Dragons 2014 Season Preview
A woeful 2013 season, in which only a battling Eels outfit managed fewer wins than St George Illawarra's seven from 24 starts, has proved the trigger for mass changes at the Dragons.
Before last season even ended a Penrith-bound Jamie Soward was deemed surplus to requirements, cut loose to spend a few months in England less than three years after helping the merged club to its first premiership.
The other big mid-season change was the recruitment of troubled Canberra and NSW fullback Josh Dugan, who was dynamic in his 10 games in the Red V in a potential sign of better times ahead.
Overall there are plenty of big names on both the 'gains' and 'losses' list but under-pressure coach Steve Price will need to get his new combinations firing nice and early, particularly his new high-profile halves rotation of Gareth Widdop, Sam Williams, Michael Witt and potentially Kyle Stanley.
Defence will be a focus, as it will no doubt be for every side; the Dragons recorded the sixth-worst defensive record of any side in 2013 but reassuringly they only let in three points per game more than finals sides Cronulla and Canterbury-Bankstown.
However it's the attack that really needs to brush up with only the wooden spoon Eels outfit scoring fewer points per game than St George Illawarra's 15.8. That number was well adrift of the worst of the finals sides (Cronulla's 19.5) and light years away from the 23.6 of Manly, the lowest-scoring top four side.
Gains: Gareth Widdop (Storm), Sam Williams (Raiders), Joel Thompson (Raiders), Mike Cooper (Warrington Wolves), Dylan Farrell (Rabbitohs), Josh Ailaomai (Roosters), Matt Groat (Wests Tigers), Peter Mata'utia (Knights), Michael Witt (London Broncos), Willie Mataka (Illawarra Cutters).
Losses: Jamie Soward (Panthers), Michael Weyman (Hull Kingston Rovers), Matt Cooper (retired), Nathan Fien (retired), Chase Stanley (Bulldogs), Cameron King (Cowboys), Matt Prior (Sharks), Kayne Brennan (Bulldogs), Jackson Hastings (Roosters), Daniel Vidot (Broncos), Damien Cook (Bulldogs), Evander Cummins (Eels).
How They'll Play It
Widdop and Dugan will be the key men in attack for the Dragons in 2014, with former NYC gun Craig Garvey likely to provide spark off the bench. Widdop is likely to partner Sam Williams in the halves at the start of the season, although with former Eels and Warriors playmaker Michael Witt showing plenty of good signs in the pre-season Williams' job isn't set in stone. Widdop will likely be asked to play a fairly similar running five-eighth role to what he produced in Melbourne, but in the absence of Kangaroos half Cooper Cronk (with no disrespect to Williams) he will need to take on more responsibility for running plays than he did at the Storm. They'll need a fully fit Dugan to provide impact from the back, like he showed he was capable of last year.
Expect HUGE Things From
Origin fullback Dugan could be the difference between a mediocre Dragons side and a truly threatening Dragons side. The 23-year-old bulked up a bit in the off season and if he's put his off-field dramas behind him he should be coming in to the peak of his powers. He managed six tries, seven line breaks and 120 metres per game in his 10 appearances in the Red V last year, and with a full pre-season at the club can be expected to build further on that in 2014.
It could be a blessing or a curse, but coach Steve Price has plenty of utility style players at his disposal given him myriad options in terms of team structure. Former Raider Joel Thompson is most likely to feature as a back-rower but could easily perform a role as a robust defensive centre, which may have extra appeal following the retirement of Matt Cooper. Gerard Beale is pencilled in as a centre but has been a first grade fullback in the past and Dylan Farrell can play anywhere in the back five. Michael Witt can play half or pivot or even fullback at a stretch, while wingers Morris and Nightingale can also fill in at the back if needed.
The Question Marks
Aside from the above-mentioned conundrums over how and where to fit in each player, the major question at the Dragons is over the all-new attacking structure. Plenty of the forwards have been at the club a while but the back seven will look radically different to the one that ran out in the opening rounds last year of Beale, Morris, Chase Stanley, Cooper, Nightingale, Soward and Fien (with Vidot coming onto the wing and Nightingale moving to fullback once Beale got injured). The wingers are likely to stay the same and Beale is a chance of featuring somewhere but none of the rest is still at the club. Will Widdop and Dugan form the thrust of the attack? Or will Williams or Witt be asked to control proceedings? There will be plenty learned about the Dragons in the opening rounds.
Who Needs To Lift?
As mentioned their attack let them down last year and the playmakers have moved on so it's less a case of needing to lift, so much as needing to do it at a new club. But the pressure will be well and truly on Widdop and Williams. Widdop was a star playing second fiddle to Cooper Cronk at the Storm but as the senior half here he needs to take on a lot more responsibility. The English Test utility is certainly capable, but moving out from Cronk's shadow he'll need to manage better than the eight try assists in 16 games he produced in 2013.
How's Their Depth?
There will be plenty of jostling for spots over the early rounds at St George Illawarra. The centres and back row seem to be the most hotly contested but Adam Quinlan and Michael Witt will be pressuring the first-choice halves pairing of Williams and Widdop, with Craig Garvey keeping first choice hooker Mitch Rein looking over his shoulder. A number of outside backs can play most positions and a fully-fit squad would see plenty of NRL players outside of the starting 17.
NRL Fantasy Bankers
There are only two premium Fantasy players to truly tempt coaches this year: Josh Dugan ($445,400) is the most expensive wing-fullback in the competition after some massive performances last season. Trent Merrin ($394,900) is a very consistent performer in the forwards and has the advantage of being a dual position player.
Steve Price is very much a man under pressure given the club's performances since the departure of Wayne Bennett. After seeing the club finish ninth in 2012 and 14th in 2013, Red V fans will be demanding an improvement this year, especially given the calibre of players coming on board. Having signed a one-year extension during 2013 keeping him at the club until the end of 2014, Price won't have a long time to impress before the proverbial axe, rumoured to be dangling prior to last year's extension, makes a reappearance.
The junior Dragons fared marginally better than their senior counterparts in 2013 with an 11th place finish, having scraped into the finals in eighth the year before. They will have a few plays with NYC experience backing up for 2014, however in a major blow they've lost talented playmaker Jackson Hastings to the Roosters.
All the lowest four finishing sides from 2013 come into this season looking radically different, and in each case it's a question of how quickly the new players and structures will click, or if they will at all. Plenty rests on Widdop's shoulders but there are just too many unknowns about the Dragons to put them into the eight – we think it'll be at least one more year of pain before the improvement shows. 12th-14th.
1. Josh Dugan, 2. Brett Morris, 3. Gerard Beale, 4. Dylan Farrell, 5. Jason Nightingale, 6. Gareth Widdop, 7. Sam Williams, 8. Dan Hunt, 9. Mitch Rein, 10. Jack de Belin, 11. Ben Creagh (c), 12. Joel Thompson, 13. Trent Merrin, 14. Kyle Stanley, 15. Mike Cooper, 16. Bronson Harrison, 17. Tyson Frizell.