As the National Rugby League season draws closer, we look at how the St. George Illawarra Dragons will go in 2018.
The Dragons climbed to first on the competition ladder early in 2017 before falling away late in the season. With the addition of several high-profile signings, the Dragons will be looking to turn their fortunes around in season 2018.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
James Graham (Bulldogs), Ben Hunt (Broncos), Jeremy Latimore (Sharks), Darren Nicholls (Panthers), Mitch Allgood (Wakefield Trinity)
Josh Dugan (Sharks), Mose Masoe (Hull Kingston Rovers), Taane Milne (Wests Tigers), Will Matthews (Widnes Vikings), Russell Packer (Wests Tigers), Tyrone McCarthy (Salford Red Devils), Josh McCrone (Toronto Wolfpack), Drew Hutchison (Leigh Centurions), Siliva Havili (Raiders)
Broncos (H), Sharks (A), Titans (A), Knights (H), Rabbitohs (H)
WHAT TO EXPECT
2017 will go down as the one that got away from the St. George Illawarra Dragons. The side climbed as high as first on the premiership ladder before a mid-season slump saw them lose touch with the top eight. Fans went home disappointed when they eventually crashed out of finals contention in sensational fashion to the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium in round 26. The narrative, sadly, mirrored that of the two previous seasons; close, but not close enough.
This year the much-maligned Dragons attacking outfit, which came under fire for its lack of creativity in 2016 and predictability in 2017, will be bolstered by Ben Hunt and James Graham. Hunt arrives on the back of a successful stint at Brisbane and will form one of the most formidable halves combinations in the club’s recent history when he pairs up with Gareth Widdop. As for Graham, the jury is still out on what he can add to the side. His last few seasons at Canterbury were marred by injury and his playing minutes are on the decline. Fans will take heart from his performances in the World Cup, where he helped lead England to the final. The only question that remains is whether he can fill the void left by Joel Thompson and Russell Packer, whose absences will be felt by all.
Despite having played just a handful of first-grade games, young gun fullback Matt Dufty is the man who will turn the Dragons attack from rags to riches in 2018. His performance against Manly-Warringah in round 20 last year gave fans a reason to smile and ultimately saw him take the number one jumper off incumbent Josh Dugan.
Expect Mary to give Dufty free rein to play what is in front of him. This freewheeling style of football hasn’t suited the Dragons’ attack in the past, but Hunt has shown during his time at Brisbane that unstructured play can pay dividends.
The Dragon’s pack is also to be admired. Vaughan, De Belin and Frizell had stellar seasons in 2017, while new recruit Tariq Sims made an impact off the bench. With the addition of James Graham, the Dragons’ forward pack – likely to remain largely unaffected by Origin if recent selection trends are anything to go by – can match it with the best in the competition. Yes, even the Cowboys.
It is difficult to judge the strength of the draw on first glance for a club as inconsistent as the Dragons. There appears to be three very winnable games in the first five rounds, but that depends on which Dragons outfit arrives at the ground. They play the premiership winners twice. The premiership favourites, North Queensland, once. And the Roosters – expected to feature at the top of the table – on two occasions.
As the Dragons have shown in the past, it is often the games against the less favoured sides in between these heavyweight bouts that decide whether or not they make the finals. On paper the Dragons look a stronger outfit than the Tigers, Warriors and Rabbitohs – whom they play twice each – but so often find a way to lose against. This leaves them playing for their season in the most competitive games of the year. In reality, we should be looking at the middle/ end of the season, as this is where the Dragons generally lose momentum. Five of their last seven games are against teams expected to make the finals. Make of this what you will. If the Dragons start well, buck the trend of previous seasons, and carry this momentum through the Origin period, they will make the eight. If not, they’ll need to play the best month and a half of football of their lives.
Top Tryscorer – Jason Nightingale
Top Pointscorer – Gareth Widdop
Club Player of the Year – Tyson Frizell
WHERE WILL THE DRAGONS FINISH?
This is one of the most balanced sides the club has had in the last few seasons. The bench has depth. The forwards are experienced and have another pre-season under their belts. Widdop finally has a big name halves partner that has learnt his trade under one of the games’ finest coaches. And there is plenty of young talent – many of whom have been brought through the local junior system – ready to make their mark.
Bringing Hunt to the club on a $1.2 million dollar salary was a big risk, and has led to the departures of a few important players. Only time will tell whether it was the right decision.
Predicted Finish: 7th