’s get cracking. Show us what you’re made of.

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