NothingButLeague is looking at the best buys for each club in the National Rugby League. In this article we look at the St George Illawarra Dragons whose 2015 season was a tale of two halves. In the first half of the year, the Dragons looked like true Top 4 contenders with a rock solid defensive wall that conceded the least points in the League. However as the season wore on, injuries to key backline players like Gareth Widdop and Jason Nightingale, and forwards Joel Thompson and Jack De Belin took their toll. This led to a decline in form for the Red V, losing seven games in a row at one stage. Nevertheless they managed to cling onto 8th spot on the ladder and in their qualifying final match against the Bulldogs, they went down by one point in extra time in an absolutely thrilling contest, fighting on with only a 2 man bench for the last quarter of the game.
With a promising end to the season, the Dragons have focused their recruitment on adding depth to their roster and strengthening their forwards, a position they have previously been lacking in.
5. Kalifa Fai-Fai Loa
Position: Wing, Centre
Previous Clubs: St George Illawarra Dragons, North Queensland Cowboys, Gold Coast Titans
Kalifa Fai-Fai Loa is a talented winger with a big, solid build and a fair amount of pace but has been unable to secure a consistent spot on the wing, only playing 16 games for the Titans over the past 2 years. He has proven to be very adept in attack when given the chance though, with 5 tries in his last 4 games and a career total of 26 tries from 53 games making for a strike rate of almost a try every second game.
With Jason Nightingale assured to occupy a wing position there’s only one spot available and so it won’t become any easier for KFFL to nail down a starting position but he’s a quality player who can provide a bit of spark to the Dragons attack out on the flanks whether as a consistent first grader or a handy back-up.
4. Mose Masoe
Previous Clubs: Sydney Roosters, Penrith Panthers, St Helens
In the past the Dragons forward pack has been criticized for lacking size and go forward so the arrival of Mose Masoe is a very welcome one. A big, bad barnstorming prop weighing in at 120kg, he is certainly not going to be expected to fill the void of the workhorse forward that Trent Merrin was but will likely be used an impact forward off the bench to potentially devastating effect. With the new interchange rules coming into effect, he will be best utilised in short bursts of around 15 minutes near the half and full-time mark. A fresh, energized Masoe coming onto the field and charging at tired forwards to make valuable metres could prove to be a game changer for the Dragons. Momentum is everything in Rugby League and he can provide a lot of it.
3. Tim Lafai
Previous Clubs: Canterbury Bulldogs
An opportunistic and astute signing made recently by the Dragons who have been fortunate to snap up a player of Lafai’s quality after pre-season training has already commenced. His primary asset is his potency in attack and he will add a lot of strike power to the Dragons backline. While his form in 2015 was hampered by injury, in 2014 he was one of the most exciting centres in the game, breaking tackles at will and finishing the year as the Bulldogs top try-scorer.
At his best he’s a dynamic young player with good speed and a strong ball running ability who can break through the defensive line and create attacking opportunities for himself and the man outside him. A valuable acquisition who can also kick goals, Lafai will be determined to make up for a disappointing 2015 in a big way.
2. Russell Packer
Previous Clubs: New Zealand Warriors
Packer has gone through a somewhat delayed process in confirming his return to the NRL but now that his visa has been approved and he has been granted the right to stay in Australia and play for the Dragons, he can begin to fully focus on a return to first grade. His recruitment is another sizeable addition to the forward pack and while match fitness could potentially be an issue after having been out of the game for 2 years, the dual signing of Masoe and Packer adds much needed strength and power to the front-row rotation.
It’s also worth nothing that the Dragons have given Packer a 2nd chance by signing him and his eagerness and dedication to repay the faith shown to him could pay dividends throughout the season.
1. Kurt Mann
Position: Centre, Fullback, 5/8, Halfback
Previous Clubs: Melbourne Storm
Kurt Mann is an extremely versatile young player who was initially acquired as a depth signing and to compete with the incumbent centres Euan Aitken and Peter Mata’utia for a spot in the outside backs. However with the recent talk of Dugan shifting to the centres, an opportunity for Mann to make his mark in first grade and cement a position at fullback may arise. Because of his experience playing in the halves he would be able to offer some ball-playing abilities such as cut-out passes and a kicking game, enabling him to act like a third playmaker which would create a whole different style of attacking play for the team. Whether that eventuates or not, his ability to cover multiple positions in the backline will still prove invaluable to the Dragons and allow them to call upon a greater depth of talent should they require it.