New St George Illawarra coach Anthony Griffin has made a lot of changes since taking charge of the Dragons this season but one thing he hasn’t felt the need to do is overhaul the club’s culture.
“Hook jokes about it all the time,” former NSW Origin forward Tariq Sims said. “He says he’s been looking for dickheads and he can’t find any.”
Captain Ben Hunt added: “Hook’s always saying how he’s been here for three months and he’s been trying to find a dickhead but he hasn’t been able to”.
The external expectations for the Dragons in 2021 may be lower than in recent seasons, particularly after their 48-16 humbling by South Sydney in the Charity Shield, but internally the standards have rarely been higher.
It’s not just the fact that players have been meeting all of the fitness targets set by new physical performance manager Tony Guilfoyle, who worked with Griffin in his previous coaching stints at the Broncos and Panthers, but they have also largely avoided headlines for off-field incidents.
“We have had a really good pre-season,” Sims said. “We have had no misdemeanours throughout the playing ranks and everyone has applied themselves really well.
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“That’s been really encouraging to see because it shows that everyone is here to do the same thing, and the right thing.”
While five-eighth Corey Norman was suspended by the NRL from Sunday night’s season-opening clash with the Sharks, fined $10,000 and ordered to undergo education and training over a fight in Cronulla, St George Illawarra officials maintain he was acting in self-defence.
With the Dragons boasting one of the youngest rosters in the NRL, the culture and environment into which teenage stars Jayden Sullivan, Mat and Max Feagai, Tyrell Sloan and Junior Amone are introduced is likely to have an impact on the club’s fortunes for years to come.
“Since pre-season started, Hook has really been driving that culture side of things, and really being there for your team-mates and helping each other out," Hunt said.
To overcome the lack of experience in the squad, Griffin has implored every player to take greater responsibility.
“I think this year, for the benefit of the team, everyone has to be a leader in their own way,” Kangaroos prop Paul Vaughan said.
“If we can get 17 blokes on the field who can take the initiative within themselves to be a leader it is going to create a good culture and environment for the team.”
Spotlight on veteran leadership
The departures of Tyson Frizell, Euan Aitken, James Graham, Korbin Sims and Tim Lafai, plus a season-ending knee injury to Cameron McInnes, have left St George Illawarra with just six players who have made more than 100 NRL appearances.
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After Hunt, Sims, Vaughan, Norman, new hooker Andrew McCullough and veteran forward Trent Merrin, only Matt Dufty, Jack Bird and Blake Lawrie have played more than 50 NRL matches.
“It is a super-youthful squad at the moment,” Sims said. “I think the only blokes over 30 are me, Ben Hunt, Andrew McCullough and Trent Merrin.
“There are a lot of players who are going to play a lot of first grade in the future so how they apply themselves over the next year and how they adapt is really important.”
With McInnes having announced a four-year deal with Cronulla just days before he ruptured his ACL at training, it is believed Griffin had always intended to appoint Hunt as captain and the Dragons issued a press release to announce the decision – something the club doesn’t usually do.
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Captaining the Dragons in 2021 isn’t just significant because of the lack of experience with the club’s ranks. Hunt will also be the one answering questions on behalf of the players if the results aren’t as good as Red V fans expect.
“That is something that I think is probably a positive, if you want to look at it in a bad way,” Hunt said. “If we are not going really good it is just going to be on me and it has been like that for a while now anyway so I think that might help take the load off a few other guys.
“I think it is something I can definitely handle because I have been dealing with it for a while.”
While the Dragons are under no disillusions about the task ahead this season after the Charity Shield drubbing, there is a steely resolve among the players to prove the critics wrong and make the finals for the first time since 2018.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion but no one’s expectations are greater than our own,” Sims said.
“We have got such passionate fans and we have got such a big club so brand is really important to us and if you pull on the jersey you are expected to do a job. Unfortunately, throughout the years we have fallen off that.
“I think as an NRL player you need to have high expectations and you have always got to strive to be the best, but every year is different and every year comes with different challenges and you need to adapt to them.”
“There is no point sitting around whingeing that the game is too fast or it is too hard, you need to get on with it and do what you need to do.”
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Tackling defensive issues
The Charity Shield highlighted how much work the Dragons have to do and privately they acknowledge that if the final scoreline had been closer than 48-16 it may have provided a false sense of security after trailing 32-4 at one stage.
However, Griffin and his players were encouraged by the fact that they were able to make nine line breaks in the match – just one less than the Rabbitohs.
Defence is obviously an issue but Hunt revealed that Griffin had introduced a new defensive system this season that the players were still adjusting to.
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“The Charity Shield was definitely a reality check for us and there might have been a couple of players who thought we were going better than we were so if we came back and it had finished up 30-26 or something like that we might think we aren’t going too bad,” Hunt said.
“Souths really put the torch to us and it was a good lesson to say we need to pull our finger out and improve a lot. I was pretty disappointed when we finished but I tried to stay really positive and know that there are things we can work on.
“We made nine line breaks in that game so we showed that we can attack, we just need to evolve with our defence.
“We have completely changed how we defend this year so it is probably going to take a few games for it to really click for us but it needs to click pretty quick or we are going to be in trouble.
“It’s just the style of defence, not so much up and jamming all the time. There are a lot more cues on how we are going to defend and in what situations. It is just taking time for players to get used to it.”
The match was McCullough’s first for the Dragons since moving from Brisbane and Griffin believes his service from dummy-half will benefit Hunt and Norman, whom he previously played with at the Broncos.
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“Getting combinations back with Benny won’t take long, we have played together for a long time,” McCullough said.
“I have just got to get my defence right and the little things in my game that I like to do. The rest of the stuff in my attacking stuff will come along well and having those combinations will help.
“I think there is a lot of strike power here, there are a lot of blokes who are able to score points so we have just got to work hard on our defence to give ourselves a shot.”
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