Their fans are among some of the most passionate in the NRL but they are also among some of the harshest when it comes to their own team. The St George Illawarra faithful are a proud, loud and vocal bunch on and off the field, and have nothing but the highest expectations of their team. Not much as changed in terms of the playing roster in 2016 but questions do remain. Can Paul McGregor get the best out of the team across the season and avoid the inconsistencies? Is he the right man for the job to begin with? What of Benji Marshall, who is likely to be in his last year with the club? How will he play and react? Will that affect Gareth Widdop’s form? And just what will the composition of their back-line be, with so many talented players vying for spots?
For quite some time, the Dragons have – by their own admission – failed to achieve any constant level of consistency and it has cost them in the past. Losing games they should have won, losing games they led in, and so on.
Never easy to coach in the NRL, the above is one of the big reasons why the pressure is on coach Paul McGregor. Not as much as some other coaches but enough to have him looking over his shoulder, particularly if the Dragons have a poor start to the year.
So whilst the tactical nous and decisions rest with McGregor and what he believes is best for the club, the on-field result will depend largely on the cohesion of the side, who looked good in a recent trial match against the New Zealand Warriors.
But many will say, ‘that was just a trial match, it means nothing.’ To some extent, that is true, but trial games are all about re-forming combinations and getting the match fitness up.
And with that point, comes the next one. An important one. Just what will the final make-up of the Dragons back-line be?
Different Dragosn fans will have different views but with so few spots for so many players, decisions are not easy or straightforward for anyone. His strong trial form has many Dragons fans crying out for Euan Aitken to play somewhere in the side, even if it means he plays on the wing. His strength and power especially coupled with a sturdy fend, has many Dragons fans believing he is a player that they must keep at the club long-term and in the side on a regular basis.
But with the rollercoaster ride of a life-time when it comes to deciding whether Josh Dugan will play fullback or not, that decision is made even harder. A lot of talk has the veteran utility back set to play in the centre role to ease the pressure on his body but will he? And if he does, is Kurt Mann the answer to play fullback?
Many believe that Mann can shine in the role given the responsibility, which allows Dugan to exploit his natural attacking instincts in the centres, a position he is not foreign to. But in doing so, remains the chance that Aitken misses out, particularly with the arrival of Tim Lafai to the club. By the reckoning of some fans, Lafai should be in the side somewhere, just not at the expense of Aitken. Again, it was only trial form, but Aitken looked solid, more so than Lafai, which had many Dragons fans asking questions.
Ultimately, the key is to pick your best possible side and for the Dragons, that definitely includes both Lafai and Aitken. Where to play them, however, is a different story entirely.
And that brings us to the halves, particularly Benji Marshall. Knowing that he will not be at the club after this season, what can Dragons fans expect from him? Will he still perform well and at a consistent level for the betterment of the club, or will the fact this is his last year with the Dragons dwell on his mind and affect his form? A very talented player with a particular skill-set, the pressure is on Marshall in many ways, to see just what he can do and how consistent he can be.
The Dragons chances in 2016 will hinge on just that, consistency. On their day, they are capable of defeating any side that is up against them. But their ebbs and flows, ups and downs, may well cost them in the long-run if they cannot string some wins together. They have the team to challenge and go toe-to-toe with top sides but they need to come together as a unit and all perform. For their own sakes, but also for the sake of Paul McGregor.
Best buy: Some believe he should still away from the game for what he did but you can tell that he is a changed man. His incident was well documented that saw him serve jail-time but Russell Packer has put the past behind him and is focused on the present. A hulking forward, he will be a key player in the Dragons forward pack, given the likelihood that he may even start for the club. With a lot to prove to himself, the Dragons club and their fans for giving him the opportunity to return to the game he loves, the onus is on him to perform and get the best out of himself. He can perform well and has done in the past – at one point, he was one of the best props in the game a few years ago. He will be out to make amends for the past and prove to everyone that he can still play in the NRL and do so well.
Most Promising Talent: Breaking into the current Dragons back-line will be no easy task but if there is one player that can do it, it is Matt Dufty. A small but live-wire and nippy fullback, Dufty has shown over the last couple of seasons that he can perform well and go head-to-head with bigger players. Performing strongly for the club at both Holden Cup and NSW Cup level, he is a player that many Dragons fans rate and one that some want to see given a crack over the course of the season. Also a crafty player, he has some blinding speed that has seen him score numerous long-range tries over the last couple of seasons. Though with the back-line as experienced as it is, Dufty will have to knuckle down, stay consistent and impress the coaching staff.
2016 player gains: Kurt Mann (Melbourne Storm), Siliva Havili (New Zealand Warriors), Mose Masoe (St Helens RLFC), Dunamis Lui (Manly Sea Eagles), Tyrone McCarthy (Hull Kingston Rovers), Sebastine Ikahihifo (New Zealand Warriors), Kalifa Faifai Loa (Gold Coast Titans), Josh McCrone (Canberra Raiders), Taane Milne (Sydney Roosters), Adam Quinlan (St Helens), Tim Lafai (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs).
Our predicted line-up:
1. Kurt Mann
2. Jason Nightingale
3. Josh Dugan
4. Tim Lafai
5. Euan Aitken
6. Gareth Widdop (C)
7. Benji Marshall
8. Russell Packer
9. Mitch Rein
10. Leeson Ah Mau
11. Joel Thompson
12. Tyson Frizell
13. Mike Cooper.
14. Siliva Havili
15. Ben Creagh
16. Jack de Belin
17. Sebastine Ikahihifo