Make no bones about it, the next three weeks are the biggest in Paul McGregor’s coaching career to date.
Having lost five of their last six games, the Dragons are in freefall.
For fans of the club, this has become an all too familiar sight in recent seasons and, once again, we find ourselves asking the same old question: why does this keep happening?
It can’t just be the players, for the team that took the field in 2015 – a year best remembered for the Dragons slide from first to eighth and subsequent exit in the first weekend of finals – looks vastly different to the one lining up against the Tigers this weekend.
For arguments sake, there are only five players still remaining from that Preliminary Final against the Bulldogs.
The rest? They’ve moved on. And yet the Dragons find themselves in the very same predicament three years later.
The only constant through this whole debacle, with the exception of a few players, is coach Paul McGregor.
He was there in 2015. He was there for the disappointment of 2016. And he was there last year when the Dragons dropped out of finals contention after leading the competition in the 7th round.
There have been several coaches on the chopping block this year and McGregor, following his sides’ humiliating loss to Parramatta, has suddenly re-entered the fray.
Just two weeks ago we saw the Panthers sack coach Anthony Griffin despite the fact they were well and truly in the race for the premiership.
The form is there. A top eight finishing position means nothing these days. And a contract even less so.
This leaves McGregor in a precarious position.
Could he soon join Griffin and become the latest casualty of the coaching merry-go-round?
The simple fact that he continues to produce the same result year in, year out with a different set of players speaks to his coaching methods.
The fact the Dragons had several players represent their state but are struggling to keep in touch with the top four is similarly concerning.
But perhaps McGregor’s biggest flaw, and the reason why his name is being mentioned in this conversation, is his reluctance to make changes when the chips are down and victories hard to come by.
This weekend he had a golden opportunity to introduce Zac Lomax and Jai Field – two talented youngsters who have been a part of the Dragons reserve grade outfit that currently sits in second position.
Anyone who has seen these two play know they are something special.
While they mightn’t be first grade ready as yet, an injury to Widdop and the waning form of the outside backs provided the perfect opportunity to give them another shot.
But McGregor has opted in favour of Kurt Mann who has failed to provide attacking spark at five-eight when given the opportunity in the past.
The counter argument to giving Lomax and Field another first grade cap is that they haven’t played the entire season and so are unlikely to feature in the finals.
But when a previously high-flying team is beaten – nay smashed – by a side ranked ten spots below them, isn’t it worth trying something different?
What is the purpose of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?
Lomax and Field could be the Dragons answer to the Storm’s Jahrome Hughes, or the Raiders’ Nick Cotric.
The history of Rugby League is littered with stories of youngsters being thrown into the deep end and going on to forge long and successful careers. Why can’t the Dragons become a part of this narrative?
Sure, there is the argument that this current crop of players put the Dragons in title contention, so there is every likelihood they could rediscover their mojo and, consequently, their ladder position.
But they are playing on empty tanks. They are mentally scarred. And they’ve forgotten how to find the try line.
A fresh set of eyes in attack could change things. Adding two or more players from a reserve grade outfit with plenty of form and no baggage could teach them how to win again.
McGregor took a punt by choosing not to rest players after Origin when other teams did.
Say what you will about Griffin, or whoever made the decision at Penrith to rest their Origin stars after the series had concluded – it might just be the gamble that sees them through to the top four.
McGregor let his battle-wearied stars play on and could pay a heavy price for it.
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