Season Preview: St George Illawarra Dragons

DID St George Illawarra underachieve in 2009 – or did they in fact overachieve and just fall back to the logical order of things come finals time? <br><br>Whether you are on the ‘chokers’ bandwagon or not, the fact is the Dragons showed they were capable of beating anyone in 2009… they just weren’t capable when it mattered most. And, at the end of the day, it is how you finish a season that counts. &nbsp;<br><br>So what of 2010? Will they learn from the error of their ways, or will the Red V be so scarred from the fall from grace that they become also-rans? <br><br>Worryingly, they have lost an Origin prop in Justin Poore, a dual international in Wendell Sailor and an up-and-coming Kiwi star in Chase Stanley – and the best signing they have mustered is probably injury-plagued prop Michael Greenfield from Souths. &nbsp;<br><br>Also, the Dragons still lack a real game-breaker. Someone with the potency of Billy Slater, Greg Inglis or Johnathan Thurston… but they have a coach who always brings the best out of individuals, so they cannot be discounted. They are, after all, the reigning minor premiers.<br><br><b>Their Keys To Success…</b> For the Dragons to stay near the summit they must continue playing the style of football that worked for them in the regular season last year. That is, an error-free, strangling style of completing their sets and setting a good platform. <br><br>Without the help of game-breakers this clinical approach will ensure they stay in games; also, it will frustrate less-disciplined teams into errors. From there the Dragons can put together some simple, offensive plays with decoy runners – and Bob’s your uncle. <br><br>However, if they really want to be successful they will need to add a bit more variety to the attack, particularly towards the end of the season, so they don’t appear predictable. When superior teams play predictably they leave themselves exposed to lesser sides who manage to play at the top of their game. This can spell disaster – as their 2009 finals series showed.<br><br><b>Expect Plenty From…</b> Trent Merrin. This 20-year-old is still very raw but the mere fact Wayne Bennett has him in contention to be part of the side shows he has great potential. When it comes to prop forwards, Bennett prefers older, wiser heads but Merrin has trained the house down in the off-season and will push hard for a regular spot in the bench in 2010. He is tough as nails for a youngster… even if his player profile does list ‘The Notebook’ as his favourite movie!<br><br><b>They’re Really Going To Miss…</b> Wendell Sailor. No, ‘Big Dell’ wasn’t the best player the Dragons have lost from their roster – that title probably goes to Origin forward Justin Poore. But the energy Wendell brought to the club cannot be underestimated. <br><br>Sailor shielded his team-mates from the media by hogging the limelight, and loving it, and he lifted his team-mates with his effervescent style on the field. While rugby league in general will miss this larger-than-life character, it will be felt most in the Dragons’ den. <br><br><b>Expect Plenty From…</b> Jason Nightingale. The unlucky man last season who languished on the bench or out of the team while Wendell and Brett Morris tore up the flanks will get his chance to prove why Sailor moved aside a season before he may have wanted to. <br><br>The Kiwi representative has the strangest and ugliest-looking running style in the NRL but he is deceptively elusive and could prove to be an impressive addition to the backline if he knuckles down and applies himself. <br><br>Considering he can make a Kiwi tour without playing much footy, it’s time to for Nightingale to live up to the hype. <br><br><b>Coach Watch…</b> If anyone doubted Wayne Bennett’s ability as a super coach, surely a minor premiership at a new club put those doubts to rest?&nbsp; Yes they bombed out of the finals last year but the improvement in the individuals mean the likelihood of Wayne Bennett not seeing out the remaining two years on his deal at the Dragons akin to Tiger Woods winning father of the year.<br><br><b>They’re All The Better For…</b> The fact only Brett Morris, Nathan Fien and Jason Nightingale went on the Four Nations tour. <br><br>The Dragons’ crash at the end of 2009 ensured they were basically snubbed at the selection table and, as such, they come into the season fresh and with very little injury concerns. Dean Young broke his arm late last year but will be ready to go, as will basically the entire roster. <br><br>There is an argument they’ll also be better for the pain suffered at season’s end… but this remains to be seen. It could go one of two ways: they are steeled to make sure ‘never again’… or they are scarred beyond repair.<br><br><b>Predicted Finish…</b> Somewhere between 3rd and 6th. It’s doubtful the Dragons will dominate the regular season like they did in 2009 but if they play a similar style they’ll certainly win more than enough games to be in the finals. However, they may battle to gain a home final.<br><br><i>Toyota Cup…</i> The Dragons’ under-20s have a new coach in former Origin player and current Papua New Guinea mentor Adrian Lam and are hopeful of doing better than last year’s third-place finish. <br><br>The side will be led by 2009 Toyota Cup Player of the Year Beau Henry in the halves and have some exciting prospects including hooker Mitchell Rein, five-eighth Kyle Stanley, prop Tom Hancock, former Australian Schoolboys captain Cameron King, exciting winger Kalifa Faifai-Loa and fullback Chris Astill. <br>