ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA - 2009 Season Preview

<p>ONE of the great subplots of season 2009 – thanks entirely to their new coach. </p><p> Wayne Bennett joins the famous Red V, a club that hasn’t tasted premiership success at all as a merged entity and not since 1979 before that.</p><p> Can the supercoach, a six-time premiership winner, lift this underachieving side to the summit? Or will he join a long list of mentors who have tried and failed? </p><p> Unfortunately for Bennett, he arrives after the glory years of the Barretts, Gasniers and Ryleses. He needs to get it done without as much glamour, although the likes of Matt Cooper, Dean Young and Ben Creagh are still around and they are now joined by some proven premiership winners like Jeremy Smith, Luke Priddis and Darius Boyd.</p><p> Just how good is Wayne Bennett? If you weren’t convinced by his Brisbane record, his Origin record or even his involvement in New Zealand’s World Cup triumph, then you’re about to find out.</p><p> <strong>How They’ll Play It</strong></p> Assuming they listen to their coach, the Dragons will play disciplined footy. They will focus on their strengths and burrow in on opposition weakness in a methodical way, eventually breaking them down. </p><p> Defensively they’ll bring a hard edge – one that has been missing for a while. While the Dragons were one of the NRL’s best at conceding fewest points last year they didn’t bend anyone backwards, something they’ll look to rectify. </p><p> On the back of that, the backs will see plenty of expansive ball, so it could be a banner year for the likes of Matt Cooper. It may take a few rounds for the Dragons to click offensively (although they looked awesome in their opening two trial games), but when they do, expect them to be controlled and concise.</p><p> <strong>Keep An Eye On</strong></p> Mathew Head. If anyone can get the best out of ‘Heady’ it will be Bennett.</p><p> A local junior, Head had to leave, go to the UK and the Wests Tigers after his lack of confidence drained his form, but now he returns ‘home’. His poor headspace came off the back of major knee injuries, with Head losing his ability to take on the line, making his play much more predictable. </p><p> But we’re told he has fully recovered and if Bennett can resurrect his mental game, Head is the type of halfback who can dominate matches all year. A coach in the making, Head thinks two steps ahead of everyone else, and if he can get his body to do what the mind tells him, the Dragons will breathe fire. </p><p> That said, Head already has a battle on his hands just to get a first grade jersey, with Ben Hornby and Jamie Soward also amongst contenders for the number seven.</p><p> <strong>They’ll Really Miss</strong></p> Mark Gasnier. As much as the league world has a bitter taste in their mouths following his defection to rugby union in Europe, Gasnier was a world-class match winner.</p><p> Sometimes in the NRL games come down to one moment of brilliance – and Gasnier was the man who could crack a defence wide open when nothing seemed possible. None of their new signings have the same natural ability.</p><p> <strong>It’s Time To Stand Up</strong></p> The Dragons’ props will need to get the job done if the side is to have a real shot at glory. With Jason Ryles now gone the responsibility falls to the likes of Justin Poore, Dan Hunt and Michael Weyman to stampede through defences and get the necessary hard yards. </p><p> Poore found form last season before injury ended his year early so it will be interesting to see if he can maintain the rage. Hunt has had his time on the periphery and needs to be a regular contributor, while Weyman has finally outgrown the ‘potential superstar’ tag he has carried for years due to injury after injury after suspension. </p><p> The former Raiders prodigy has failed to deliver on the promise he showed as an Australian Schoolboy and now time is well and truly up. Weyman won’t even be talked about as someone with former potential if he continues to offer up nothing in the way of first grade football. </p><p> Other prop options include Ricky Thorby, Alex Ranieri and Jarrod Saffy.</p><p> <strong>Coach Watch</strong></p> The chances of Wayne Bennett being asked to move on before his three-year contract is up is akin to Barack Obama being sacked and George W Bush being invited back to the White House.</p><p> Bennett will be given time to stamp his authority on his new club and it’s in the players’ interests to take to his word like gospel. </p><p> The messiah of coaches will rid the Red V of any soft underbelly. Bennett is a proven winner and while he has rubbed some the wrong way over the years, you can’t argue with his results. Six premierships and multiple finals campaigns speak for themselves. </p><p> <strong>They’re All The Better For</strong></p> Wayne Bennett. See Above. The recruitment of Jeremy Smith might prove astute, too, as the tough second-rower is now used to success and knows how hard to work for it. He is also full of confidence having recently been crowned New Zealand’s best from 2008, no mean feat in a World Cup-winning year. </p><p> Other big-name recruits include Darius Boyd, Luke Priddis, Neville Costigan and Michael Weyman.</p><p> <strong>Predicted Finish</strong></p> It really is a mystery. The Dragons were seventh after the regular season last year before bombing out of the finals and now they are without Gasnier and Ryles. </p><p> But the power of Bennett can’t be underestimated and with some ‘injury luck’, the Dragons are a shot at the finals.</p><p> Their best football as a group might not be this season, but they are a chance of some success. Between 7th and 10th.</p><p> <strong>Under-20s</strong></p> Last season the Dragons finished just a game short of the grand final in the Toyota Cup but it will be interesting to see if the success continues in the Bennett era. </p><p> Bennett has liked his up-and-coming youngsters to play grade football in the past rather than age football, so just how strong the Dragons will be is up in the air. </p><p> Of their top 25 NRL squad, only Chase Stanley is eligible to play Toyota Cup. </p><p> <strong>New Breed</strong></p> His support play and anticipation are strong. His coach thinks the boy’s singing prowess, good enough to earn him an extended stay on Australian Idol. Only eventually does the coach concede that if boom fullback Henry Raiwalui, the footballer, keeps working hard and avoids getting ahead of himself, “there’s no limit for him”.</p><p> Keep an eye out for more on Henry Raiwalui when NRL.com brings you New Breed profiles in the coming weeks.</p>