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St George Illawarra Dragons: End of season review

For a year that started with low expectations, the Dragons quickly rose up the ladder and tumbled back down almost as quickly.


The Details

Ladder Position: 9th

Points For: 533

Points Against: 450

Top Try Scorer: Jason Nightingale (15 tries)

Home Record: 8-5

Away Record: 5-7

Highlight of the Season

The highlight for the Dragons would have to go down as their start to the season. With pre-season expectations at an all-time low, and some fans going as far as calling for head coach Paul McGregor’s sacking before a competitive game had kicked off, there was no real thought that the Dragons could be a relevant team through the 2017 season.

They began the year with a 42-10 demolition of heavily fancied Penrith Panthers. Many thought it might just be a flash in the pan, especially when they lost to the Parramatta Eels the following week, but a run of five straight wins over the Sharks (16-10), Warriors (26-12), Wests Tigers (28-6), Manly (35-10) and North Queensland (28-22) saw the Red V lay down a marker.

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The win on the road against the Sea Eagles at the vociferous Brookvale Oval represented the Dragons becoming a serious top four contender and while things didn’t pan out that way, there was a definitive period at the start of the year where the Dragons were everyone’s talking point.

Lowlight of the Season

Losing to the Eels in round two after such an impressive performance against the Panthers would have frustrated the playing group, coaching staff and the fans.

The lowlight would come not long after, with the Dragons’ five game winning run coming to an end with a three game losing streak. A 13-12 loss to Sydney Roosters on Anzac Day kick-started a mini-slide which included a 34-22 loss to the Melbourne Storm and an 18-14 loss to the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks.

All three defeats came against strong teams who were competing at the right end of the table but the sudden fall from grace raised serious questions over the Dragons’ ability to challenge the top teams. This was a sign of what was to come.

Back-to-back losses to the struggling Knights and Bunnies alongside a final round loss to the Bulldogs will go down as significant lowlights.

The Dragons are only the third team ever to have led the league and then failed to make the finals.

What Went Right

McGregor was under the pump coming into the season, with plenty questioning his position at the club and his ability as a long-term NRL coach. The Dragons legend silenced plenty of those critics with his team’s great start and, while things haven’t gone quite to plan since then, his ability to bring through young guys like Matt Dufty, Euan Aitken and Hame Sele, as well as the career-best form he got out of players like Paul Vaughan, Jack de Belin and Russell Packer, has plenty thinking he may just be the right man for the job.

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Vaughan looked like the best prop forward in the game for much of the season. The former Raiders man looked big, strong, fast and unstoppable for large chunks of 2017 and forced himself onto the cusp New South Wales selection for State of Origin.

Gareth Widdop also came on as a more mature playmaker. His ability to get the most out of a young and often limited back line will hold him and the club in good stead moving forward.

What Went Wrong

Following the Dragons’ positive start, there was a definitive dip in form from a number of key players. Having no Widdop from round nine to round 12 stalled the good things they were doing on the park. The representative period didn’t help as Josh Dugan and Tyson Frizell returned with small niggles, which impacted their form and ability to lift for their club side.

Dugan’s public battle with the Dragons board over his salary demands would have hindered their progress too, with the enigmatic star centre and fullback making a mid-season announcement that he was headed to the Sharks.

The lack of impact from their big stars, coupled with some inconvenient injuries, left the Dragons clutching at straws. The fact that they won just six games after winning six of their first seven will go down as one of the worst fade outs of recent memory.

Stand Out Player

This probably has to be Vaughan based on the first half of his season alone.

Vaughan burst through as one of the best prop forwards in the game right from the start and was consistently good throughout the year, even if his best footy definitely came pre-Origin.

The big fella managed eight tries, a great return for a prop, while also clocking up 3209 metres from 312 runs and 659 tackles in a breakout season. If Vaughan is anywhere near the same level next season, he’ll surely earn himself a maiden New South Wales Blues jersey.

De Belin, Tyson Frizell and Packer were all strong contributors in the engine room during the season after taking huge steps forward in their development as players while Widdop continued to be the dominant playmaker he was tipped to be.

Best Rookie

With just two tries in seven appearances, the stats don’t show too much for young Dufty, but the 21-year-old fullback ensured the Dragons won’t miss Dugan when he links up with Cronulla next season.

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Dufty is quick, confident under the high ball and looks a genuine prospect moving forward. He should, if they play their cards right, be the Dragons’ long-term fullback for the next five to 10 years.

19-year-old Jai Field did some good things in his three interchange appearances while 20-year-old Blake Lawrie also looked up to playing at NRL level, meaning the Dragons have some fresh building blocks to work with for 2018 and beyond.

Recruitment for 2018

2018 Gains: Ben Hunt (Brisbane Broncos)

2018 Losses: Josh Dugan (Cronulla Sharks), Chris Lewis (released), Mose Masoe (Hull Kingston Rovers), Tyrone McCarthy (Salford Red Devils), Taane Milne (Wests Tigers), Shaun Nona (released), Russell Packer (Wests Tigers), Josh McCrone (Toronto Wolfpack)

There will be a significant overhaul of the Dragons’ playing roster for 2018 and rightfully so, given their terrible second half to the 2017 season and meek surrender of their finals berth against the Bulldogs.

Dugan moving to Cronulla doesn’t represent anywhere near as big a loss as many seem to think, with the often-injured troublemaker seemingly more hassle than he’s worth these days while Mose Masoe, Chris Lewis, Shaun Nona and Tyrone McCarthy didn’t offer enough to be retained.

Josh McCrone probably didn’t do enough to stick around in the halves, especially given the high-profile recruitment of current Brisbane Broncos star Ben Hunt while Taane Milne was also allowed to move.

The Dragons would probably have liked to have kept Packer but his good form brought about a good money offer from the Tigers.

Where to from here?

There were enough good things early in the season for some hope to build up again before next season kicks off. It will take some time for the fans to shake off the way their season ended and the final day loss to the Bulldogs.

But if Widdop and Hunt can strike up a good halves partnership, there’s no reason why the Dragons won’t be in a similar position on the ladder in 2018, fighting it out in the middle of the pack for a final spot.

What are your thoughts on the St George Illawarra Dragons season? Let us know in the comments below.

 

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Daniel Lang

Rugby League & Cricket editor at RealSport.

Daniel is a passionate advocate for the game of rugby league and the development of the sport across the world and, as such, writes with a zeal and determination to spread the gospel of the game.

A huge fan of cricket, football, NFL, Tennis and Supercar racing in Australia, Daniel can quickly find himself a casual fan of just about any sport after putting his mind to watching it.

Daniel is also one-half of the hugely successful podcast 'Panthers Weekly with Strawbs & Teach' where he talks all things Panthers Weekly while he also hosts the current affairs show 'the Strawbs Show' and the 'Summer of Cricket with Strawbs & Shnuu' as well as appearing on the Sydney FC covering 'Nothing But Blue Skies' podcast occasionally.

St George Illawarra Dragons: End of season review

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