Nigel Wall,, NRL.com
The Red V struggled to gel in attack in the first season of the post-Bennett era. Can Coach Steve Price avoid the second year syndrome and steer the Dragons back to the finals?
Strengths: Breaching the Red V’s defensive line will prove a challenge again in 2013, despite the loss and retirements of some key personnel. In his first season holding the reins coach Steve Price and assistant Steve Folkes continued the tackling standard established by Wayne Bennett in his three years in the saddle, with the Dragons conceding just the third-fewest tries all season (behind grand finalists Melbourne and Canterbury).
The signing of ex-Raider Bronson Harrison – a renowned offloader – adds a much-needed playmaking dimension to the staid Dragons’ forward structures. Their problems in getting across the stripe in 2012 have been well documented: St George Illawarra scored fewer points (16.5) than any team. However, ex-Bronco Gerard Beale’s anticipated mortgage on the No.1 jersey will allow Brett Morris to settle back into his groove on the left wing, where he is among the most penetrative players in the game. Jason Nightingale will relish a return to the right flank too.
Weaknesses: Ben Hornby’s retirement leaves them with a gaping hole in the No.7. Early indications are Kiwi rep utility Nathan Fien may get the nod to start the season although Fien is surely just a stop-gap measure before former Sea Eagle Josh Drinkwater is groomed for the role… or some other external talent is pursued. Jamie Soward has put up his hand to succeed Hornby but this scenario has pitfalls: Soward hasn’t played halfback for five years and is coming off the back of an underwhelming season; plus the Dragons have reinvested in youngster Cameron King who will likely partner Mitch Rein in the hooker rotation. This leaves Fien the logical No.7.
Coach Price will be striving for much-needed momentum after a bleak 2012 that yielded a maximum winning streak of just two games and back-to-back victories on only three occasions. Premierships are out of reach when sides splutter with such inconsistency. The Dragons might also like to consider hiring a motivational speaker for their bus trips to away games after fizzling on the road in 2012, with a dismal 2-10 record (equal worst). Plus depth in the centres is a real worry. Veteran Matt Cooper had an injury-interrupted 2012 on the left side of the field while the right centre position is of major concern after Chase Stanley and Nathan Green failed to set the world on fire.
Stop-gap measure Beau Scott is off to the Knights, too. With Kyle Stanley sidelined for an indefinite period after re-injuring the ACL in his right knee in late November, the Dragons can expect oppositions to target a potentially weak right-side defence. If back-rower Matt Prior spends some time out wide it will be a sure sign they are doing it tough.