Season review: St George Illawarra Dragons
Home Record: 9 wins, 3 losses (=1st)
Away Record: 2 wins, 10 losses (=15th)
Longest Winning Streak: 2 (Rounds 3-4, 7-8, 25-26)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Rounds 9-11, 22-24)
Players Used: 29
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 74
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 75
Come on. Be honest Dragons fans. In the final wash-up, isn’t this exactly where you thought the team might end up? Wayne Bennett was gone. The team was beginning to age a little. Most fair dinkum judges saw the Red V finishing somewhere between seventh and 10th and in the end they finished up a win (and some differential) outside the finals.
There was some early false hope when the side won three of the opening four games and those writing them off, as well as rookie coach Steve Price, were starting to re-think things. But the next seven rounds produced just two wins to leave the side fighting against the tide. They fell outside the top eight after Round 10 and never returned.
The Dragons continued their reputation as a solid defending unit but couldn’t score points; the flow-on effect saw Jamie Soward lose his representative jumpers and start plenty of rumours about his future at the club. Club captain Ben Hornby, Soward’s halves partner, decided late in the year enough was enough and decided to join Dean Young headed for retirement. The side never put three wins together and only went back to back three times all season, emphasising their struggle for consistency.
They made a late play for the finals with wins over the Sharks and Storm in Rounds 19 and 21 before three straight losses put paid to their late flurry.
It was sad to see the side put together their best attacking displays in the final two rounds when it meant nothing other than sending out the club legends in style.
The Red V called on 29 players in 2012 – only Penrith used more. While some call-ups were bloodings they didn’t really produce dividends and it will be interesting to see if the young brigade can handle the next phase the Dragons are moving into. Experience will remain, with premiership players such as Matt Cooper, Ben Creagh, Brett Morris, Michael Weyman, Trent Merrin and Jason Nightingale, but more will be needed from players including the Stanley brothers, Cameron King and Jack Stockwell.
Jack De Belin and Mitch Rein were the pick of the new wave and certainly established themselves as potential long-term stars.
Along with the departures of Hornby and Young the side will also be hit by the loss of Beau Scott to Newcastle.
Coach Price will need to find a way to get the side firing early or face speculation on his future. His second year could be his last if he can’t get more out of the players.
We here at NRL.com don’t pretend to know the inner workings of a club more than those inside it, but it was disappointing to see Price shackle his ‘real’ personality when he took over the reins. Price is a fun young coach, a quick-witted guy who could’ve been a real breath of fresh air in the coaching ranks. He may still be like this with his players – but the persona he put forward through the media was anything but. Respected league writer Brad Walter of The Sydney Morning Herald pointed out quite cleverly that Price wasn’t really taking from the Wayne Bennett textbook, but more the Steve Folkes one. Folkes was Price’s second in charge and watching Price in press conferences was like going back to the gruff Folkes era at the Bulldogs. It seemed like they wanted to create an ‘us versus-them’ mentality… it certainly wasn’t necessary.
Where They Excelled… It was still all about defence. The side averaged just 18.2 points conceded a match over the regular season, ranking them fourth in the NRL. It wasn’t as good as their outstanding premiership year but it was still hard for opposing teams to crack the red wall. The great, countering shame though was the other teams didn’t need to score many points to secure a win. If opponents got to 18 points they were pretty much on the way to victory… only twice did an opposing team score at least 18 and lose to the Dragons. (On occasions sides didn’t even need 18 points to win: Penrith won with 13, the Sharks 12.)
Also in the ‘strengths’ ledger, the side had the equal-best home record with nine wins at their home venues. They were fourth in the NRL at average metres gained, third in the NRL at offloads with 12 a game, second in the NRL for fewest line-breaks conceded, and fourth best at offloads conceded and missed tackles. It just didn’t translate into success. Also, they ranked second in the NRL at scoring tries from dummy-half… you can bet Mitch Rein will be a marked man in future.
Where They Struggled… As stated above, the Dragons couldn’t figure out how to get the Steeden across the try line. It was near painful to watch, particularly as Price had spruiked about taking the shackles off the attack during pre-season talk. But the Dragons couldn’t attack their way out of a wet paper bag. They ranked dead last in the NRL, averaging just 16.9 points a game. Three times the side was beaten when kept to just one try and on another occasion the Sharks kept them scoreless.
