Gains: Gerard Beale (Broncos), Bronson Harrison (Raiders), Tyson Frizell (Sharks), Josh Drinkwater (Sea Eagles), Michael Henderson (Titans).
Losses: Ben Hornby, Dean Young and Josh Miller (retired), Beau Scott (Knights), Jeremy Latimore (Panthers), Jack Buchanan (Wests Tigers), Ben Musulino (Sea Eagles), David Gower (Sea Eagles).
Is it really two full seasons since the Red V hoisted the Telstra Premiership trophy for the first time? It seems like yesterday – although the sobering reality for fans gearing up for 2013 is it could be a long, hard road to the next title given the continued dilution of the side that saluted in 2010.
Under rookie coach Steve Price and without the likes of Mark Gasnier, Darius Boyd and Adam Cuthbertson, St George Illawarra spluttered miserably for most of 2012 – missing the top eight for only the second time in 10 years and the first time since 2007.
Worryingly, they head into 2013 with another triple-whammy talent drain, missing the collective 482 games of experience from retired duo Ben Hornby and Dean Young, plus the creativity and authority of New South Wales back-rower Beau Scott. Throw in another extended injury to backline star Kyle Stanley and a nagging doubt about the ability to cover for Hornby in the No.7, and even the most ardent supporter would consider scraping into the top eight a good outcome.
Still, they boast plenty of upside. Gerard Beale should make a fist of fullback, adding the Darius Boyd-like pace, flair and passing game that was sorely missed last year; the additions of Bronson Harrison and Tyson Frizell inject experience, offloading ability and youthful force into the back row; while former Sea Eagles Under-20s halfback Josh Drinkwater will get his chance to develop into a long-term prospect at the scrum base – a major priority as the Dragons shape for the next half-decade.
Also, they have a new captain in Ben Creagh – although not a lot will change from Hornby’s tenure. Creagh is similarly a level-headed guy who will infuse calm when the pressure is on, rather than sting his troops into action.
How They’ll Play It
The Dragons simply have to offer more with the ball in hand than they did in 2012, when they averaged a bottom-of-the-rung 16.9 points per game; a dramatic decline on their mid-table attack rankings of 2010 and 2011 when they averaged almost a converted try more. While no-one doubts their determination and application in defence (they tallied an impressive fourth-fewest missed tackles and fourth-fewest tries conceded in 2012), another hapless year in possession will spell disaster. Ball control could be the key – after hanging on to the Steeden better than any side in seasons 2010 and 2011, the Dragons slumped to eighth in the errors department last year.
Expect HUGE Things From
Hooker Mitch Rein and the front row. Even allowing for Jeremy Latimore’s exit, St George Illawarra look very strong up front, boasting Origin-calibre props in Trent Merrin and the returning-from-injury Michael Weyman. Add the determined Dan Hunt into the mix, as well as veteran Michael Henderson (who returns to the club after six seasons at the Titans), Jack de Belin, Leeson Ah Mau and rookie Jack Stockwell and we expect the Dragons to at least match last season’s inroads, when they clawed out the fourth-most metres overall.
Mitch Rein was a revelation at dummy-half in 2012 and his transition into fulltime ruck caretaker following Young’s retirement should be smooth. The 22-year-old leapfrogged up the pecking order after Cameron King was injured early in 2012; Rein went on to play all 24 games and brought a crafty nous to his role, leading all NRL hookers in tries (seven), line-breaks (12) and dummy-half line-breaks (nine). That was some feat. He was recently drafted into the Emerging Blues’ squad and is sure to be even better with a solid off-season under his belt – and given the pressure he’s likely to face from King, you can bet he’ll be focused.
Gerard Beale’s anticipated mortgage on the No.1 jersey will take pressure off specialist wingers Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale – although Beale hasn’t suited up at fullback in the NRL since 2011. Nevertheless, he has all the attributes of a modern-day custodian: good hands, change of pace, sidestep and passing game. He’s tough, too – he banked more games (52) than any Bronco over the past two seasons.
Bronson Harrison is a proven busy, creative back-rower whose ability to provide second-phase (his 25 offloads ranked him eighth in his position in 2012) will plug the void left by Scott’s exit.
Expect 20-year-old Evander Cummins to bring the wow factor when given his chance – a member of the 2012 NYC Team of the Year, the quicksilver fullback scored 11 tries in just 16 games, punching out an average 180 metres and a competition-high 35 line-breaks in total.
