Dragons 2017 season review
Their season may have finished terribly, with a lame defeat in Round 26 to a bottom-eight Bulldogs side when a victory was needed to secure a finals berth, but was St George Illawarra's 2017 campaign really a disappointment?
It is hardly consolation for Dragons fans still feeling the hurt of their final loss of the season, but take a step back and you could easily argue the club exceeded expectations this season. Many were predicting a bottom-two finish for Paul McGregor's men this year, with the team having struggled badly in attack in 2016 and with promising half Drew Hutchison ruled out for the season with a knee injury before the campaign began.
Instead they exploded out of the blocks, thumping the highly-fancied Panthers in Round 1 and winning six of their opening seven matches to go into the Anzac Weekend on top of the ladder.
But a trio of losses against premiership heavyweights the Roosters, Storm and Sharks followed and the Dragons would fail to string together back-to-back wins in the second half of the season, with five defeats against bottom-eight teams in the final 10 rounds bringing their finals hopes undone.
Where they excelled: The addition of Paul Vaughan strengthened an already impressive forward pack, and the Red V finished with more run metres and offloads than any other team this season. The Dragons also led the league for tackle breaks and ranked second for line breaks, and with playmaker Gareth Widdop having his best season since joining the club it all added up to a significant improvement to St George Illawarra's attack – from 15th in the league last season to fifth this year. They were strong without the ball as well, with the second-fewest missed tackles in the competition.
Where they struggled: The Dragons' Round 26 loss to Canterbury did sum up their season in one way – it epitomised the real weakness of their campaign. While six of their wins came against teams that would go on to play finals football, too often the Red V failed to win against teams they should have beaten. In the second half of the season the Dragons lost to the Titans, Knights, Rabbitohs, Raiders and Bulldogs (twice), all teams that missed the eight. From Round 17 to Round 22 they faced four teams below them on the ladder and one genuine finals rival in the Sea Eagles – they smashed Manly 52-22 and lost the other four games.
Missing in action: Hutchison's season-ending injury got things off on the wrong foot, although Josh McCrone filled in admirably at halfback. Euan Aitken was restricted to just a dozen games due to shoulder injuries, rep star Josh Dugan missed some game time with hamstring and cheekbone injuries, Widdop missed a month with a knee injury and Will Matthews spent the bulk of the season sidelined with a dislocated hip.
Turning point: At the end of a rollercoaster of a season the turning point for the Dragons appeared to come 55 minutes into their Round 25 clash with Penrith, when Tariq Sims pulled off an audacious one-on-one strip on Panthers speedster Dallin Watene-Zelezniak before running 45 metres to score the match-winning try that kept his team's finals hopes alive. Alas the point that defined their season would instead come a week later with seven minutes remaining in Round 26, when Bulldogs hooker Michael Lichaa burrowed over from close range for the try that ended the Red V's campaign.
Hold your head high: Gareth Widdop was brilliant as the team's chief playmaker, ranking second in the league for points scored and third for try assists. New recruits Paul Vaughan and Cameron McInnes were excellent additions to the pack, with Vaughan scoring eight tries and leading the team for run metres and McInnes finishing as the top tackler in the competition. Jack de Belin continued his rise as one of the best all-round forwards in the NRL, ranking second at the club for tackles and offloads, while Jason Nightingale's 16 tries ranked him sixth in the league after 26 rounds.
2018 crystal ball: The high-profile recruitment of Broncos playmaker Ben Hunt was confirmed all the way back in January and his combination with a rejuvenated Widdop could give the Dragons one of the league's most potent halves combinations. The expected signing of Bulldogs skipper James Graham would boost an already strong forward pack, giving Paul McGregor a very solid-looking line-up. Josh Dugan's departure will be offset by the rise of improving speedster Matt Dufty who has already provided some highlights at fullback in the top grade and the team should really be pushing for a finals berth next season.
Conclusion: While it ended in disappointment, 2017 season will possibly go down as the one in which the Dragons recalibrated their expectations – going from a team that was making up the numbers to one that can now set a top-eight finish as a minimum expectation. They've learned the hard way the value of not taking the weaker teams lightly in the NRL and should be better for it in 2018.
Home Record: 7-5
Away Record: 5-7
Longest Winning Streak: 5 games (Round 3-7)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 games (Round 8-10)
Players Used: 25
Tries Scored: 91
Tries Conceded: 80