St George Illawarra Dragons season preview
Following a largely positive 2015 that ended with a golden-point elimination final loss to the Bulldogs, 2016 shapes as an important year for the Dragons. After taking control of the side mid-way through 2014, coach Paul McGregor has had enough time now to stamp his own authority on what appears to be a very competitive-looking St George Illawarra squad that should again be challenging for a place in the top eight and will be pumped up for the season.
Gains and losses
Gains: Kurt Mann (Melbourne Storm), Siliva Havili (New Zealand Warriors), Mose Masoe (St Helens RLFC), Dunamis Lui (Manly Sea Eagles), Tyrone McCarthy (Hull Kingston Rovers), Sebastine Ikahihifo (New Zealand Warriors), Kalifa Faifai Loa (Gold Coast Titans), Josh McCrone (Canberra Raiders), Taane Milne (Sydney Roosters), Adam Quinlan (St Helens), Tim Lafai (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs).
Losses: Trent Merrin (Penrith Panthers), Dan Hunt (retirement), Charly Runciman (Widnes Vikings), Nathan Green (Manly Sea Eagles) Rory O'Brien (Parramatta Eels), Eto Nabuli (rugby union), Justin Hunt (Wests Tigers), Heath L'estrange (retirement), Adam Tuimavave-Gerard (released), Jack Kavanagh (released), Mark Ioane (London Broncos), Craig Garvey (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs).
Trent Merrin will no doubt be a huge loss in the middle of the field, but there are a number of ready-made replacements able to step up. Dunamis Lui and Sebastine Ikahihifo can both fill Merrin's position, while Jack de Belin and Mike Cooper are also candidates to start at lock after playing there at times in 2015. Kurt Mann looms as a key recruit, with Adam Quinlan and Tim Lafai adding to the embarrassment of riches McGregor has at his disposal across the backline.
What we know
The Red V are beginning to build some serious momentum, with some quality recruits to accompany an already solid base that finished eighth in 2015. New co-captain Gareth Widdop has developed into one of the more composed halves in the competition and is crucial to the side's chances each week, and after years of crying out for a 120+kg prop, the Dragons finally have their man in the form of reformed wrecking ball Russell Packer.
There's been plenty of talk over the off-season, but it looks as though Josh Dugan is set to revert to the centres after playing there for much of 2014. That move means former Storm centre Kurt Mann is likely to start the season in the No.1 jersey. While it gives the Dragons a potent strike weapon out wide, it could cost them in kick returns, with Dugan often at his damaging best when running the ball back at a broken defence.
Young half Drew Hutchison made three NRL appearances in his debut year, and is first in line to replace either Widdop or Benji Marshall should either be unavailable for selection. Many have touted Hutchison as a future star, and with Marshall in the final year of his current deal it will be interesting to see what sort of opportunities Hutchison is afforded. Former Roosters NYC outside back Taane Milne could come into calculations at some point this season but faces plenty of opposition for places in a crowded Red V three-quarter line.
Put simply, the Dragons' depth in 2016 is phenomenal. McGregor has targeted having two players for every position and he's essentially achieved that goal with his current squad. Looking at the back five, it's going to be hard cramming Dugan, Mann, Euan Aitken, Kalifa Faifai Loa, Kiti Glymin, Tim Lafai, Peter Mata'utia, Adam Quinlan and Jason Nightingale into the starting side, while Hutchison and Quinlan also provide coverage in the halves for Widdop and Marshall. Competition for places in the pack is just as fierce, with Packer, Leeson Ah Mau, Cooper, Ben Creagh, de Belin, Joel Thompson, Tyson Frizell, Ikahihifo, Lui, Jake Marketo and Will Matthews all mounting strong cases for inclusion. Kiwi international dummy-half Siliva Havili also provides another option to Mitch Rein at hooker. Whether injuries or rep selection cause disruption, the Dragons have great coverage.
Mike Cooper ($466,000) is a prime candidate to reprise his role at lock to start 2016. With the England international averaging just over 52 points per game in 2015, you'd expect he would better or at the very least match last year's huge workrate. Also appealing as a dual FRF/2RF.
A much-loved figure at the club, 2016 is the year for 'Mary' to deliver. With the squad now largely representing his vision, the Dragons must continue to develop on last year's eighth-place finish. While the structures at the club very much revolve around McGregor, anything less than another finals appearance would represent a below-par season.
The Dragons have certainly bolstered their squad, with the incoming players offering something different to those who departed. They have the players to again challenge for a spot in the top half of the ladder, and should be jostling for positions around the bottom half of the top eight, but whether they have the quality of other sides in a similar position remains to be seen. We feel there might just be too many other sides with the potential for greater improvement to leapfrog St George Illawarra into the top eight.