With years of inconsistent results and a playing roster the envy of the NRL, many have questioned whether the great Wayne Bennett will be able to get this side winning on a weekly basis and give them genuine crack at the Rugby League Premiership.
As punters have watched the Dragons go round and fail miserably under Nathan Brown, some have chosen to blame the coach directly and others have felt it was a case of the players simply not turning up. The rumour around NRL clubs, is that almost every other team enjoys facing the Dragons – players talk about a soft, easy match up each time they travel to face the Saints. A scary thought for fans and the club itself, but ultimately the buck stops with the coach. Brown has had quite a few years at the helm now and while he has improved in some areas – it’s Brownie that needs to make the changes if players aren’t performing.
Regardless of a players standing in the game, ability or experience – if he isn’t performing weekly, then changes need to be made. The key is finding that balance, keeping the fear in the player that he might be dropped but ultimately not making wholesale changes too regularly – such is the tough job of the coach.
Even though the likes of Trent Barrett, Luke Bailey, Lance Thomson and Matt Head have all left the club – they still boast a talented roster that has youth and ability on their side. Ok, while Josh Morris has walked away to sign with the Bulldogs next year – they still have some exciting prospects in Chase Stanley, Jason Nightingale and Jamie Soward. The worry for Wayne Bennett and Dragons supporters though – are the current crop of players too mentally tarnished after long periods of poor results?
Can their memories be erased, re-configured and setup to have a positive weekly outlook and ultimately the belief to win consistently under Bennett?
After watching their performance yesterday against the Sydney Roosters, I think there is plenty to look forward to over at St George Illawarra next year.
Yesterday we saw the skills, the correct positional placements and for the most part, error free and penalty free football that got the Saints home comfortably.
Nathan Brown seems to have come a long way as a coach technically, but I feel it’s the mental preparation that has been lacking and probably the biggest drawback is that Brownie may be ‘too close’ to some of the players. As a coach you want the utmost respect from your players, but being mates is not the ideal mix – probably even more so in todays fiercely competitive NRL environment.
Take for example Jason Ryles. The big prop has featured in headlines in recent weeks, keen to start afresh at another club after a year of controversy. A talented forward, Ryles has been hammered by injury and has probably lacked a yard of fitness in 2008. Four years ago, this guy was the best prop in the game bar none – but times change. Big Jason looks to be blowing at times and while his statistics might look good on paper this year, word has it that Bennett isn’t a fan.
Dropped to the bench a few weeks ago after poor performances and then costing his team the game with a brain snap penalty in golden point – Brownie should have been harsher with Ryles earlier in the year. While forward stocks aren’t as strong as they used to be at the Dragons – regardless, you can’t afford to have a liability in your side.
For all the skills taught, set plays and smart replacements made by the best coaches – the real skill is their ability to mentor players. Not mentoring them in how to catch a ball, pass a ball or kick a ball – mentally preparing the players is the biggest requirement of a modern day coach. By the time players reach first grade of NRL, they generally possess every skill known to man – sure, they will learn things with experience on the big stage and they have skills and fitness coaches available to them at a club – but at a time when almost any team can win on their day, it’s preparing players mentally for battle and keeping them ‘up’ on a weekly basis that remains the key.
This is where Bennett is without peer.
Commanding the respect of players, Bennett has that aura that draws players in like a magnet. He has that ability to win the trust of players, they want to win for him every single week. Such is the respect he holds, even when he drops a player – rarely do they cry foul, they usually lift another gear and soon find their way back into the top ranks.
The perfect example is the case of Justin Hodges. Always a talent and an NRL superstar, the lure of money and the bright lights of Sydney saw the impressive centre switch to the Sydney Roosters. While Hodges put in some good performances for the Roosters, his niggle and dirty tactics saw him become the most hated player by peers and fans. Every time he did something well on the football field, he would follow it up by a brainsnap. He’d score a try then throw the ball at an opposing player, TV networks would have to screen their sideline mic’s as he trash talked everyone near him and it all came to a climax when the tough talking Hodges threatened to ‘get’ Ryan Girdler in the carpark after an on-field spat.
So while Hodges might have been scoring tries, the penalties he was giving away were killing the Roosters chances of winning consistently. Hodges fell by the wayside, personal problems arose and it all exploded.
Many were amazed when the Broncos resigned Justin Hodges. But Bennett knew that he could man manage Hodges on a personal level and get his head in the right place. He was always a talented player, but Bennett took the trash talking and dirty stuff out his game and got him playing the best football of his career.
Such is the ability of the man, this is why Dragons fans should be excited. Even the current roster that has come under question can be moulded by Wayne Bennett.
Who knows, pigs might really start to fly in 2009 and the St George Illawarra Dragons might win an NRL Premiership.