St George Illawarra Dragons Season Preview
As he finalises preparations for his first full year of coaching in the NRL, Paul McGregor has stated himself that he looked to fill two gaps over the off-season he felt needed fixing: The lack of experienced players at the Dragons and the size of his squad.
The Dragons look a lot wiser, a lot more experienced and a lot bigger this season because of Mary's initiative.
In Shannon Wakeman, Rory O'Brien, Rulon Nutira and Eto Nabuli they have plenty of size waiting in the wings for their first crack in the NRL.
While the trio of Heath L'Estrange, Dane Nielsen and Kris Keating bring with them much-needed experience that McGregor felt the club previously lacked.
As for George Rose – let's just say big Georgie ticks both boxes.
Despite their spirited draw against the Rabbitohs in the Charity Shield and their tenacious 18-12 win against English heavyweights Warrington in the World Club Series very little is expected of the Dragons in 2015.
With most key men remaining at the Dragons this year – Brett Morris the exception – the Dragons may go a long way in shocking plenty of punters and keeping McGregor in the hot seat for many years to come.
Gains and Losses
Gains: Eto Nabuli (Panthers), Shannon Wakeman (Cutters), Rory O'Brien (Cutters), George Rose (Storm), Rulon Nutira (Gundagai), Jake Marketo (Redcliffe), Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard (Warriors), Dane Nielsen (Warriors), Heath L'Estrange (Roosters), Beau Henry (Titans), Kris Keating (Hull KR), Justin Hunt (Eels).
Losses: Brett Morris (Bulldogs), Sam Williams (Raiders), Michael Witt (retired), Jack Bird (Sharks), Gerard Beale (Sharks), Josh Ailaomai, Bronson Harrison, Willie Mataka, Shane Pumipi (all released), Matt Groat (Salford), Jack Stockwell (Knights), Kyle Stanley (Sharks), Adam Quinlan (Eels).
What We Know
The Dragons jumped back into finals calculations last year not too soon after Paul McGregor was elevated from an assistant's role to the top job. What we do know is while the Dragons had one of the highest turnovers of players over the off-season, their key men still remain and will be as influential as they were last year. Most importantly, the Dragons' spine of Benji Marshall, Gareth Widdop, Mitch Rein and Josh Dugan is intact while representative trio Jason Nightingale, Trent Merrin and captain Ben Creagh will lead from the front for the Dragons.
How will their audacious spending translate on the field? While other players in Mike Cooper, Jack de Belin, Joel Thompson and Tyson Frizell are shoo-ins for first grade spots, McGregor still has a dilemma on his hands when it comes to his three-quarters and the pecking order of his forwards. Still seemingly undecided on the make-up of his Round 1 team, the Dragons may have very little time to prepare and consequently gel before opening their campaign against the Melbourne Storm.
Euan Aitken looked like a sure thing for a spot in the centres until the Dragons played without him against Warrington in the World Club Series. While doubt remains over who else will make up their back five, Eto Nabuli has continued to firm for the Dragons' vacant left wing spot following his solid performance against the Wolves on top of his promising Charity Shield and Auckland Nines showings. Nabuli is the Fijian flyer who has spent the past two years at the Panthers after being discovered by league legends Brad Fittler and Andrew Johns in Fiji. Unable to get a crack at the big time out west, Nabuli has settled in at Wollongong rather nicely and it has definitely shown over the course of the pre-season.
Room For Improvement
Finishing the season with the fifth-most errors to their name, the Dragons will need to lift when it comes to ball control. Widdop and Marshall – two of, if not, the Red V's most important players – were entrenched in the top 30 for most individual errors last season so they'll certainly need to pick up their game in this respect. The Dragons' 11th place finish in 2014 is reflected in terms of tries scored, metres made and line-breaks forced too, meaning it won't hurt for them to build up these facets of their game too.
The Dragons arguably have the greatest depth in the competition if and when injuries strike. No club quite has the experience in their extended squad like the Dragons do. The likes of 100-game veterans in Heath L'Estrange, Kris Keating and Dan Hunt aren't expected to be in the Dragons top 17 to begin with while others such as Charly Runciman, Peter Mata'utia, Nathan Green, Beau Henry, Jake Marketo, Justin Hunt and Craig Garvey have all had stints in first grade previously and will keep those in front of them on their toes.
The high work rate of Trent Merrin ($450,000) makes him a strong Fantasy prospect, while Josh Dugan ($385,000) is likely to battle Greg Inglis as the highest-scoring fullback in NRL Fantasy this season. But it's the cheaper options that stand out at the Dragons this year. Nabuli ($128,000) and Aitken ($128,000) have both impressed in pre-season and should be superb value if they start in the backline, while O'Brien ($128,000) could be just the kind of big man the Dragons need up front. Marshall ($313,000) is also a smokey to join the top Fantasy halves after showing off some of his old magic during the Nines and pre-season trials.
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Punters need to remember that McGregor is only 14 games into his NRL coaching career. After being handed the reins to the club last season, McGregor has finally been able to get everything sorted for the season ahead the way he wanted. Surely that will only benefit McGregor's longevity at the club. Nobody expects much from in his first full year but credit where credit's due – he was able to rejuvenate the Dragons last year to the point where they only just missed out on the finals. There's no reason why the Dragons can't be thereabouts again in 2015.
McGregor ticked all the boxes on his wild recruitment drive late last year so it will be interesting to see how they aim up. With expectations of the club low, don't be surprised to see them upset some big clubs along the way in what will definitely prove to be a rebuilding year for the club. NRL.com prediction: 15th