The other big problem area for the Dragons was their inability to travel. If you win nine games at home, usually you are easily on your way to the finals… but not if you win just two of 12 away games! And those two games came in the very first and last rounds of the competition, both against teams who didn’t make the finals – one of whom were wooden spooners!
While the side was defensively good, their right-edge defence had issues, letting opposition teams score on the left edge too often (36 times compared to 26 on the other side of the field). If this is what life is like for them post-Mark Gasnier then there are worrying times ahead.
Missing In Action… The Dragons used plenty of players due to a handful of injuries, suspensions and poor form but the biggest hole in the squad was no doubt the loss of prop Michael Weyman. The big bopper had plenty of guys supporting him, namely Trent Merrin and Dan Hunt, but his impact on the Dragons was huge. He played just 10 games before succumbing to a season-ending knee injury. And it came in a very telling loss, a golden-point struggle against lowly Penrith. Others to miss games included: Kyle Stanley and Beau Scott, who each played 14; Matt Cooper and Nathan Fien who played 15; while Matt Prior played just 17 games after earning an enforced ‘holiday’ for a late hit on Johnathan Thurston in Round 9.
Turning Point… The loss of Michael Weyman eroded the Dragons’ chances. It came against the Panthers in Round 10, a dismal game won 13-12 by Penrith in golden point. Having been belted by the Cowboys the week before and losing Prior to suspension, the blow came at an awful time. When they were bested by the Rabbitohs by a single point in Round 11, the tide had well and truly turned on the club and from there they struggled to keep their heads above water. They barely beat the Eels the following week then didn’t win again until Round 16.
Best Games… The Dragons finally opened up in attack in the last two games of the year, beating the Warriors 38-6 and the Eels 29-8 – but it was obviously too little, too late.
The 26-18 victory over the Storm in Round 21 was a nice one for the fans and the early season wins against Newcastle, the Wests Tigers and Manly were great.
But by far their most exciting contest was the Anzac Day clash with the Roosters when they prevailed 28-24. As has come to be the case with games on this big day the teams produced a classic, with the Dragons somehow coming from the death to score twice late and steal the win. (Do yourself a favour and find it in the video vault here on nrl.com and watch it. The turning points come thick and fast in a cracker of a game.)
Worst Games… There are plenty. But the two really horrible games for the Dragons were a 12-0 loss to fierce rivals Cronulla in Round 6 and the golden point 13-12 loss to the Panthers.
The Sharks were a good unit in 2012 and it’s true the Dragons went close to scoring a few times, including what may have been a crucial try late in the game that was somehow disallowed by video referee Russell Smith, but however you slice it, to be kept scoreless by the Sharks is not acceptable in Dragons country.
The Panthers game was a stinker for both sides and it was almost cruel the game went into extra time. Both teams made countless errors and the Dragons conceded two very soft tries on their try line. It took 65 minutes for the Red V to score and while they tied up the contest late in proceedings they couldn’t stop a wobbly Lachlan Coote field goal in extra time.
Hold Your Head High… Mitch Rein had a breakout season and will be one to watch in the future, while Brett Morris had his moments both on the wing and during some of his stint at fullback – although it was good to see him firing back on the flank in the back end of the year. Also, Jason Nightingale tried his guts out as usual.
Coach Steve Price says: “We had some really great performances and were rarely belted and we competed in every game. But in saying that, we have a lot of work to do on our offence for next year but I’m sure we can overcome it.
“It was important that we finished the year with two good wins to give us some confidence rolling into the next pre-season so we can hit the ground running. It wasn’t the year we wanted but we have some exciting young stars coming through.
“The retiring guys have left the club in great shape and it’s important the young guys carry the values they had forward.”
Conclusion… While their season was disappointing considering the lack of attack and their inability to win on the road, the Dragons still pretty much finished around the mark expected by many. The problem for the Red V is the slide doesn’t appear likely to stop just yet. The club will go into 2013 without an established halves pairing and talk is Kyle Stanley will be asked to step up. He’ll need to play like Adam Reynolds did this season for Souths to lift the Dragons back into the finals. Also, Gerard Beale is on the way from Brisbane… a good player – but hardly the headline star this team needs.
* Statistics: NRL Stats