St George Illawarra Dragons 2021 Season Preview
TK's take on the St George Illawarra Dragons:
STRENGTH New coaching staff - Anthony Griffin brings an edge to the club that was missing with Paul McGregor. In his 7 seasons coaching first grade, his teams have reached the finals on 6 occasions. Hook isn't afraid to make a big decision either, he debuted Nathan Cleary in 2016 as a teen and in the same season cut his veteran playmaker Jamie Soward who is now part of the coaching staff. From interviewing Hook he has had a deep reflection on his past mistakes. Griffin has also worked with the Dragons misfiring stars Ben Hunt and Corey Norman as well as incoming prop Daniel Alvaro.
The other big part of NRL coaching which is often overlooked is the influence of the media. The past few years Griffin, Matt Elliott and Soward have built strong relationships and have a deeper understanding of how the media works. They will need to use these relationships to manage the pressure and expectations on the team placed by the media. Matt Elliott also is one of the sharpest minds in the NRL, you only have to follow his work on NRL.com and ABC radio to see his deep understanding of the game. Another who has had deep reflections on his past mistakes and brings a wealth of head coaching experience to complement Hook as does his other assistant Peter Gentle.
Cameron McInnes - The heart and soul of the club, McInnes works tirelessly with the best defensive work rate in the NRL. Some of his stats are so big that you have to question the effort of some of his team mates. He's off contract at the end of the season and the club need to make his signature a priority and build the team around him. Will play at either hooker or lock, the form of Ben Hunt back in the 7 will determine this.
Young players coming through - The Dragons are blessed with some of the finest crop of talent in the NRL. Zac Lomax has already established himself as one of the premier centres in the game but there are a host of other players pushing for round 1 selection. Keep an eye on Cody Ramsey, twins Mat and Max Feagai and Jayden Sullivan.
WEAKNESSES Misfiring stars - Similar to the neighbouring Cronulla Sharks, the Dragons have handed out huge contracts to players who are either not living up to their ability or past their prime. Have 13 players from the top squad off contract in 2021 which includes, McInnes, Trent Merrin, Norman and Jack de Belin so there is room to move on players at the end of the season.
The ongoing trial of Jack De Belin - The ongoing case has been a distraction on the team for 2 years and is headed for a third. Likely hurting the club financially with negative press and having DeBelin who at the time of him being stood down was an elite, origin player and also leaves a significant hole in the salary cap.
Lack of physical prep for young players - No NSW Cup in 2020 really hurt teams like the Dragons. The above mentioned young talent got limited game time in 2020. It would have given them much needed playing time against men and have then better prepared physically to step up to the rigors of first grade in 2021.
OPPORTUNITIES Forwards - The departure of star edge Tyson Frizzell leaves huge shoes to fill on the right. Jackson Ford and Tyrel Fuimaono you would think are the two most likely to fill his loss. Both had their moments in 2020 without taking full advantage of the opportunities. Poasa Faamasusili was a good signing from the Roosters. He's been in a winning system under Trent Robinson and with Griffin looking to toughen up his middle, Poasa could be the perfect man given his defensive skills. Would also love to see the two big men Josh Kerr and Paul Vaughan paired for an opening assault. Griffin will also likely have to choose between Trent Merrin and Blake Lawrie with both bringing very similar skills to the table.
Jack Bird - The Dragons need to be cautious with Bird who has only played 17 games in 3 seasons since he left the Sharks for the Broncos. When on the field he has shown flashes of the brilliance we saw in the Sharks premiership season of 2016. Needs to get his full confidence back and his natural ability will see him shine if he remains injury free. A season in the number 14 utility role playing 20-30 minutes would do him a world of good until he is ready to play 80 minutes again.
VERDICT - Will finish 12th to 16th. Too overhaul a club culture and roster takes time so Dragon fans will need to be patient and potentially experience a painful 2021 to come out shining for 2022. Culture and on field performance hasn't been good for years. Under McGregor the club finished 11th(2014), 8th (2015), 11th (2016), 9th (2017), 7th (2018),15th (2019), 12th (2020) in a very unsuccessful period for the club. Griffin will need time to try his ideas and bring through the exciting young crop of players at the club. While they may not be there for round 1, if the experienced halves misfire early don't be surprised to see Clune and Sullivan paired in the halves with Hunt moved permanently to 9.
Where do you see the Dragons finishing in 2021?