Since the St George Dragons merged with the Illawarra Steelers in 1999, the venture has been largely successful, making Finals appearances in 10 of its 15 seasons, winning the Grand Final in 2010, reaching a further Grand Final in 1999 and claiming back-to-back Minor Premierships in 2009 and 2010.
Unfortunately, this extended honeymoon period appears to be over with coach Steve Price’s appointment coinciding with the club’s first ever experience of consecutive seasons without a finals berth. Winning just 7 games in 2013, two fewer than their previous worst campaign of 9 wins in 2007, something has had to give and like many other clubs in NRL history looking to rebuild, the Dragons have looked to a combination of developing young blood and imported experience.
For all of the criticism, justified or otherwise, that has been directed at Price, the Dragons coach and the club’s administration have not only offset the loss of several key players heading into 2014, but have drastically improved their squad, especially when you compare their activity with that of other clubs in a similar position. The Broncos have lost both of their halves from last season, Penrith have continued to recruit promising youngsters without managing to lure a big signing to the club and the Cowboys have lost talisman Matthew Bowen to retirement.
At Kograh meanwhile, potential combinations have emerged that look likely to emulate those of Cronk/Slater and Thurston/Bowen, giving Price players on which he can rely on a weekly basis. The key however isn’t found in star-power, but the informed recruitment process that has provided a combination of outstanding individuals in key positions and the devising of need-based contingency plans to ensure squad depth and breadth.
Even more encouraging for Dragons fans, is that such plans aren’t implemented within clubs looking to rebuild from the bottom. The Dragons clearly believe they have a base squad worthy of finals contention and are expectant, not blissfully optimistic at the potential of a top 8 finish in 2014. The Dragons have a long way to go from their 2013 season in which they came 14th, however the combination of talent, rugby league nous acquired over the summer and the evolution of a cohesive side unified under Steve Price means the club appears primed for a surge in 2014.
With a promising group of young players emerging, the Dragons could be forgiven for allowing high-profile players to leave the club without exerting themselves to find replacements. Not only have St George resisted the temptation to embark on a complete rebuilding process, but they have improved their side, looking to avoid heavy reliance on the likes of Josh Drinkwater who appeared out of his depth in limited opportunities last season.
The NRL salary cap gives sides like the Dragons the opportunity to claw their way back into contention more quickly than you would find in unrestricted competitions in which inequality benefits successful clubs who can attract supporters and star players without finance being a concern. Rebuilding from an entrenched talent base is incredibly time consuming and time is something that Steve Price doesn’t have after two frankly disappointing seasons at the helm. In saying that, his ability to use the system to his advantage this off-season has impressed us enough to warrant our first team-based article looking to 2014.
The temptation to throw money at name players in the hope of attracting success was undoubtedly large, however the knowledgable recruitment demonstrated shows that there is more to this coach, and in turn this club than was witnessed last campaign.
The release of Jamie Soward midway through 2013 appeared to some a difficult decision. A Premiership playmaker with an exemplary kicking game and the ability to create even when playing alongside a mediocre halfback is a rare commodity. In many ways, Soward wasn’t a half, he was a whole at the Dragons, relied upon more so than any other half in the NRL. Uprooting the catalyst for the clubs’ Premiership success and the player that provided cohesion in an otherwise average squad was a difficult decision, but the ability to recognise a player’s decline is an important skill, apparently mastered by Price.
From 2008 in which he kicked at 77.14%, Soward declined, reaching 67.19% in 2012 and just 60% in 2013. Similarly, his ability to break the line came into doubt with his 12 tries in 2009 (26 games) surpassing the 9 he scored in 2011-2013 combined (55 games). More alarmingly, the unique and Origin-worthy combination of momentum-altering depth and pinpoint accuracy innate to his kicking game began to elude. A player bereft of confidence, much maligned by fans and a shadow of his former self was allowed to leave the club; and rightfully so.
In that same category falls Michael Weyman. After being selected to play for Australia in 2010, Weyman’s fall from grace has been almost immense as his thoroughly under-utilised frame. Out of favour under Price, Weyman passed the 100m mark just 3 times in his 19 games played in 2013, with lack of opportunity and ability to gain mentors after contact cited for this decline post Wayne Bennett.
The under-utilised Cameron King, who quickly emerged as extraneous and dispensable given the ability of Mitch Rein, has also left the club whilst the retirement of Nathan Fien is essentially a blessing given the make-shift halfback’s horror performance in the 7 jersey and the absence of a vacant dummy-half role at the Dragons.
No club ever experiences a perfect off-season however and aside from the retirement of Matt Cooper, who admittedly was far past his prime and lacked the individual attacking flare required of a salary-cap consuming star within a team building their identity primarily on defence, the loss of Matt Prior and Chase Stanley arguably detract from St George’s squad.
Prior’s versatility provided an intangible benefit to a St George side that for years has lacked dynamic second-rowers. A contributor who by deprived of recognition by virtue of his role, Prior’s departure is a loss, however not one that hasn’t been addressed by recruitment.
Stanley on the other hand is the type of player game-changing player the Dragons have struggled to find in the wake of Mark Gasnier’s retirement. The star centre, bound for the incredibly fortunate Bullodgs is likely to improve at a new club, having never reached his potential at Kograh, however once again, Steve Price has found a suitable replacement heading into 2014.
