In NRL.com's club-by-club series delving into the 2017 analytics, Paul Zalunardo and Chris Kennedy review how the St George Illawarra Dragons faded after a hot start and how they’re planning to avoid it happening again.
The Dragons started 2017 like a house on fire, with their potent pack rolling through the middle and points coming in a flood as they won six of their first seven games to sit first on the ladder.
Some untimely injuries – notably to skipper Gareth Widdop – and a few close losses took the wind out of their sails. A heart-breaking round 26 loss to the Canterbury Bulldogs proved the difference between making and missing the top eight.
"I think we went away from [our game plan] a little bit," centre Euan Aitken told NRL.com.
"It didn't help there were a few injuries at crucial times that disrupted our season a little bit there but we have a plan for that, we want to improve on that.
"A lot is to do with that drop-off towards the end of games, sometimes we did that, after a really good first half we didn't finish it off in the second half so that's what we've been focusing on at training, making sure our second halves and our second efforts always going to be as good as our first."
The Dragons’ 7-5 record at home was the opposite of their results on the road. They averaged an impressive 27.8 points per game at home but just 16.6 in away fixtures.
Winger Jason Nightingale streeted his Dragons teammates. His total was good enough for equal-sixth best in the NRL. He scored all his tries on the left-hand side of the field.
It wasn’t a great year for the club’s long-kicking game. Ex-Dragon Josh McCrone led the way with an average of 33m. Gareth Widdop completed the ninth-most kicks in the NRL.
It was a mixed bag of halves, backs and forwards in this category. According to NRL.com/stats, halfback Josh McCrone was the best with an average of 20.4 per match but it was not enough to crack the top 10 in the NRL.
Centre Euan Aitken and winger Nene Macdonald edged out a trio of hard-running forwards to finish as their club’s best metre-makers. Aitken’s average of 9.69m didn’t rank him in the top 12 in the competition.
"Those two and Tim Lafai and Jason Nightingale as well, it's like having extra forwards taking the ball out of our own end," Cameron McInnes said.
"It helps when you have those big fellas that have footwork and speed bringing the ball back for you and getting us started in our sets."
Aitken said all the backs made it a point to help the forwards when it came to carries.
"It's up to me and Nene and the other wingers and centres to get us on the front foot and let the forwards finish the job," Aitken said.
"It's definitely a key of me and Nene and also Gypsy (Jason Nightingale) and Laf (Tim Lafai) to get us forward and start the roll on for the team by beating people and getting a quick play-the-ball."
Tyson Frizell’s aggressive style of play didn’t sit well with match officials as he finished the year as the most penalised Dragon. As a team, they were in the middle of the pack when it came to conceding tries on the back of penalties.
Tim Lafai and Nene Macdonald have work to do after each made more than 30 errors during 2017. Lafai’s tally of 32 was one more than Macdonald and just three fewer than the worst in the league.
In his final year in red and white, Russell Packer was St George Illawarra’s best when it came to attracting multiple defenders. He was the only Dragon to finish in the top 30 in the NRL.
Jacob Host made just 11 appearances for the Dragons, but the young forward finished the year with the best points differential of any bench player. He was one of just four St George Illawarra players to finish with a positive differential.
"This will be my third season (training with the NRL squad) coming up; it definitely feels like I'm more part of the squad," Host said.
"I feel like I'm making a mark with the boys and I think they appreciate me a bit more. It's definitely time for me to also make the next step so that's what I'll be looking for in the coming season."
Cameron McInnes, Jack de Belin and Paul Vaughan shouldered a lot of the defensive workload, with McInnes leading the way by averaging 48.1 effective tackles per match. De Belin (35.1) and Vaughan (30) were also honest toilers when it came to carrying the ball in attack.
Those middle forwards had plenty of praise for each other's contributions.
"Jack De Belin is one of the best defenders in the comp the way he hits under the ball, and Paul Vaughan as well," McInnes said.
"We push each other in the middle because in the middle you don't want anyone running through you."
De Belin agreed the middle defence was a huge focus at the club.
"With Cam McInnes, he plays well above his weight, he's one of the most solid defenders I've seen and I think he's in for another big year," De Belin said.
"He makes a lot of tackles and he's a hard worker, he gets through all his work and he's someone that prides himself on his mental toughness and he was a great addition for us. He brought a lot and his defence was outstanding."