Gains: Chase Stanley (Storm), Will Matthews (Titans), Jeremy Latimore (Warriors), Reece Simmonds (Wests Illawarra – mid-season), Leeson Ah Mau (Cowboys), Daniel Vidot (Raiders), Josh Miller (Raiders), Atelea Vea (Storm), Denan Kemp (rugby union), Ray Cashmere (Salford).
Losses: Darius Boyd (Knights), Jack Bosden (Roosters), Jon Green (Sharks), Mark Gasnier (retired), Peni Tagive (Roosters), Alex McKinnon (Knights), Adam Cuthbertson (Knights).
He came, he saw and he conquered. But now the post-Wayne Bennett era begins at the Dragons, with the time for basking in the super-coach’s glory well and truly over. It’s done… dusted… history.
Former assistant coach Steve Price arrives at the helm with plenty of knockers already prepared to suggest the club is headed for a down-cycle. But having learned under Bennett for the past few seasons Price appears ready for his own shot at glory… and the thing with new coaches is you never really know until you see them in action. Price could be the next Craig Coleman of coaching circles… or he could be the next Bennett – the reality is we’ll just have to wait and see.
One thing is known by the playing roster – he is a great guy and is sneakily funny. Hopefully the stresses of being a head coach don’t steal his sense of humour.
He’ll have to find a way to keep the Dragons firing despite the fact they have lost some significant potency in attack. Mark Gasnier and Darius Boyd no longer cut a swathe through their backline and for a team not necessarily known for piling on the points, the loss of game-breakers could be a killer blow. Still, while the players coming in aren’t really massive names, they will be good for depth.
The side finished the Bennett era with a heartbreaking loss in the finals to the Broncos. Can they get back into contention in 2012? It might be tough…
How They’ll Play It: Under Bennett, the focus was defence – and there is no reason to suggest Price won’t continue a similar mantra, particularly as the side has lost some of their better attacking weapons. The Dragons will look to frustrate teams into errors by playing mistake-free ‘boring’ football. They will just try to choke the life out of the opposition slowly and surely, and hope the likes of Jamie Soward and up-and-coming star Kyle Stanley, plus veteran Matt Cooper, can manufacture enough points to keep them in front.
Last year the Dragons were ranked eighth in attack… if they fall any lower it could be a bridge too far for any defence. The problem will come when other teams manage to get ahead early. Can the Dragons maintain their game plan and focus without the Bennett factor? Players often talk about his aura, how he makes you believe anything is possible… will the Dragons players who are down by 12 at halftime get the same confidence from Price? Or will they start chasing points – a sure-fire recipe for disaster even if sometimes it works.
Expect HUGE Things From: Kyle Stanley. He has had a taste of first grade over the past few seasons and has never appeared out of depth. Usually used as a fill-in centre or winger, or as a bench player, now he’ll be a focal point in the Dragons’ backline – and he could well be a breakout star. At just 20 years of age he will be handed the responsibility of filling in for Clive Churchill Medal winner Darius Boyd at fullback. As a local St George junior the fans will have no trouble getting behind the kid. Stanley has pace, plus the skill of a five-eighth – the perfect mould for the modern-day fullback. And he has already earned the respect of NSW coach Ricky Stuart to be part of the emerging Origin squad. He might take some time to find his feet but if he can adjust to the positioning and learn how to take a high ball comfortably, the Dragons are set to prosper.
Bonus Points: The Dragons’ prop forward rotation looks as good as any should the boys all stay fit. With Michael Weyman basking in great form and Trent Merrin and Dan Hunt becoming serious bookends in recent years the Dragons are well stocked up front. Last year Weyman averaged 82.2 metres and 27.5 tackles, Merrin 113.6 metres, 25.9 tackles and Hunt 97.4 metres and 25.2 tackles. Weyman’s metres might be below his mates but his work is generally all quality and done on early tackles when the defence is ready. With Ben Creagh, Matt Prior, Dean Young and perhaps Beau Scott (if he doesn’t play centre) also in the pack the Dragons still have plenty of grunt.
They’re Really Going To Miss: The game-breaking skills of Mark Gasnier and the loss of Bennett will be the biggest holes in the Dragons’ line-up in 2012. The one thing Gasnier provided the side above anything else was the ability to crack a game, at any given moment, on the back of his skill alone. Without this the onus will be left to others, particularly halves Ben Hornby and Jamie Soward. Soward turned into a stunning player under Bennett but now Bennett is gone (to mentor a direct rival in Jarrod Mullen no less). If other NRL teams find a way to contain the Dragons’ attack and penetrate their solid defence then who will stand up and crack a game open for the Red V? Can someone else consistently stand and deliver? Brett Morris, maybe… but too much pressure spread too thin is never good.
It’s Time To Deliver: The reality of the Dragons’ impressive three-year campaign under Bennett is they never had to struggle through with an underperforming player on a regular basis. The whole Bennett system involves every man working together for the common goal; and the players did that to perfection. So for the Dragons it is more about continuing to deliver. The likes of Soward, Creagh, Hunt, Weyman, Hornby and Scott, among others, arguably played at career-high levels over the past few seasons. If the Red V are to continue to be a premiership force these players will need to maintain their lofty standards. Otherwise the dreaded tag of ‘under-achievers’ could rear its ugly head.
How’s Their Depth: The Dragons’ depth is actually pretty good in patches. They’ve struck some potentially clever buys in the forwards in Ray Cashmere, Leeson Ah Mau, Will Matthews, Jeremy Latimore and Atelea Vea, ensuring competent bench players and back-ups if need be. And Toyota Cup Player of the Year Jack De Belin looks set to stamp his class in the top grade.
The unit might end up a little skinny in the backs though, should major injuries hit. Chase Stanley returns as a centre option and the likes of Bronx Goodwin and Daniel Vidot are also sniffing around in the outside backs, plus Denan Kemp, so there are positives. A sensible option would be Beau Scott at centre if need be, and Jason Nightingale could shift to fullback if Stanley is hurt or is needed as a back-up in the halves. And of course, the ever-reliable and versatile Nathan Fien can play in the halves also. Not forgetting the Illawarra and South Coast regions always provide great youth.
Under-20s: New coach Justin Holbrook joins the Dragons’ coaching staff after two premierships with the Bulldogs in the NSW Cup. He is hoping to bring success to the baby Dragons, who have missed the finals for the past two years.
“We’re very hopeful of a good year and I hope some of our guys kick on to the top grade,” Holbrook told NRL.com. “Hopefully I can bring some of the success I’ve had down here. Coaching under-20s is great because the boys are very enthusiastic about everything they do and this group here has been great in the pre-season.”
Keep an eye on forwards Jack Buchanan and Kem Seru, guys who could do some serious damage up front. And as far as speedsters go, you might see Yaw Kiti Glymin cross the stripe on the wing more often than not.
The Coach: Steve Price enters the top grade with huge boots to fill – in fact the biggest coaching boots the game has ever seen. The good news is he has served some time under Bennett so he knows the tricks. But he is young and still green.
Predicted Finish: The Dragons appear set for a middle-of-the-road season. If they make the top eight it will be an excellent effort – but with so many other NRL teams full of so much promise, we get the feeling Red V fans may need to brace for a letdown. Semi-finals are the goal, but we think 9th to 11th is where the dust will settle.
Toyota NRL Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The value pick: Kyle Stanley has been anointed Darius Boyd's successor at the back and is good value for a No.1.
The big gun: Jamie Soward's kicking game and goalkicking prowess makes him a very handy Toyota Dream Team half.