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THE Dragons have a new ‘chokers’ tag to wear in 2011 – but it’s one they are proud of and only too happy to acknowledge.

On their way to achieving a breakthrough NRL premiership last year the red-and-whites forged a reputation as the undisputed champions at choking the life out of their opponents with mistake-free go-forward. From that platform they were able to turn to a devastating left-edge attack that was seemingly unstoppable all season.   

With the premiership monkey off their back the Dragons can now look forward to settling into a groove and continuing to dominate the NRL. As coach Wayne Bennett said after his side powered through impressive trial wins over the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs, then won the World Club Challenge in Wigan, his charges are no longer looking over their shoulders for the detractors. A premiership has brought them untold confidence and now they can simply concentrate on playing football.

Mark Gasnier has the benefit of a full off-season of training and has bulked up for what fans hope will be a stellar year. And Nathan Fien will be hoping 2011 proves kinder than 2010, when a badly broken ankle in Round 1 saw him miss the majority of the season and return just a month before the finals.

The Dragons retain great continuity on the field, although with success comes the bite of salary cap pressures. Dynamic forwards Neville Costigan and Jeremy Smith have left the lair for bigger pay cheques, leaving depth in the forwards the only query out Kogarah way.

How They’ll Play It… Steady as she goes. Their premiership was forged on discipline and self-belief.

Intensity was also a factor – Bennett’s astute use of the interchange bench ensured that the new guy taking the field pretty much immediately matched the impact of the player he was replacing.

It will be interesting to see how Bennett sets about balancing their attack. Last year they attacked left at almost every opportunity. To do so again would mean shutting out more involvement from Mark Gasnier – like that’s going to happen!

Expect Plenty From… Nathan Fien. The Kiwi was a standout towards the end of the season playing off the bench as a second hooker (tallying five try assists from just nine games). But Fien is versatile enough to fill other roles including halfback or even five-eighth if needed. His timely guidance will take the pressure off playmakers Boyd, Hornby and Soward.

They’re Going To Really Miss… Neville Costigan and Jeremy Smith in particular, although Jarrod Saffy’s back-up and Luke Priddis’ experience will also be missed.

Costigan (10 runs and 19 tackles) and Smith (more than an offload a game) were fierce competitors who backed down to no-one. They each contributed hugely in their 49-minute stints per game in 2010 and will not be easily replaced.

On the plus side the Dragons welcome back prop Dan Hunt, who missed the final 20 games of last season with an Achilles injury. Opportunities now open up for the likes of Trent Merrin (averaged 81 metres in 2010), Nick Emmett (34 metres) and Jon Green (70 metres) to further forge their careers.

Time To Stand Up… Mark Gasnier. The Dragons have invested a lot of cash in Gasnier over the next three years and after a quiet reintroduction to the NRL midway through last season, they’ll be expecting him to return to the type of form that had him considered the best centre in the world. The truth is he would probably struggle to get into the NSW side based on last year’s form (just three line-breaks in 12 games). But after bulking up several kilograms to a whopping 99kg expect Gasnier to make more of his trademark shimmying runs and busts from dummy-half down the right edge, where Jason Nightingale will be eagerly awaiting the spoils.

In the pack Adam Cuthbertson has been thrown what must surely be his last lifeline after being left to play park footy while at the Sharks last year. Cuthbertson, a grand final squad member at the Sea Eagles in 2007, has a share of size and skill but poor ball control and a questionable fitness/work ethic have hounded him over the past few years. If indeed he has what it takes to make a first grade footballer, you can bet coach Bennett is the man to make it happen.

Coach Watch… Wayne Bennett’s job at St George Illawarra is his for as long as he wants it – which is a bit of a sticking point for the Dragons, as no-one is exactly sure if Bennett wants to hang around beyond this season.

The coach is adamant he is under no pressure to make an announcement about his plans post-2011 any time soon… but you can bet Dragons management will be wanting some certainty one way or the other early in the season. Say, by Round 5.

In any event, word is the Dragons camp are preparing for the “worst”.

They’ll Be Boosted By… The return from injury of former Wests Tigers winger Ratu (formerly Peni) Tagive. The 189cm, 98kg winger joined the Dragons last year but was injured in the pre-season. He’s looked sharp during the trials and will give the Dragons some much-needed depth in the outside backs come the representative season when they’ll be without Boyd, Morris and Gasnier (at the very least).

Predicted Finish … 1st. Recent premiers have made a habit of sticking around the top of the ladder the following year. Even though they were stripped of their competition points and premierships last year the Storm were still a force. Before them the Sea Eagles were, and still are, high-end performers. Ditto the Broncos. With minimal disruption the Dragons are sensible favourites to win their third consecutive minor premiership. From there they will again be terribly hard to beat for the title.

Under-20s… Following the heartbreaking pectoral injury sustained by Cameron King in the Dragons’ World Club Challenge win, the under-20s hooking role will be keenly contested between Shellharbour products Daniel Burke and Todd Ryan.

Coach Adrian Lam will be thrilled at the maturity in his side’s pack, with props Jarred Thompson and Jack Stockwell now entering their third year in the Toyota Cup. With second-rower Alex McKinnon and halfback Scott Rosser also backing up for a hat-trick of seasons Lam is confident the junior Dragons will leave their mark in 2011.

Gains… Adam Cuthbertson (Sharks), David Gower (Tigers), Daniel Penese (Panthers).

Losses… Neville Costigan (Knights), Beau Henry (Knights), Kalifa Faifai Loa (Cowboys), Michael Lett (Bulldogs), Junior Paulo (Panthers), Luke Priddis (retired), Jarrod Saffy (Melbourne Rebels), Jeremy Smith (Sharks), Ricky Thorby (Cowboys), Joe Vickery (Titans).