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Mid-season review: St George Illawarra Dragons

Position after 13 rounds: 11th
Wins: 6
Losses: 7
Byes: 0
Competition points: 12
Differential: -34

Life after Wayne Bennett wasn’t meant to be a hard slog for the Dragons, yet that’s precisely what it has been so far; indeed the 2010 premiers will need to dig deep in the second half of 2012 to figure beyond Round 26.

You can blame their struggles on a bunch of things: for starters, the loss of a trio of key attacking figures in Mark Gasnier, Darius Boyd and even Adam Cuthbertson from the roster that won them their premiership little more than 18 months ago. Plus the ‘teething pains’ of adjusting to a new coach. Tim Moltzen renegging on his deal to shift from Leichhardt to Kogarah was telling. And injuries and suspensions have hammered the depth in their pack – in particular their back row.

Their struggle to post points on a regular basis seems to have eroded their confidence to the extent where a once entertaining unit that mixed good structure with more than a liberal dose of ad-lib flair now struggles. Even their left-side attack – the benchmark that all teams aspired to just a year ago – is a poor, spluttering, impotent imitation.

They’ve lacked composure too, turning over far too much possession and making a heap more mistakes from the team that prized the Steeden more than any other in 2011 when they made the fewest errors of all.

And building pressure? The Dragons are simply failing to mount sustained challenges throughout their contests – they have forced the fewest line dropouts among all teams.

It’s not beyond them – stirring, expansive wins over the Wests Tigers (36-12) in Round 3 and Sea Eagles (17-6) in Round 4 proved they could still dazzle. But in between it has been a truly tough road.

Arguably the best barometer of their campaign is the fact they have beaten just two sides above them on the ladder.

To figure deep into September they’re going to need to show they can pile on more than 20 points a game at least more than the three times they have to date. Otherwise they simply won’t have enough powder in the keg to trouble the better teams.

It’s been quite a fall for the team that led the competition at the corresponding stage of the 2011 season.

Are Things Going to Plan? Far from it. Coach Price’s decision to shift Brett Morris from the left wing to fullback was forced on him by Boyd’s departure to Newcastle and Moltzen’s decision to stay with the Tigers. While Morris has been a success in the No.1 it has robbed the Dragons of much of their fire on the left edge.

Left-side centre Matt Cooper is also struggling within their revamped backline – whereas he was a threat whenever he touched the ball in 2011, with 19 line-breaks (ranked second in the comp behind Ben Barba) and 14 tries, he’s tallied just two line-breaks and three tries in an injury-interupted opening three months (just eight games).

Overall the Dragons have slumped from making the third-most line-breaks last season to the second-fewest line-breaks each week in 2012. No wonder they find themselves rock bottom for points scored each game (14.6) – the second fewest in their history.  

Their problems are further borne out by the fact they forced the Sharks and Panthers to make the second- and third-most tackles in a single game so far in 2012 (389 and 382 respectively) yet they still lost both games (14-nil to the Sharks).

They must compete better away from home too – they’ve won just one of seven games on the road, the second worst record in the league.

Injury Front… Ouch – the Dragons have been forced to call on 26 individuals to date – the second most among clubs. Matt Cooper has played just eight games after suffering a chronic ankle strain; Beau Scott missed four weeks with a dislocated elbow; Nathan Fien has played just eight games; and most recently the squad lost powerhouse prop Michael Weyman for the season with a ruptured ACL. Throw in Matt Prior missing two weeks with injury and five through suspension (he has one week left to serve) and it’s like their forward stocks have been put through a vice.

If Only… They would stop making stupid mistakes. The Dragons’ success under Wayne Bennett was built on discipline. They finished last season with the fewest errors by any team (9.4) – this year they rank 10th with 11.2 mistakes... and rising. Red V fans are also counting the cost of successive golden-point losses to Penrith and South Sydney in Rounds 10 and 11 – then again, things could have been a lot worse had they not had their share of luck in defeating the Knights in golden point in Round 1, and escaping with a miraculous last-seconds win over the Roosters in Round 8.

Who’s Flying… Mitch Rein looks to have the inside running on the No.9 jersey for the long haul after some impressive displays handling the ruck. Rein has shown himself to be an elusive customer, leading the NRL for breaks from dummy-half (five) while running a fraction of the number of times of other noted scooters Robbie Farah and Issac Luke.

Trent Merrin has been their beacon in the forwards – playing almost exclusively from the bench he’s averaging 17 hit-ups and 137 metres plus 31 tackles in 51 minutes of game time each week. If it wasn’t for his creativity (21 offloads) they’d find it even harder to get across the stripe.

Michael Weyman was a rock before his injury; the big fella could be relied on for 96 metres in 41 minutes a game but it was his offloads (eight) and charges from dummy-half (two tries) that they’ll find tough to cover.

Brett Morris has done everything required of him in the No.1 – but he’s no Darius Boyd. With only one line-break assist and five try assists it’s clear Morris is more comfortable receiving the final pass than supplying it.

Needs To Lift… Jamie Soward gets just a pass mark to date. While his kicking game remains strong (his 164 kicks are the most in the comp, plus the Dragons are booting the second-most metres overall behind Manly) Soward is struggling to spark their attack. Last year the No.6 made 18 try assists and 11 line-breaks. His corresponding tallies midway through 2012 are five and one.

Perhaps 2011 was Matt Cooper’s banner year, given his comparable silence on the left edge so far. Certainly the Dragons need more out of him than his two line-breaks and solitary try assist and line-break assist.

Dragons Coach Steve Price says… “I’m not quite sure why we aren’t scoring more, but we’re confident in what we are doing and we’re not that far away from racking up a few points,” Price says.

“There’s some really positive stuff we are doing, but we just need to keep believing in what’s right. As for the injuries, the disruption of Matt Prior’s suspension and the Origin period – a lot of clubs go through it and it’s nothing new to us... it’s a challenge but you always want to see players within your footy club play rep footy and it’s great to see Trent and Ben be able to do that.

“We’ve had a few injuries, but we’re overcoming them now and we’re starting to get a few blokes back (Fien, Cooper, Scott). We’ll look to improve over the next few months, try a few new things and and hopefully we’ll be in a position to challenge as the semi-finals loom.”

Predicted Finish… The next five weeks is vital: they bank two byes and have two ‘winnable’ games against the Titans and Raiders, with a tough clash against the Bulldogs. Thereafter it gets brutal, with successive games against the Sharks, Rabbitohs and Storm. They also play the Wests Tigers, Cowboys and Warriors in their final month. Realistically, they need seven wins to have a chance of making the semis. Unfortunately that could be beyond them. Sorry Dragons fans but somewhere around 10th is their likely rung.   

Under-20s… The junior Dragons are faring on a par with the first grade squad, sitting in 11th position and two wins adrift of the semi-finals zone. The received a massive boost to their differential (-11) with a 46-16 win over cellar-dwellars Manly last round but will need better application if they are to progress to the playoffs. Things could have been a whole lot better had they managed to get the verdict against the Cowboys (24-all draw), the ladder-leading Panthers (20-18), Sharks (21-20) and Roosters (28-24), so they clearly aren’t without talent. Top of their list has been blockbusting fullback Evander Cummins, who has totalled a staggering 152 tackle-breaks (NYC-high) plus 28 line-breaks (more than two a game!), 179 metres each game and eight tries. (To put that in perspective the leading tackle buster in the NRL is Ben Barba with 69.) Also, prop Jack Buchanan is powering through 156 metres a game from 13 appearances.

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