When the Roosters recruited Sonny-Bill Williams, it was a decision based on the player and his reputation as arguably the most talented athlete of the current generation. Whilst the move worked and Williams assisted Trent Robinson become a Premiership-winning coach in his maiden season, no player of a similar ilk was available following the Cowboys’ re-signing of Johnathan Thurston.
In response to this, Steve Price and Operations Manager Robert Finch adopted a need-based recruitment policy in which positions of loss and weakness were identified and players were sought to fill such voids. If a star player became available, regardless of their reputation, such a strategy was not to be broken if their services didn’t provide greater value than several more affordable players in actual positions of need.
The result is that the Dragons have channelled their limited salary cap to its greatest potential. There is no such issue as experienced by Cronulla where forward pack talent greatly exceeds that of their outside backs due to overspending on marquee players just because of their availability, but instead, an even spread of talent, experience and youthful exuberance fill jerseys 1-17 and provide cover in key positions in the greater squad.
Josh Dugan provides the Dragons with a centre-piece worthy of building a team around. His open admission to being excited by the prospect of playing off the hip of Gareth Widdop, a man with tremendous individual talent largely unappreciated in Melbourne and the experience of playing catalyst to a sensational fullback in Billy Slater, is promising. An ability to relinquish some playmaking responsibility puts Dugan at a distinct advantage heading into 2014 than he was this past season.
Partnering Widdop in the halves, former Canberra Raider Sam Williams looks likely to start after becoming surplus to the ‘Green Machine’s’ requirements following Terry Campese’s surprisingly healthy 2013 campaign – we’ll see how long that lasts. Williams, who had a try-assist in all but 3 of his 9 games last season looks a promising young player and will only benefit from being handed the reigns of a side. Often hesitant to express himself alongside the more appreciated duo of Campese and McCrone, look for Williams to play a more dominant role in the Dragons’ attack next season, essentially replacing Soward as the dominant half at the club.
Whilst this duo provide St George with a partnership similar in chemistry to Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney or Jeff Robson and Todd Carney, the greatest promise to be taken from these signings is that the pair likely to start in 2014 are substantially better than anything fielded in recent seasons. Even Ben Hornby’s time at halfback saw him play nothing more than a game-management role which allowed Jamie Soward greater creative license. Not only do Williams and Widdop both have the ability to excel individually, but they’re supported by former Warrior Michael Witt to form a triumvirate worthy of that Melbourne compiled in signing Brett Finch for the 2013 season. A superb goal kicker whose days in the NRL were unfairly under-appreciated given his playing in New Zealand, Witt provides cover for both halves and at fullback. The perfect example of Price seeking a player within a particular mould as opposed to signing players and attempting to fit them into a stringent system, Witt is a direct replacement for the kicking game, versatility and experience of Jamie Soward, however instead of relying on him for everything as the Dragons have in the past, Witt’s role to begin the 2014 is likely to be on the bench at best.
Paving the way for Sam Williams’ move from the remoteness of Canberra to the paradise that is Wollongong, Joel Thompson’s signing for the Dragons in April was the first of these many promising acquisitions. Deployed frequently in the centres prior to Blake Ferguson’s emergence in the nation’s capital, Price will look for Thompson to replace the production of the departed Matt Prior (Thompson averaged 22 tackles per match in 2013 compared to Prior’s 23), however will be optimistic that the athleticism of his new signing has the ability to challenge defences on the edge of the ruck. Prior’s 1 try and 1 line break pale in comparison to Thompson’s 3 and 5 respectively in 5 fewer games.
In Warrington Wolves youngster Mike Cooper, Price has found himself a prodigious talent in the mould of fellow Englishmen James Graham and George Burgess. With Trent Merrin moving to 13 and Michael Weyman’s contract not being renewed, Cooper will accompany fellow new-recruit Matt Groat in attempting to provide the Dragons’ much-improved yet youthful back-line with the momentum necessary for any playmaker to realise their potential. At just 25, Cooper’s greatest asset will be his ability to offload and make half-breaks given the exceptional support-play capabilities of Williams, Dugan and Widdop.
Typically, we’d see a Des Hasler-style, mobile and pass-first forward pack as more suitable for Cooper, however Price appears to be changing not only the squad composition of the Dragons, but the style with which they play. Merrin, Creagh and Cooper form the most mobile forward pack in the entire competition and whilst the Bullodgs’ Sam Kasiano, Greg Pritchard and James Graham arguably possess greater offloading potential, the support play derived from the presence of Dugan and Widdop make the Dragons contenders with the Warriors to be the best second-phase team in the NRL next season.
There is little doubt that the Dragons will improve on their 2013 showing, but by how much is a question that will really only begin to be answered once pre-season begins. Early indications have them ahead of all other clubs, aside from possibly Parramatta, in terms of offseason signings, however Steve Price’s worth can only truly be judged on whether the pieces he has assembled can fit together to form one cohesive side.
If most successful teams within a salary-capped competition require the worth of the team to exceed the sum of its individual parts, Steve Price and the Dragons have made a terrific start with their needs-based recruitment policy putting together a team that we think will finish between 7th and 11th this coming season at this preliminary stage. We’re expecting a lot of clubs to be competing for 7th and 8th in 2014 so if the Dragons do miss out, it won’t be by much!