Dragons great Mark Coyne has labelled upcoming games against Wests Tigers and Melbourne as make or break for defending premiers St George Illawarra as a ‘crisis of confidence’ threatens to derail their season.
Coyne and former team-mate Lance Thompson remain among a number of club legends backing the Dragons to recover from shock losses to Canberra and South Sydney over the past fortnight and launch another premiership assault in 2011.
But having slipped to fifth on the NRL ladder over the past month and with tough games against the Tigers, Storm and Warriors still to come, Coyne pointed to a lack of self-belief as the club’s greatest enemy and said they couldn’t afford another lapse in concentration against a resurgent Tigers outfit this Friday night.
“Finishing in the top four is crucial because, hopefully, it gives you two bites of the cherry but I think more importantly we know that St George has traditionally been a bit of a confidence team,” he told NRL.com in the wake of Sunday’s remarkable 34-24 loss to Souths.
“They wobbled [in 2009] before the finals and bowed out and I’m sure that they don’t want to be going into another finals series lacking confidence.
“So I think that these two games (against the Tigers and Storm) are going to be really critical. If they can knock over the Tigers and put in a good showing against Melbourne as well they can head into the finals full of confidence.”
Although Coyne is adamant that the Dragons will bounce back this weekend, he admitted that there were some concerns about the side’s defence in recent weeks with the premiers leaking 58 points over the past fortnight.
Tellingly, having conceded an average of just 844 metres up the middle of the ground through the first 17 rounds they have seen opposing forward packs up the ante to 901 metres per game over the past four weeks.
“That’s the main concern for St George Illawarra, that they’ve been leaking a fair amount of points the past few weeks which is something they haven’t done for a number of years now,” he said.
“I think you’d have to question their favouritism now. There are really four teams – Brisbane, Manly, St George Illawarra and Melbourne are the four that I think can win the comp but that defence is something the Dragons need to get right if they are going to come back into favouritism.”
Coyne’s opinion is backed by former Panthers star and now expert analyst Greg Alexander who believes that although St George Illawarra aren’t in crisis mode just yet, a loss to the Tigers could well see them on the precipice.
“It’s a massive game for them on Friday because if they turn two losses into three then there might be some real doubt in the players’ minds,” Alexander said.
“That’s what could trouble them in the end – if they start doubting themselves.
“We saw a strange incident against Canberra when Jamie Soward took a shot at field-goal with 20 minutes to go and I suppose out of anything that’s happened the past two weeks that might just be one of those little things that has cast a bit of a doubt in people’s minds because they questioned themselves a long time before the final whistle.”
Despite the cracks that have appeared in recent weeks – with three losses from their past four games – the Dragons are still tipped to feature prominently come September with former back-rower Thompson insisting there was no cause for concern.
“I just think they’ve been side-tracked by the representative stuff but I have no doubt they’re ready to get back on track,” Thompson said.
“There is just too much quality there and I’m sure Wayne [Bennett] knows exactly what to do. I also think that people have failed to give the other teams (Canberra and Souths) enough credit the past few weeks. They keep focusing on the Dragons but nobody has spoken about the teams they played against. Watching that Canberra game I think any other team would have fallen to the same fate.”
Coyne said the impact of Origin had hit the Dragons later than expected but anticipates better days ahead as the club gets closer to fielding its best squad following recent injury concerns.
“I don’t think it’s a major concern just yet,” he said.
“I think they’ve had a pretty heavy few weeks of training as part of the cycle they go through but I’m still pretty positive about their hopes. They’ll bounce back.
“They’ve had a tough run and a few injuries. They’re still trying to get that rhythm back but I think they’ll be better come Friday night despite the short turnaround. I think they’ll show a bit more of what we’re used to with their defence.”