The Question Marks
Life after Ben Hornby could be tough. Nathan Fien is an accomplished player who has worn the No.7 for New Zealand but he’s filled the role just five times in three years at the Dragons. Meanwhile new buy Josh Drinkwater has yet to play first grade – although the 21-year-old led all-comers at halfback for try assists (38) and line-break assists (34) in the NYC last year. His baptism of fire should come when injuries disrupt the hooker rotation and Fien is required to shift into dummy-half, or in the event that Fien himself is struck down. When his time comes, Dragons’ management will be hoping that Drinkwater can emulate recent rookie successes Trent Hodkinson, Daly Cherry-Evans and Adam Reynolds, or at least provide a glimpse of potential.
The pressure will be on rookie Nathan Green and journeyman Chase Stanley to step up at right centre after that edge of the field proved flimsy in 2012 – the Dragons conceded 36 tries down the corridor, compared to 26 on the other edge.
Given that potential fragility, veteran Matt Cooper needs to dominate on the left side of the field. Cooper had a benchmark year in 2011, adding 14 tries and 19 line-breaks; however he contributed just six busts and six tries last year. The team needs more from him if they are to trouble the scoreboard attendants. Cooper will be 34 on March 18; his troublesome hamstrings will surely be put to the test over the coming months.
Who Needs To Lift?
The whole team needs to focus whenever they get on the bus to travel to an away game. Last year the Dragons won just two games on the road – to open and close the season, and against sides that missed the finals. That was the worst record in the league. If that trend continues they’ll finish closer to the bottom of the ladder than the top.
Targeting an individual, five-eighth Jamie Soward’s form dipped alarmingly in 2012 – and it’s no surprise it coincided with the departures of Wayne Bennett and Darius Boyd. As evidenced by his breast-beating when things go right, Soward is a player who thrives on confidence. But this attribute was way, way down last season: Soward managed just four line-breaks in 2012 after making 11 in each of his two previous seasons. In his defence, he was busy helping out teammates bust clear, tallying 13 line-break assists (compared to just four in 2011). Soward is most valuable when launching surprise strikes in broken play; fans will be hoping he doesn’t get bogged down helping out his new halves partner, or else the Dragons’ struggles to post points may continue.
How’s Their Depth?
They have most positions covered, in particular up front, on the wing and at fullback – although they will struggle in the centres and at halfback should injuries strike. Kyle Stanley won’t lace up a boot in 2013 so if anything happens to Nathan Green, Chase Stanley or Matt Cooper they may well end up having to shove Matt Prior out wide as a stop-gap – which will drain their back row. Ex-NYC star Charly Runciman is also an option. If things get desperate banner signing Beale could even find himself at centre, with Jason Nightingale slotting back to the No.1 and Daniel Vidot coming into the squad on the wing. That wouldn’t altogether be a weak combination.
Dream Team Bankers
Trent Merrin ($385,000) paid his way with a dependable 49 points a game last year – expect him to match that in 2013. Dan Hunt ($333,600) averaged 42 points. Mitch Rein was arguably the mid-season buy of the year, averaging almost 58 points per game from Round 17. Ninth in the hooker pecking order for 2013, at $332,000 he could be a smart inclusion.
What coach Price is able to extract from his troops early in the season will be vital to his chances of retaining the helm. With Craig Bellamy recommitted to the Storm, Price has a golden opportunity to secure his long-term future with a finals berth. However, another underwhelming season will likely sound his death knell. Our guess is it will all boil down to how the team performs in the first eight weeks. Their attack in particular will come under great scrutiny over the opening two months.
With the likes of Cummins, Stockwell, Jack Buchanan and others moving on this looms as a development year for the young Dragons, who stormed to within a game of the 2012 Grand Final after finishing in eighth place – knocking out minor premiers Canterbury along the way. Players to look out for include 182cm fleet-footed winger Yaw Kiti Glymin and centre/lock Jamie Stanley, brother of Kyle and Chase. Goal-kicking lock/hooker Daniel Burke is expected to be a force in his last year in the -20s.
Uncertainty in the halves, plus their well-documented struggles to cross the stripe, leave us worried about the Dragons’ chances of figuring beyond Round 26. They may well confound the critics – and Steve Price may have to if he’s to prolong his NRL career – but we see another season of treading water. Bracket them 10th to 12th.