After a struggling its way through the entire 2016 season the St George Illawarra Dragons and their fans will be hoping that 2017 is a year that they can improve their on-field attacking woes and push close to a playoff berth.
After scoring just 58 tries in 2016 (only Newcastle scored less) the Red V need to some how fix its attacking woes if it is to have any extended success in the forthcoming NRL season.
Even in the Wayne Bennett glory days of 2009-2011, the Dragons weren’t known as a brilliant attacking team but had a remarkable defence to back it up and keep it in contests. Even in 2015 when the Dragons surprised many pundits and qualified for the Finals, it came on the back of having the 3rd best defence in the league.
With that defence not performing in 2016 (ranked 11th) the Dragons are caught in no man’s land neither being competent in either defence or attack. This has to change in 2017 if the Dragons are to have any hope of playing finals football and even if they want to avoid the dreaded wooden spoon (something the joint venture club has never had the dubious honour of achieving).
It conceded 30 or more points in a game nine times in 2016, with some of those scores being compiled by mediocre teams (Manly 36-6 and Sydney Roosters 42-6) the Red V need to tighten up those leaks and resemble the defensive unit of 2015 in a hope to improve results.
One of the proudest and richest brands in Rugby League, Dragons fans demand success, and with just one finals appearance in the past five seasons Saints know they need to smart up to appease its faithful fans who are getting restless.
However, where there is light there’s hope! The Red V have one of the most intimidating forward packs this year after adding former Canberra Prop, the hulking Paul Vaughan to the mix of already established forwards at the club.
Tyson Frizzell, Joel Thompson, Mose Masoe, Jack De Belin, Leeson Ah Mau and Tariq Sims will all be lining up in 2017 in what could send shivers down the spines of opposing coaches. Although not boasting the most potent of backlines, the Dragons will rely heavily on its big forwards to grind the opposition defences into the ground to achieve victory.
A fast start will be needed by St George Illawarra if it wants to keep head coach Paul McGregor off the hot seat. He is the short price favourite to get the chop and his first six weeks of the season could determine his fate. It will be an intriguing opening two months out in Kogarah and Wollongong…
Why They’ll Win It: The youth and the unknown.
The Dragons haven’t dipped into the transfer market much at all this past off-season with only Paul Vaughan and Cameron McInnes the major signings. The Red V do however have a vast area of local juniors to pick from in what has been its strength for many a year.
This year there is big wraps on boom fullback Matt Dufty as well as livewire half back Jai Field. Both are pretty much unknowns outside of the Dragons but there is hope that they are the answer to the Dragons attacking woes.
Dufty has been carving up defences in the Holden Cup over the past three years with his blinding pace as well as superb ball playing skills. If he can revert that form into First Grade it will not only assist the Dragons in getting more points but helps as it can push another one of its strike players (Josh Dugan) out wide into the centres where he plays for NSW and Australia, potentially fixing another issue in the backline. Although Dufty will have to wait for his chance after injuring his knee at the Auckland 9’s and has been ruled out for the start of the season.
Field was superb in the recent Auckland 9’s with two solo tries that had Dragons fans choking on their Saturday morning breakfast. He has superb speed for a half and has shown good vision in his career in the Holden Cup. With the injury to Drew Hutchinson there is a spot on offer in the number 7 jumper for Field to take hold of.
The Dragons haven’t had a lot of youth in its squad of late with only Euan Aitken (debuted at age 19 in 2015) and the injection of these two young men could do wonders for a side that is desperate for improvement.
Why They Won’t: The Dragons are missing a quality spine and even if Field and Dufty were to play and to star for the Dragons there is still plenty of question marks over other positions.
The hooker position where Cameron McInnes will more than likely start needs improvement after Mitch Rein couldn’t get the job done in 2016 and Gareth Widdop desperately needs a good season in the halves. Widdop who likes to run the ball has struggled within the rigid structure of the Dragons since arriving and if he has another season like the last then he might look elsewhere to continue his NRL career.
Ultimately however, it comes down to points. After only averaging 14 points a game last year and having a below average defence that leaked points against the top sides, the Dragons will struggle for wins. It will need to chance its arm a bit more and play off-the-cuff football if it wants to have success. The season could also be thrown into jeopardy if they lose any of its backline to injury, mainly Josh Dugan who has been its most potent attacking weapon in the last couple of seasons.
Players To Watch: Euan Aitken has been superb for the Red V since debuting in Round 3, 2015 against the Canberra Raiders.
Aitken has shown his ability to display his pace and strength to bully opposing defenders almost into submission. His intercept try in Golden Point against Canberra last season at Kogarah Oval was one of the more joyous occasions for Dragons fans.
Aitken has a brilliant fend and is a very accomplished defender for a smaller player (often bringing down big second-rowers and props by himself with his brilliant defensive technique).
Coming into his third season in the NRL much will be expected of the Scottish International. The Dragons needs more tries and line breaks and Aitken is capable of achieving this. He finished with seven tries and eight line breaks in a commendable performance last season as well as averaging 121 metres and 19 tackles a game.
This season look for Aitken to come on in leaps and bounds particularly if Josh Dugan plays in the opposite centre position freeing up space and defenders for Aitken to run riot.
Youngsters To Look Out For: Despite playing a handful of games last year, Luciano Leilua is still very much a rookie in the whole sense of the word and could become a real x-factor for the Dragons in 2017.
Used sparingly off the bench last year, the 112kg second rower will be chomping at the bit to get more first grade action after having a taste of it in 2016. He has a strong running style and is also has a very accomplished offload which if the likes of Dufty, Aitken or McInnes are hanging around could benefit from.
He will have to compete for minutes with other forwards but the Dragons have an embarrassment of riches in that department and having a player of Leilua’s size and quality to come on when the opposition is getting tired could really pay dividends for it.
After being named the Dragons NYC player of the year in 2016, the Red V have big wraps on Leilua for the future and many fans will be hoping the future is now for the damaging second rower from Hurstville.
Ins: Josh Kerr (Storm), Nene Macdonald (Titans), Cameron McInnes (Rabbitohs), Shaun Nona (Illawarra Cutters), Paul Vaughan (Raiders)
Outs: Mike Cooper (Warrington), Sebastine Ikahihifo (Huddersfield), Ben Creagh (retirement), Benji Marshall (Broncos), Dylan Farrell (retirement), Tom Carr (Bulldogs), Mitch Rein (Panthers), Dunamis Lui (Raiders), Adam Quinlan (Hull KR)
1. Josh Dugan
2. Kurt Mann
3. Euan Aitken
4. Nene McDonald
5. Jason Nightingale
6. Gareth Widdop
7. Jai Field
8. Leeson Ah Mau
9. Cameron McInnes
10. Paul Vaughan
11. Tyson Frizzell
12. Joel Thompson
13. Jack De Belin
14. Russell Packer
15. Tariq Sims
16. Jacob Host
17. Luciano Leilua