Dragons' 2014 Season Review

It's been one hell of a comedown from the dizzying heights of the Wayne Bennett era and the breakthrough title that came with it, but for the first time in a long time the Dragons can genuinely say they've finished a season on the upswing.

Which is pretty gosh darn remarkable considering they plumbed the depths of the rugby league ocean just over two months into their 2014 campaign.
 
After three first-up wins had Dragons fans thumbing their noses at the pre-season doubters that were predicting another year in the doldrums, that's exactly where St George Illawarra found themselves by the last week of May after an ugly run of six losses in seven outings.

Their mojo nowhere to be found and each loss coming by an average margin of more than 20 points, the Red V faithful took aim at under-fire coach Steve Price and long-term CEO Peter Doust. With banners declaring 'The Price is Wrong,' signs proclaiming 'Oust Doust' and the writing on the wall, the inevitable came on what should have been a sleepy bye-week Monday, a week  after a 36-0 walloping at the hands of the Eels.
 
Price was shown the door, understudy and former club captain Paul McGregor was installed as care-taker clipboard carrier, and the rebuilding began. And construction proceeded at a pace quicker than even the most ardent red and white fan could've hoped.

Neighbourhood sparring partner Cronulla was held to nil, high-flying Penrith were pushed all the way, the Titans were pipped by a point, eventual finalists Melbourne and North Queensland left Kogarah empty handed and the Dragons found themselves 4-2  after six weeks of McGregor's reign.

Benji Marshall arrived from union amid much fanfare, settled in and found his feet as a different man to the one who left league last year; Josh Dugan made all his headlines on the field instead of off it, and suddenly St George Illawarra looked like one big, happy red-and-white family.

A couple of late-season wavers in big games proved a finals appearance just a bridge too far in the end, but the fact the Dragons were still in contention for one with just a fortnight of the season remaining is a credit to them considering where they were three months previous.
 
It took a little longer than it probably should have, but a juicy three-year deal was extended McGregor's way late in the year, no doubt a welcome change for the joint venture and fans alike from the constant speculation that dogged Price in his time at the club. That and the promise shown by what is very much one of the more youthful outfits in the NRL bodes pretty well for the Dragons, for the first time in a long time.

Where They Excelled: It's either a hard marker or an opposition coach who looks at a backline of Beale, Morris, Dugan, Mata'utia and Nightingale and doesn't get the warm fuzzies, especially after the quintet combined for 53 tries, just two short of the competition's best back five out at Parramatta. Their high-flying international wingmen Morris and Nightingale in particular proved rather adept at turning what at times were not even half chances into spectacular four-pointers. The pair also had a massive contribution towards the Dragons 3419 metres out dummy-half (third best in the league), repeatedly bringing the team out of trouble at the start of their sets.

The Dragons can also expect a Christmas card from referees boss Tony Archer; with an average of 5.4 infringements per game they conceded the fewest penalties of any side in 2014.

Where They Struggled: They tightened it up over the back end of the season, but midway through the year the Dragons middle men were softer than a melted McDonald's sundae – and were consequently ran right over by the Roosters, Bulldogs and Eels packs in three successive weeks. St George Illawarra conceded the fourth most metres (35, 411) in the NRL, a full 1400 metres worth of territory than they ran for themselves.
The fact they were repeatedly exposed by the bigger packs in the game – think Souths and Broncos (twice), and the Bulldogs (once was embarrassing enough) – won't be lost on McGregor, who has been linked to quality big men such as Willie Mason, Sam Kasiano and Ryan James at various points throughout the season. 

They also struggled to match it with the NRL's heavyweights in the sense that they just couldn't buy a win in seven games against the top four sides, and their only wins over the rest of the top eight came in those two defeats of the Storm and Cowboys on home turf.

Missing In Action: Poor old Dylan Farrell couldn't take a trick in the first season of a three-year deal with the Dragons, tearing one pectoral six games in, and then the other as he was making his comeback through reserve grade. Ditto journeyman half Michael Witt, who starred in his first game in the Red V back in Round 1, only to have shoulder and knee injuries limit him to just four games throughout the year and eventually force him into retirement after 12 years in the game. Brett Morris' dislocated shoulder, suffered in the course of his Origin I heroics had Dragons fans fearing the worst at one point, particularly as it came with the club at just about its lowest ebb, while big men Dan Hunt and Tyson Frizell also missed large chunks of the year through foot and ankle injuries respectively, leaving the pack rather skinny up front at times.

Turning Point: In no way are we trying to put the fluoro-yellow size nine in here, especially not to one of the nicer blokes that rugby league has chewed up and spat out in recent times. But the stats don’t lie, not this time anyway; Steve Price was ridden out of Dragon Town on a rail of six losses in seven games, leaving his win percentage from two and a half years in charge at a sorry 37.9 per cent. McGregor takes charge in Round 11, engineers seven victories from their next 12 games and the Dragons rise from a lowly 14th to within one win of the top eight before bombing out in the last fortnight. 

Best Games: Both games against Melbourne, where they thoroughly outplayed the best team of the past decade will take top billing on the 2014 highlights reel, particularly the 24-12 Round 16 triumph that was much more comprehensive than the score-line looks, and would've gone some way to easing the pain of the 'Sirengate' loss down in the Southern capital. Likewise both wins over the Tigers, 44-24 in Round 1 and 28-10 in the return fixture stand out for the sublime performances of Widdop, who had himself a field day on both occasions despite being as crook as a three-legged dog the second time round. And even though the Raiders are currently a few tins short of a six-pack, snapping that 14-year hoodoo in Canberra wouldn't have tasted any less sweet for the Red V when they broke through with a 34-16 win in mid-August.

Worst Games: Tough going past that three-week trot in the middle of the year that proved the final straw to break Price's back, 108 points in three matches culminated in a downright awful showing at Parramatta where they made 19 errors and were lucky to concede only six tries. Late season losses to the Roosters (30-22 in Round 22) and the Panthers (16-4 the next week) stalled the healthy momentum they'd built and proved costly when it boiled down to crunch time a fortnight later against Brisbane, while their final round 40-10 capitulation to the Knights looked to be little more than Mad Monday kicking off 24 hours early for the 17 involved.

Hold Your Head High: Gareth and Benji has a certain ring to it, and after a few teething problems they proved themselves the most potent halves pairing the Rev V has had in years. With 25 try assists between them in the 15 games they've come together at the scrum base, the future looks pretty rosy for these two, particularly with a full pre-season to hone their combination. Outside them the likes of Morris and Nightingale were their typical acrobatic, 'did-he-just-do that?' inducing selves, while Dugan thrived at left centre. In the pack Trent Merrin proved himself a tower of strength and a representative mainstay of the future despite playing out the season busted, while Leeson Ah Mau nailed down a deserved starting spot after five years of being on the first grade periphery.

Conclusion: It's no secret the Dragons are still short a quality front-rower or two to help share the load up front with Merrin, but a dearth of top-notch props on the market doesn't help their cause. But with McGregor in it for the long haul, one of the most exciting backlines in the comp and a class halves combo to service it, there's plenty of reason for the club and the most parochial fans in the league to be eyeing a return to finals footy in 2015.

SEASON STATISTICS

Wins: 11
Losses: 13
Position: 11th
Home Record: 6-6
Away Record: 5-7
Longest Winning Streak: 3 (Rounds 1-3, Rounds 15-17)
Longest Losing Streak: 4 (Rounds 8-12)
Players Used: 28
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 86
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 92