Josh Dugan will again be a key weapon for St George Illawarra in 2014. Credit: NRL Photos Copyright: NRL Photos
1. The Josh Dugan Factor
There' s no question St George Illawarra fans sleep more soundly knowing this guy is in their ranks rather than running at their number. The sinewy No.1 proved his worth immediately after joining the Red V from Round 10 last season, scoring two tries and running 222 metres during an epic club debut against the Eels. Dugan further demonstrated his value by scoring doubles and clawing out big metres against the Knights in Round 13 and Bulldogs in Round 21. His scintillating mid-season form saw him regain the New South Wales No.1 jersey for Games Two and Three of last year's Origin series.
Dugan's imposing sprints and pinball rebounds off opposition players saw him average more tackle breaks per game than any other star in the NRL last season, with a whopping seven each outing (including 11 against the Rabbitohs and 10 against the Bulldogs). If he hits the ground running in 2014 it will help the Dragons get off to a whirlwind start and build crucial momentum that could take them all the way to the playoffs.
2. Gareth Widdop
It's fair to say the Dragons lost their attacking compass over the past two seasons – and most of that fell to the poor stats returned by their previously dominant five-eighth Jamie Soward. Soward was the driving force behind the Red V's first ever premiership in 2010, but from the kick-off of season 2012 he could barely bust open a wet paper bag let alone an opposition defence.
The Dragons moved swiftly to secure Gareth Widdop from Melbourne, in the process fracturing the Storm's imposing spine. The England international brings plenty to the table: he ran a close third behind superstars Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater in the try assists, line-breaks and line-break assist stats categories in each of the past three years. In 2011 and 2012 he ranked second behind teammate Slater for tackle busts before his injury-interrupted 2013 season. Scheming and creative, Widdop will get the Kogarah crew headed due north again. His linking with Dugan on the left edge could be one of the partnerships of 2014.
3. Plundered Raiders
Joining ex-Raiders Dugan and Bronson Harrison at St George Illawarra in 2014 are former Green Machiners Sam Williams and Joel Thompson, who are expected to provide impact at halfback and in the back row/centres respectively. Ben Hornby provided the Red V with a solid service at the scrum base for more than a decade but they really struggled during the ex-captain's first year in retirement. With Soward misfiring at No.6, added pressure fell on halfback Nathan Fien, who was used exclusively in the No.7 for all 24 games. (Fien played just five games at halfback in the previous four seasons.) Sure, Fien came up with his share of plays (his 16 try assists ranked fifth among halfbacks) but the fact remains he ran the second-fewest times in the No.7 jersey. Enter Sam Williams, who has been handed the car keys to the Dragons' attack after an indifferent season at Canberra that yielded a modest six try assists in nine games. Meanwhile Thompson will add starch to the back row, although he could also be used as a bruising defensive plug in the centres, in much the same way Wayne Bennett used Beau Scott in their successful 2010 premiership campaign.
4. Pressure's on the coach
The post-Wayne Bennett years have not been kind to the Dragons under Steve Price, with the Red V missing the finals in consecutive years for the first time since their formation as a joint venture. They've struggled to score points and even more worryingly their stiff defensive veneer has taken a battering. Price was handed a vote of confidence with a contract extension last April but he's smart enough to know he's on borrowed time given their spiral to 14th place. With their extensive roster changes it could be time for a shake-up and a new game plan, leaning heavily on their strengths including Josh Dugan, Brett Morris, Trent Merrin and new marquee buy Gareth Widdop. Certainly the old one didn't work.
5. After the clean-out
No team has undergone more off-season changes than the Dragons. Matt Cooper, plagued by injuries in his final years, has retired. So too Nathan Fien. Jamie Soward exited mid-2013 and will take the field in a Panthers jersey in 2014. Michael Weyman has moved on to the UK. Matt Prior is now a Shark, Daniel Vidot a Bronco and Chase Stanley a Bulldog. Fringe first grader Cameron King – kept out of the first grade side through injuries and an in-form Mitch Rein – has seized a chance at North Queensland.
There's excitement with boom ex-Wests Tigers youngster Matt Groat on board up front, along with Englishman Mike Cooper. Charly Runciman will get the chance to make the left centre position his own. Consequently it's an entirely different Dragons team the fans will be cheering in 2014. What's the saying – a change is as good as a holiday?
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