Ben Everill, NRL.com
After another dismal season, the worst on record for the joint venture club, St George Illawarra fans have a right to feel a little annoyed. Winning a competition in 2010 was phenomenal, something a generation of fans hadn’t seen, but now the question has to be asked: At what price did it come?
For the first time in their history they missed the finals for consecutive seasons. They were pretty ordinary in 2012 but in 2013 they were often dismal – even accounting for a final round win against the Warriors. Only a terrible Parramatta Eels outfit and an injury-ravaged Wests Tigers – who actually both beat the Dragons late in the year – saved the famous Red V from a wooden spoon. They back-ended the year with a club-worst six straight defeats before the last round triumph and actually only won four of their last 18 games, the spluttering run starting with a contract extension for coach Steve Price.
Adopting a win-a-comp-at-all-costs attitude when bringing in Wayne Bennett in 2009, the Dragons feasted with two minor premierships and a premiership in three years. But they failed to have a safety net beneath them, relying on aging stars and players with get-out clauses to leave when Bennett did. When the supercoach moved on and players followed while others retired, the next generation was unable to cover. In the final wash-up is the team left today – still with a handful of solid performers but far from competitive with the premiership’s big guns.
The major problem with the Dragons in 2013 was an inability to score points. This was a team that easily led the league in offloads, had more than reasonable metres gained and wasn’t terrible in the errors department but one that couldn’t find the try line with a map, flashing lights, a compass and a tour guide.
With just an average 15.8 points scored a game, the Dragons were rarely in the hunt. Nathan Fien at halfback tried hard but just wasn’t up to the pace and couldn’t trouble opposition defenders anywhere near enough. Jamie Soward wasn’t doing much early in the year, before being let go. The Dragons found some attack mid-year with the acquisition of fullback Josh Dugan, but relied on him too much.
There is an argument to point at injuries given Gerard Beale, Matt Cooper, Kyle Stanley and Dan Hunt missed multiple games, while others were also missing at key times – but you have to wonder if they would have ever been good enough for finals, even at full strength.
The good news is they have recruited some strong names for 2014 and if Sam Williams proves a success at halfback their fortunes could certainly turn.
Where They Excelled: The Dragons were clearly the kings of the offload in 2013, leading the NRL with 14.4 a game, a long way clear of the next best Titans and Warriors at 11.6. Sadly for the side it didn’t translate to scoring enough points off the second-phase play they created.
With a brilliant back three of Josh Dugan, Jason Nightingale and Brett Morris helping, the side was also third in the competition for metres gained with 1412.7 a week – but still the points eluded them.
With Williams and five-eighth Gareth Widdop joining the side perhaps they will be able to finally take advantage of some quality field position.
The team actually ranked fourth in missed tackles (just 22.9) but it didn’t really help.
Where They Struggled: Scoring points. It was the biggest issue for the Dragons by far. Once the kings of the shift play, especially to the left side, the Dragons’ execution slowed and defences were able to account easily.
The halves decision-making during set plays was also questionable, a key component of the best in the business is choosing the right option… often the Dragons did not.
With 15.8 points a game the Dragons ranked 15th in the NRL – only the hapless Eels were more impotent. The Dragons consequently were also ranked 14th in line-breaks with just 3.3 a game. The side seemingly couldn’t bust out of a wet paper bag, ranked 15th in tackle busts as well.
Some of their good work gaining metres was negated by allowing 1398.3 (12th) metres from their opposition each week, while ranking 11th in points conceded (22.1) is rarely going to see you play finals football.
Missing In Action: Injuries were a factor. The Dragons were forced to use 30 players in the season in a roster already lacking depth.
The top side didn’t even see a game out of Kyle Stanley due to a knee injury, which is how Nathan Fien ended up at halfback. Fullback signing Gerard Beale lasted just five games and now will return as a centre or winger due to Dugan’s signing. Dugan missed the last few games and obviously wasn’t around for the start of the year when he was in lime green.
Matt Cooper (eight games played), Cameron King (11 games), Dan Hunt (14 games), Trent Merrin (18 games) were others missing for big chunks of time. Then of course the club punted Jamie Soward after he only played 12 games for the year.
Turning Point: The writing was on the wall from the second round when the Dragons, in their first home game, couldn’t turn an absolute avalanche of quality possession into points. In the first half the Red V made camp in the Broncos’ red zone, sending wave after wave of pedestrian attack, to no avail. At one point they had the ball for 11 of 12 sets and only mustered one try. With an inability of any player to adapt when a game plan obviously wasn’t working, it signalled the beginning of a very tough year.
Perhaps another turning point for the Dragons was putting together three wins after losing the opening three games, as it seemingly saved coach Price, his extension being announced as they were being trounced by the Roosters on ANZAC Day. After the announcement the team headed south and never threatened the top eight.
Best Games: The Round 19 victory over South Sydney was probably their best. The Red V prevailed 22-18 in golden point. Coming off the bye the Dragons were down 12-0 with 20 minutes left and 18-6 with 11 minutes to go but roared home. Brett Morris grabbed a try in golden-point extra time to claim a stunning win.
In Round 13 their 14-8 win over Newcastle in Newcastle kept a hoodoo over the Knights going. The side didn’t play particularly well but Dugan, in his new colours, scored twice including a late match-winner to justify his signing.
Getting a Round 4, 25-12 decision over rival Cronulla after losing the opening three games was also nice.
Worst Games: The Round 2 game against the Broncos, when they had more ball than some teams get in three weeks but still lost 22-6, was very telling.
Getting thrashed 34-10 by the Roosters on ANZAC Day was tough for the big crowd to cop – it came as the coach was celebrating a contract extension announced at halftime.
But the real kicks in the guts for the fans came in two games at Kogarah. Penrith won 19-0 in Round 11 and the Roosters pummelled them 36-0 in Round 17… after never being kept scoreless on the ground, the team let it happen twice!
Dismal late-season efforts against the Wests Tigers (34-18) and the Eels (26-22) left a very sour taste in the mouth.
Hold Your Head High: The back three were impressive in a team failing to give them enough opportunity. Dugan averaged 175.8 metres in his 10 games, scored six tries and had eight line-breaks with 70 tackle-breaks. Brett Morris averaged 116.5 metres with nine tries and Jason Nightingale also scored nine tries while averaging 122.6 metres. Trent Merrin led the way up front with 142.9 metres and 33.4 tackles each game and he also had 48 offloads.
Conclusion: It was a tough and dismal year for the Dragons, leaving them with no option but to look ahead. Fien and Matt Cooper retire, Matt Prior and Michael Weyman are leaving but Gareth Widdop is joining from Melbourne and Joel Thompson and Sam Williams from the Raiders to give them options in the halves and versatility on the edges. Kyle Stanley and Gerard Beale will be back in the mix and Dylan Farrell has signed from Souths. Mike Cooper is also coming from England to give the NRL a crack. Surely the only way is up.
Home Record: 3 wins, 9 losses (worst)
Away Record: 4 wins, 8 losses (=10th)
Longest Winning Streak: 3 (Rounds 4-6)
Longest Losing Streak: 6 (Rounds 20-25)
Players Used: 30
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 61 (Second most)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 84 (Seventh most)