Home Record: 8 wins, 4 losses (= 6th)
Away Record: 6 wins, 5 losses, 1 draw (4th)
Final Position: 6th
Longest Winning Streak: 9 (Rounds 3-12)
Longest Losing Streak: 5 (Rounds 20-24)
Players Used: 28 (equal 11th most)
Player of the Year: Yet to be announced
Tries Scored: (After 26 rounds): 83 (8th)
Tries Conceded: (After 26 rounds): 60 (second fewest)
The three-year Wayne Bennett stint is over and it ends with three trips to the finals, two minor premierships and one premiership… pretty decent return. Those who are a little greedy might have expected a little more… with the pain of exits in 2009 and this season still a little fresh.
But the truth is Bennett came, saw and conquered for St George Illawarra.
If you look at the Dragons’ 2011 season on paper it appears the tale of two halves. The reigning premiers looked like world beaters in the opening rounds – in fact they had indeed claimed the World Club Challenge over Wigan in the pre-season – and most people thought back-to-back premierships were almost a lay-down misere. One bookmaker even paid out on the Dragons being minor premiers before the halfway point of the season, in a bid to lure more business to a new market without the Red V involved!
They won 10 of their opening 11 games, including a nine-game run, but then the onset of the Origin period crippled the side. From that point they mostly looked tired and won just four more games all season, including two straight finals losses.
But their last loss, against the Broncos, was one of the best games they ever played under Bennett and typified the courage and style he injected into the side… the defence was above first class and it took an Immortal in waiting to kill them off.
Where They Excelled: The Dragons lost their title as the best defensive team in the NRL to Melbourne but when they were on their game it could still be argued they were without peer. Over the course of the season they averaged 14 points against them a game, the third best record in the NRL.
Their defensive effort in the finals against Brisbane was one of the best ever seen – they repelled wave after wave of attack and despite having extremely limited field position almost pulled the game from the fire at the death, only to be eliminated by a Darren Lockyer golden-point field-goal.
The side again had among the deadliest left-sideline attacks, with 25 tries scored out wide where Matt Cooper and Brett Morris hung out. The side also averaged the most metres per game in the NRL (at 1427) and contributed the fewest errors in the competition at just 9.4 a game. They were also in the top three in the league in line-breaks (4.5), offloads (13.4), line-breaks conceded (2.9) and fewest missed tackles (30.2).
Where They Struggled: The 2010 premiers had issues stopping other teams making metres and were in fact ranked 13th in the league for average metres conceded with 1379.8 a match. It was their biggest statistical weakness and ensured teams tried to attack them through the ruck often.
Obviously the team also struggled maintaining their best for a full 80 minutes in the back half of the year and were run down in countless matches. At one stage they lost in the dying stages against the Raiders, Tigers and Rabbitohs in succession.
Missing In Action: Injuries were not an excuse. Quite a few Red V big names missed two or three games with injuries, but when the finals came around they were at full strength. Dean Young battled his chronic knee issues all year, Beau Scott had a spleen problem from Origin, Ben Hornby missed a few matches… but nothing major.
Turning Point: In Round 13 the Dragons came up against the Eels who were struggling. The Dragons were on the back of nine straight wins – a club record streak – and the Origin series had begun. Signs of fatigue began to show as Darius Boyd, Brett Morris, Mark Gasnier, Jamie Soward, Dean Young, Beau Scott, Ben Creagh and Trent Merrin all spent some time amongst the series. Having started the year with the trip to England and playing at such a high standard for so long… the dam wall broke. The game ended in a golden-point draw and from there their season soured. The team won only twice in the next 10 games and while they rebounded to win the final two regular season games, they had dropped to fifth and faced a tough finals assignment.
Best Games: The final match against the Broncos was a brilliant performance by the Dragons but it ended up being their last, defeated 13-12 in golden point. They were forced to defend their line over again and kept coming up trumps but couldn’t get quality field position of their own despite completing at a very high level. It’s fair to say the Broncos would have blown other sides in the competition away that night…
The Round 16 game against the Sea Eagles was another important victory. It came after three winless weeks early in the poor period of the year, but the renowned Dragons’ defence turned up and strangled the high-flying Eagles. The 24-6 result was a statement they could still pull it out when needed.
The side also took pride in the Round 6 win over the Rabbitohs and the Round 8 win against the Eels – both in which they kept the opposition scoreless. They put 16 on the Rabbits and 30 on the Eels without reply, a huge accomplishment in the modern game.
Worst Games: Actually, many of the Dragons’ losses weren’t poor games. They were just beaten at the death when fatigue kicked in. However, there were a few stinkers they’d like back. In Round 2 they allowed the Sharks to take them down 16-10, a game they trailed 16-0 in until late in the match. After that they played very poorly in Round 21 against the Rabbitohs (24-34) and Round 23 against the Roosters (12-20) – both at home. The Rabbitohs game was one completely out of character. The side was on fire early and sped out to an early 18-nil lead… it looked as if they’d lap them. But they lost all discipline and allowed one of the greatest comebacks in South Sydney history.
Against the Roosters they never looked winning against a side that had been decimated by the loss of high-profile players through discipline issues and was having a stinker of a season.
Hold Your Head High: It was a big year for centre Matt Cooper as he showed some attacking fire and pumped out 19 line-breaks in the regular season as well as 14 tries. He also helped Brett Morris out a lot on the left side – Morris made 17 line-breaks and crossed for 10 tries.
The props Dan Hunt, Michael Weyman and Trent Merrin were often dominant and right winger Jason Nightingale looked every bit a Test star.
Young back-up hooker Mitch Rein also came of age after being thrust into the top grade. Captain Ben Hornby remained the rock keeping the side together – not flash but extremely important.
Dragons hooker Dean Young says: “I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s been the three best years of my life, football-wise. It (the Bennett era) finishes now and a new one starts. We’ve still got a lot of players here next year, but in terms of Wayne moving on and a couple of players moving on, we'll enjoy each other’s company over the next few days because it has been a wonderful three years together. We achieved a lot and came so close again.”
Conclusion: The Dragons didn’t win another one for the ‘true believers’ but those exact fans should reflect on the year and remain somewhat content. They didn’t win it all, but they remained a team to be proud of, showcased in their final match. Whether they can continue the rage without the supercoach and Darius Boyd, who move on to Newcastle remains to be seen. Of course Mark Gasnier has also retired. New coach Steve Price will have his work cut out for him.