Nigel Wall, NRL.com
1. No pressure
New coach Steve Price won’t feel too many jitters as he settles into life steering the Red V following Wayne Bennett’s successful three years at St George Illawarra. Bennett achieved what was hoped/expected he would at Kogarah/Wollongong: back-to-back minor premierships, their first title as a joint venture, a renewed player vitality and the restoration of pride in wanting to wear the red and white. But most importantly he steeled their soft underbelly. All Bennett’s successor has to do is stick approximately to the tried-and-true game plan. But importantly, Steve Price was a part of the Dragons’ furniture long before the club lured Bennett: consequently he has a close affinity with a bunch of his playing roster, having helped nurture their development over the past decade. Through the ranks of Jersey Flegg and Toyota Cup he’s coached the likes of Brett Morris, Jason Nightingale, Kyle Stanley, Trent Merrin and Dan Hunt. Price won’t feel like a premiership is expected – especially given the burning questions surrounding the holes left by Mark Gasnier’s retirement and the departure of key players including Darius Boyd and Adam Cuthbertson.
A positive that should not be overlooked, however, is the ‘failsafe’ of having premiership winning coach Steve Folkes as Price’s assistant. It’s a masterstroke by the Dragons’ powerbrokers: other clubs have tinkered with appointing ‘coaching directors’ above their head man as back-up in recent years. Talk about unwanted pressure! But with a clear demarcation between Price and the experienced, watchful eye of Folkes, any hint of a threat is removed.
2. Relentless roll forward
The Dragons will look to grow on their success of the past few years doing what they do best – and one of their key strengths is a grinding go-forward that wears down oppositions. It’s tough to score points when you don’t get the final plays of a tackle count down the business end of the field, and that’s what the Dragons are so good at limiting. Last year they led the premiership for average metres gained each match (1427), making it extremely difficult for oppositions to hatch their scoring plays. All up, sides cracked the Dragons’ try line 42 times from inside the 10-metre zone – with just 18 tries originating outside. If Price can get his charges to maintain their discipline and respect for the football, and key forwards Michael Weyman, Dan Hunt, Trent Merrin, Ben Creagh and 2011 Toyota Cup Player of the Year Jack De Belin can keep getting over the advantage line with metronome-like consistency, they’ll frustrate sides to the point where fractures will appear – and the Dragons’ speedy backs will capitalise.
3. Jamie Soward’s all-round game
His detractors may question whether he’s the right fit at representative level (we don’t) but there’s no question the nuggety No.6 has been the catalyst to the Dragons’ rise over the past few seasons. No player in the NRL possesses a better kicking game, both in attack and defence. Soward’s raking boot propels the Dragons downfield and he seemingly always takes the right option. With Soward in command the Dragons kicked more times to open space (155) than any side in 2011, clicking off 7.6 kilometres of territory – 800 metres more than next-best Canterbury. And Soward averaged 49 metres each time, another NRL best. The little general contributed 17 try assists last year – 12 of which came off the boot (again, the most by any player). But Soward’s value extends way beyond the boot: no playmaker is better at noticing a broken opposition defensive line and capitalising – his three try assists from line-breaks last year were the most in the comp, too. Meanwhile Gasnier and Boyd’s absence on the field this year could spark Soward to even greater heights: the pair topped the Red V for line-break assists, a role Soward may absorb more of in 2012.
4. Pace to burn
Even allowing for Boyd’s departure, the Dragons’ outside backs will continue to dominate oppositions just as they have since 2009. Under Wayne Bennett the Red V developed the most lethal left-side attack in the NRL: last year they scored 45 tries down Matt Cooper and Brett Morris’s left corridor compared to 25 on the right side of the field. Cooper proved he is still one of the best centres in the game, carving out the second-most line-breaks behind Bulldog Ben Barba, while his 14 tries were the most by any centre. In a relatively quiet year by his lofty standards Morris tallied the second-most line-breaks (17) and tackle-breaks (105) behind Newcastle’s Akuila Uate. Fellow winger Jason Nightingale scored 10 tries and proved incredibly difficult to contain down the right flank, with a polished offloading game (17, second most) adding potency. Meanwhile Kyle Stanley’s speed and fresh vision will add another dimension to the Dragons’ attack. Anyone who thought they were one-trick ponies under Bennett and Boyd’s thrust will be proven incorrect.
5. They give nothing away
There’s nothing more disheartening for teams than an opposition that gives them nothing… no cheap penalties, dropped balls, missed tackles. And that’s the intense, disciplined unit the Dragons have been moulded into. Last year St George Illawarra committed the fewest errors (just 9.4 a game), missed just 30 tackles a match (second fewest), conceded the second-fewest line-breaks (2.9, to the Storm’s 2.8), and surrendered the second-fewest penalties (112, behind the Broncos’ 111). That last statistic in particular highlights the dramatic change under Bennett from the ‘bad boys’ image they used to project, with the whistle-blowers caning them accordingly. You can be sure the Saints’ halos won’t slip in the immediate future as Steve Price looks to build on their strong platform.