St George Illawarra Dragons – 2014 NRL Preview

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Rugby League writer Daniel Boss starts his 16-part preview of the 2014 NRL season with a look at the St George Illawarra Dragons. This article is partly written in response to Roman Barbera’s recent piece on the Dragons’ signings for 2014 and is best read in conjunction.

2013 Review

The 2013 NRL season saw the Dragons’ slide since the 2010 premiership continue. Their 14th placed finish was the worst finish in the history of the joint venture (since 1999), as the Dragons were only able to win 7 games for the entire season. This is also the lowest number of wins for St George Illawarra in the history of the merger. The big story in 2013 for the Dragons was the unceremonious departure of Premiership-winning five-eighth Jamie Soward. As a result, coach Steve Price is on the hot seat going into the 2014 season. Expectations from Dragons supporters are also high, especially with a number of key signings for next season.

An area that the Dragons will be looking at improving in 2014 is their defence. When comparing the 2013 season to the 2012 season, the Dragons conceded almost 4 points more per game in 2013. Defence kept the Dragons in games in 2012 but they were unable to rely on it in 2013. However, their key signings suggest that they are looking at improving their attack. In both 2012 and 2013, the Dragons were well below the average in terms of points scored per game (3.7 in 2012 and 4.7 in 2013 points below the average per game).

Outside Backs

The Dragons’ back 3 is one of the strongest in the league, which comprises of fullback Josh Dugan and wingers Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale. The centres are a little less stable, especially after the retirement of Matt Cooper and the departures of Chase Stanley and Daniel Vidot. A strong contender for a place in the centres includes last year’s big signing Gerard Beale, Kyle Stanley, Nathan Green and 2014 signing Dylan Farrell. All of these options provide a potentially potent attacking centre pair and could be an area of significant improvement in 2014.

Halves

In regards to areas in need of improvement, the Dragons desperately need some improvement in the halves. Last season, Nathan Fien (who is better suited as at hooker) played at halfback and the five eight position was a revolving door, following Soward’s departure. Fien has now since retired, which leaves both spots open for the taking. Star signing Gareth Widdop will start the season at five-eighth. It remains to be seen if Widdop can be as effective without Cronk, Smith and Slater alongside him. The halfback spot will be more competitive, as 2014 signings Sam Williams and Michael Witt will compete with Kyle Stanley, Adam Quinlan and Josh Drinkwater for the starting halfback position. Whatever way the Dragons go, they should be better served in 2014.

Front Row

The Dragons lost long-time prop Michael Weyman to Hull KR and young hooker Cameron King to North Queensland for the 2014 season. The once formidable front row of the Dragons is all but gone. They still have Dan Hunt in the front row and up-and-coming hooker Mitch Rein. Skipper Ben Creagh should again be starting in the front row, as he did last season, with the depth that the Dragons have in the back row. In my opinion, Creagh is much better served in the back row. In terms of depth, the Dragons will benefit from the experience that Jack Stockwell gained last season. They have added Englishman Mike Cooper and Matt Groat, which will provide more depth to the front row stocks. Groat has not played first grade since mid-2011 and Cooper is an unknown quantity but comes from England with some wraps. The NRL is a much more intense and higher quality competition than the English Super League, so Cooper may struggle to provide an impact initially. The Dragons also do have Leeson Ah Mau who has played a bit of front row, however the big men as a whole are not an area of strength.

Back Row

St George does possess one of the best back rowers in the competition in lock Trent Merrin, who is one of their key players. Last year, Tyson Frizell showed that he can be a strong starting back rower and should improve again in 2014. The other place in the second row will be up for grabs. One of last year’s best back rowers Matt Prior has left to go to Cronulla, so it will be up to the likes of Jack de Belin, Bronson Harrison and Canberra signing Joel Thompson to fill that void. Even with Prior’s departure, the back row of the Dragons is an area of strength. De Belin has now had two years in first grade and will look to live up to the expectations that came with being named the Under 20’s player of the year in 2011. Thompson’s ability to run at gaps at the edge of defences should provide more much needed attacking potency for the Dragons next season.

Bench

The Dragons rarely carried a back on the bench in 2013 and I expect this trend to continue in 2014. The above mentioned Thompson, as well as Bronson Harrison, can play in the backline. This will provide cover for any injuries that may occur in the backline during games. I expect two props on the bench as the Dragons do lack a bit of size in the forward pack. As a result, I don’t see a great deal of impact coming off the bench for the Dragons next season. Along with their small pack, this is a reason why Dragons fans should not be too optimistic of their chances in 2014.

Coach

As mentioned above, Dragons coach Steve Price is under a great deal of pressure heading into the 2014 season. In his first two seasons, he was in charge of an aging squad that had its premiership window closed and was put together by Wayne Bennett. This season is the first time that Price has a squad that has been suited to the style of play that he wants. There are no more excuses for Price and another dismal season should see Price’s departure. This season, we will see if Price has what it takes to coach at the first grade level. So, even though he has been coaching for two seasons, Price’s coaching ability is still somewhat of an unknown quantity.

Best squad

  1. Josh Dugan
  2. Brett Morris
  3. Gerard Beale
  4. Dylan Farrell
  5. Jason Nightingale
  6. Gareth Widdop
  7. Sam Williams
  8. Dan Hunt
  9. Mitch Rein
  10. Ben Creagh
  11. Tyson Frizell
  12. Joel Thompson
  13. Trent Merrin
  14. Bronson Harrison
  15. Jack de Belin
  16. Jack Stockwell
  17. Mike Cooper

Prediction

11th. While I do think that the Dragons will improve, I can’t see them improving too greatly from last season. For me, there are far too many question marks on this side, especially regarding the lack of size and impact in the forward pack as well as on their coach Steve Price. In addition to this, they will have a new halves combination that will take time to develop. There are quite a few winnable games in the opening two months of the competition. Their performance in these games will be a strong indicator of the Dragons’ fate in 2014.

2014 Ladder Prediction

  1. St George Illawarra Dragons
  2. Brisbane Broncos
  3. Wests Tigers
  4. Parramatta Eels
  5. Canberra Raiders
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