It’s a new era at St George Illawarra and none have embraced the changing of the guard in 2013 quite like prop-turned-back-rower Trent Merrin.
This season represents the first time in more than a decade that the Dragons have arrived for pre-season training minus veterans Ben Hornby and Dean Young – who both announced their retirements late last year – with only half the squad that played in their 2010 grand final-winning side still wearing the Red V.
In Merrin’s words, the Dragons are officially re-building and it’s difficult to predict just what lies ahead over the coming months for a side that was so dominant during Wayne Bennett’s three-year tenure but limped out the title race in 2012 with a ninth-place finish.
But with change comes opportunity – and for Merrin that means a move from the front row to the No.13 jersey that Young had made his own for so long.
“Yeah, I’m lucky enough to get a crack at Deano’s spot and I’m really excited about it,” Merrin told NRL.com, as the Dragons look to return to the winner’s list against the Broncos on Friday night following a disappointing 20-point loss to premiers Melbourne last Sunday.
“It’s a new position and a new start. It gives me a chance to roam around a bit more and spot things I probably didn’t have enough juice to [when] playing in the front row.
“I’m not going to change too much in my game though. It’s doing what I do now that got me the position, so I’m just going to run with it and see how I go.”
Although Merrin has excelled in the front row in the past, even earning five caps for NSW over the past two seasons, his move to lock the scrum could prove a master-stroke given the loss of experience at the club this year and the fact that it should open him up to playing more minutes.
Last season he averaged a touch over 54 minutes per game – this year he could conceivably play 80 – developing into the sort of high-impact, high-work rate player for the Dragons that Paul Gallen is for the Sharks.
“And I think it will suit my game,” Merrin continued, pointing to the fact that he was already the side’s leading offloader last season with 45 (he also led his side last week, with three offloads against the Storm to go with his 109 metres and 30 tackles).
“Coming into my game now, I’m starting to use a bit of footwork and my passing skills so I’ve been working on that in the pre-season and it’s coming up pretty good. It’s something I’d like to build on and grab with both hands.
“I’m not really going to change my game too much and I don’t have to. I just need to be a bit smarter about what I do on the field and whenever the halves need me to do something I’ll be there to do it. Not much will change but I’ll probably try and provide a bit more flair.”
Merrin, though, sees his role this season as more than just donning Young’s old jersey. It’s also about trying to replicate his predecessor’s off-field role, with the loss of Young and Hornby as well as Mark Gasnier, Jeremy Smith, Darius Boyd and Beau Scott over the past few seasons having seriously drained the leadership stocks.
“It’s definitely been different without them,” Merrin said. “That leadership they had at the club, you’re always going to miss that.
“That puts a bit of pressure on me, having rep footy behind me, but that’s something for me to work on. If a few of the younger ones look up to me that’s great and if anyone needs anything I’ll be the first person to put my hand up.
“So I’d like to think I’ve stepped up in that way but I still aspire to be a Ben Hornby or Dean Young. I’m not to their calibre [yet]. I aspire to be at the level they were at because they are players that I have always looked up to.
“I’m just going to build my game slowly and hopefully one day I can get the respect that they had from us. At the moment I’ve stepped up a little bit but they were at the club for so long so I’m not at their level yet. I’m just doing my best for the club and the team.”
While all the talk over the off-season has been about a fresh start at the Dragons, it hasn’t been smooth sailing with consecutive trial losses to the Bulldogs, North Queensland and South Sydney in the Charity Shield and a very public, albeit failed, effort to lure Craig Bellamy to replace current coach Steve Price from 2014.
Despite the distractions, Merrin said that the playing group was standing firmly behind Price as they look to put the pain of last season behind them – starting with the out-of-form Broncos at WIN Stadium on Friday night.
“We missed out by one spot last year and that was heartbreaking. I remember the last game last year... the whole place was down that we didn’t make it,” Merrin said.
“But we’re rebuilding now. We know we’ve got Pricey now as coach and he is very respected – I had him for a few years in under-20s so I know what he is capable of. We’re all in this together and to be honest it’s been the toughest pre-season that I can remember.
“I think not making the eight last year really cut into us and everyone wants to work extra hard to try and give it a real good shake this year.”