Ricky’s NRL Previews Pt 13: St George Illawarra Dragons

Perhaps one of the most heavily criticised teams by its own fans, the pressure is on the players to give the fans the satisfaction they seek – success. After some rather lean years, the only way is up but that will not be made easy given several senior players have departed, putting the pressure on the remaining veterans and the promising youngsters coming through the ranks.

One of the biggest talking point for the Dragons has been the departure of one of the club’s best wingers, in Brett Morris. Morris always wanted to play alongside his brother once again but Dragons fans were hopeful that could have been at their club and not the Canterbury Bulldogs. His departure leaves a gaping hole in the back-line in terms of experience, with the only available players either rookies or players still developing.
With young guns like Euan Aitken waiting in the wings, or signings like Dylan Farrell, although a lot of the players are young, the competition for spots is healthy. The one player who may have a clear edge, though, is Fijian flyer Eto Nabuli. On the back of a very solid NRL Auckland Nines competition and quality performances during the Dragons trial games, he is earmarked as the youngster to make a start in the back-line. A big, powerful & robust centre/wing, Nabuli showed that he can make a smooth transition into the game.

With Morris regarded as the club’s best player over the last few years, the pressure now moves onto fullback Josh Dugan and halves Gareth Widdop and Benji Marshall. Three quality players in their own right, they are the ones that have to step up now and lead the side. For Dugan, he will be hoping that a solid season can lead to an Origin berth in his favoured position of fullback and fans will be hoping that the enigmatic, live-wire back can spark the attack from the back.
As for Widdop and Marshall, the duo are still developing as a halves pairing but both are showing great signs during their time with the club so far. The Englishman especially started the year with a bang, with try assists and creative nous on show for all to see, something that greatly pleased all Dragons fans. As for Marshall, although he started out being criticised for some of his games and touches, he gradually improved and with a full pre-season under his belt – a solid one at that – he will be primed and ready to go for a big year.

Another main talking point is the future of Trent Merrin. The Dragons forward and his agent have gone on record to state that he is not happy at the club and that he wants a move away from the club to start afresh. Although Merrin is a great player in his own right, a distraction such as this helps no-one – not he, his team-mates or the club – and the question remains whether he will continue to be a part of the Dragons club given he wants out. Will coach McGregor persist with him or will it be a case of demoting him because of a bad attitude and a bad approach to the Dragons club and culture? Having made it perfectly clear through his agent in particular that he wants a move away from the club that he has called home for many years, should Merrin play, will he be the same player that he has been in the past?

The uncertainty about Merrin and whether he will start or not opens up some interesting possibilities in the Dragons forward pack. With improving players like Tyson Frizell and Joel Thompson vying for permanent spots and longer minutes, coupled with veterans such as Ben Creagh, the final make-up of the side across the board makes for some interesting viewing and thinking. The Dragons boast a handy forward pack and if 2014 was anything to go by, McGregor has his favourites but can he make the right choices and can the players he chooses to play, step up to the plate? One player in particular who is primed to make his mark is Joel Thompson. Under former coach Steve Price, he seemed stagnated and stuck as a player but since McGregor has come on board, he has shown faith in the back-rower and as a result, he has played more minutes, worked hard, knuckled down and is now being rewarded as a result of the good form.

Overall, despite having lost a lot more quality than those that have signed at the club, the core of the side is still there to mount somewhat of a challenge. Whilst they are not an elite team in the NRL this year, with the right attitude, approach to games and form by the players when required, the Dragons can sneak into the top 8 and cause some potential headaches. A lot hinges on Dugan, the halves and the group of players at the club. For if they do not succeed, the Dragons fans will be ruthless.

Best buy: Unable to crack first-grade at the Penrith Panthers, a fresh start and a move had Eto Nabuli hopeful of a starting berth and reports suggest that will be the case. The recruitment by the Dragons has not been particularly strong but signing Nabuli and seeing the form he has since produced during trials has a lot of Dragons fans excited about his ability, his progression and development and keen to see how successful his transition into the top grade can be. His trial form showed that he has speed on him – hence he is referred to as the Fijian flyer – and it also showed his astute aerial presence. Along with Jason Nightingale on the other wing, the Dragons boast two strong aerial players and with Nabuli’s frame, Dragons fans will be hoping he can use that to his advantage and overpower opposition defenders to get the score. With many expecting big things from him, can Nabuli deliver and put a smile on the faces of Dragon fans?

Most Promising Talent: This one should be a no-brainer, especially given speculation that he was also headed for a first-grade berth. After some fantastic years in the Holden Cup and leading from the front for the Dragons side, Euan Aitken has been touted as a future star and a player that can achieve great things in the game of rugby league. He is not the biggest centre but he works hard and toils and with a great work-rate, nifty footwork and great game awareness, his play seems to be effortless on the footy field. He is another talented youngster that the Dragons have high hopes for and they will be keen to see him play first-grade at some point, even if it does not come for Rd 1. His ability can take him places and if given a chance, he will be hungry to make the most of it.

2015 Gains: Fraser Alcock (2015), Beau Henry (Gold Coast Titans), Justin Hunt (Parramatta Eels), Kris Keating (Hull Kingston Rovers), Heath L’Estrange (Sydney Roosters), Eto Nabuli (Penrith Panthers), Dane Nielsen (New Zealand Warriors), Rulon Nutira (2015), George Rose (Melbourne Storm), Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard (New Zealand Warriors)

Our predicted line-up:

1. Josh Dugan
2. Jason Nightingale
3. Peter Mata’utia
4. Charly Runciman
5. Eto Nabuli
6. Gareth Widdop
7. Benji Marshall
8. Jack de Belin
9. Mitch Rein
10. Mike Cooper
11. Tyson Frizell
12. Joel Thompson
13. Ben Creagh (C)

14. Trent Merrin
15. George Rose
16. Rory O’Brien
17. Leeson Ah Mau

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