Their fans are perhaps some of the most passionate and vocal in regards to their team’s performance and they have high expectations all the time. For the St George Illawarra Dragons, having missed out on finals in recent years, 2017 shapes as a big year for the coach and the players. Desperate for some sort of success, many would say that they have their work cut out but that is not to say that they do not have talented players at their disposal.
In the past and even in the present, many fans have been vocal of Paul McGregor as coach and the perceived inability to get the best out of the players to perform regularly. By extension, that criticism has also been dished out to CEO Peter Doust, as fans struggle to understand the inaction taken by the club at times. Whilst McGregor was a good player in his own right during his time with the club, many fans believe that he is the wrong fit for the club as a coach given the lack of success the Dragons have had over the last few years. McGregor is under just as much pressure as coach as the players are and if the Dragons are to have a successful season, it is up to him to utilise all his experience and knowledge and get the very best out of his roster.
As we move onto the field itself, the one major talking point is the Dragons halves conundrum. For several years now, the Dragons have tried to find the right player to partner Gareth Widdop in the halves. Widdop, a talented five-eighth, has often had to carry the play-making burden in both a running and kicking sense, heaping more pressure on him that has lead to some inconsistency in the last 18 months.
The Dragons plan was set to be Drew Hutchinson to partner Widdop but that plan backfired when the halfback injured his ACL and was effectively ruled out for the season. As they look for another player to replace him in the halves, Dragons fans have differing views on who that player should be.
A very small minority would like to see Josh McCrone get the nod. The most experienced of the trio vying for the role, McCrone’s utility value could also serve as a useful proposition on the bench. Though many believe that he is not the right player for the role and thus they want two other possible options in the role.
One of those options and perhaps the most exciting of the lot is young halfback Jai Field. Blessed with natural ability and pure speed, that was on show at the recent Nines tournament where Field blitzed the field with speed, agility and a fantastic show of in-game awareness for a player of his age. Although with those strong performances also comes uncertainty. How would he perform at the top level and could he do so consistently? A further point to consider is how does the impending arrival of Ben Hunt for 2018 affect Field’s mindset and play? Does he perform consistently or does it weigh on his mind and thus affect his form?
The final option is Shaun Nona who is also a talented player in his own right but perhaps one that many Dragons fans see as more of a depth option than anything else. With the battle waging on as to just who will get the nod, it remains to be seen who McGregor chooses to go with, how well they can link up with Gareth Widdop and how well they fit into the team dynamics.
Many are likely to write off the Dragons for the 2017 season including some of their own fans but on their day, if they perform well and consistently, they might just be capable of good results. That will hinge on player relationships on the field and how well the selected half alongside Widdop performs both in partnership with him and in partnership with the rest of the team. Equally important for the Dragons chances is consistency of Josh Dugan. If Dugan can fire and perform consistently and stay on the field and avoid injury, he can provide additional link-up play by the Dragons and take some of the pressure off Widdop in attack.
Best Buy: Dragons fans have been crying out for a hard-running, hard-working prop and they may just have found their man in Paul Vaughan. With limited opportunity in the end at the Raiders, the barnstorming forward is a perfect foil for the likes of Russell Packer and Jack de Belin, who can also run hard and provide genuine impact. Vaughan’s hard work never goes unnoticed, with fans of many rival clubs fans of twhat he does and the way in which he carries himself on the field. Whilst it is unclear as to whether he will start or come off the bench, he will certainly provided an extra dimension in attack for the Dragons to help propel them forward and to get them on the front foot both early on in games and when they are under the pump.
Best Young Talent: There are two primary options here and narrowing it down to one given the success of both is not easy, so we decided to mention both. As previously mentioned in this editorial, the performances of Jai Field both in Holden Cup last year and the NRL Nines this year, have many Dragons fans salivating at the thought of Field playing in the halves in first-grade. With genuine speed and ability, he could become the crucial x-factor that the Dragons have perhaps lacked in the past.
Equally impressive is Matt Dufty who, much like Field, has genuine ability and speed. More of a fullback than anything else, he was also impressive in the Nines tournament and in the Holden Cup. As talented as he is, a downside is that some believe he might still be too small to play in first-grade. That argument has obviously been proven wrong in the past but some think that given the game has changed, so too must its players, which means Dufty would need to bulk up somewhat. Whether he does or not, he is on the cusp of a first-grade opportunity and he is more than likely to take it when given one.
2016 gains: Levi Dodd, Jacob Hind, Josh Kerr, Nene Macdonald, Cameron McInnes & Paul Vaughan.
Our predicted Dragons line-up at full-strength is:
1. Josh Dugan
2. Jason Nightingale
3. Euan Aitken
4. Kurt Mann
5. Nene Macdonald
6. Gareth Widdop (C)
7. Jai Field
8. Leeson Ah Mau
9. Cameron McInnes
10. Tariq Sims
11. Joel Thompson
12. Tyson Frizell
13. Jack de Belin.
14. Russell Packer
15. Paul Vaughan
16. Luciano Leilua
17. Jake Marketo