If you were following St George Illawarra Dragons’ progress in April of last year, you’d be hard-pressed to find any real criticism of their performances, both as a team and of their head coach, Paul McGregor, who had been in charge since 2014 at that point. With four wins of their first six matches, McGregor earned his two-year contract extension – an extension that would keep him at the club as head coach until the conclusion of the 2021 season. What has transpired since then has left many scratching their heads as to what went wrong, and where they go from here as a team.
The following series of games resulted in three wins from seventeen – ultimately securing a 15th place finish for the Dragons, crucially failing to qualify for the finals. For a club with a history as successful as St. George, it was an abject failure of a season. Fans were rightly angry. Players were underwhelming on the field and McGregor’s role became an issue of contention. Since September 2019, the rumours have been flying as to whether he would be replaced and, if so, who could step in.
Safe, for now
It was only a short time ago that the discussion of England head coach Shaun Wane being touted to replace McGregor in Sydney was a readily accepted possibility, according to reports.
However, once Paul McGregor’s position was confirmed as safe, it only leaves more questions than answers for fans of the historic club. A strong theory is that this could be a financially motivated decision. The club would have been obliged to shell out a $1 million payout if they had terminated his position. However, it seems unlikely. Given the 18-month timeframe remaining on his contract, the financial hit would be far worse if they chose to simply continue to suffer on the pitch and lose more games for the next year and a half. Clearly, the issues are not felt across the team.
Unity from within
At least from a player perspective, there has been a notable amount of support – Senior players including prop James Graham, hooker Ben Hunt and forward Tyson Frizell praised McGregor’s coaching. This sort of news is not to be sniffed at. Typically, the players are some of the first to turn on underperforming coaches.
Equally, from the coaches own perspective, he delivered a relatively upfront and honest opinion, claiming he’d ‘wear it’ if the decision was made to remove him. It’s important to remember that this is a coach who did deliver two finals in six and half years for Dragons, and that was following a fairly widespread rebuilding of the team.
Is it possible that the problems aren’t guaranteed to follow him into the next season – only time will tell. Australian rugby league odds suggest that the jury is out on whether this is a systematic failure – Dragons go in as favourites for their match-up against the Gold Coast Titans after picking up their first win of the season against the Cronulla Sharks.
Improvement is non-negotiable
What seems clear is that change is sorely needed at St. George. If the Board of Directors deem the problem as not lying at McGregor’s feet alone, or perhaps at all, then so be it. The results, meanwhile, cannot remain where they are. It seems highly unlikely that the following 18 months will see no major shifts for Dragons if there isn’t an uptick in performances.