Thursday 19 October 2017 / 09:41 PM

HAS THE DRAGONS’ BUBBLE BURST?

And the race for the eight just got interesting.

Newcastle’s heartwarming upset may have captured rugby league’s collective attention, but on the opposite side, the loss has severe repercussions for a St George Illawarra team in flux. After storming out of the gates and leading the competition seven rounds in, the Dragons now find themselves clinging to a place in the playoffs.

Adversity struck, as it inevitably does to each team over the course of a gruelling season, and the Dragons came crashing back to earth. Once the purple patch dried up, we got a cleaner look at what this team is made up of at a base level.

Since topping the ladder in Round 7, the Saints have only won four games. Aside from an impressive 52-22 thrashing of Manly, those wins haven’t been anything to write home about — four-point wins over the lowly Knights and Tigers and an away win against the Warriors on a bad day, none of whom should present any kind of issue. Over that stretch, they’ve dropped games to the Titans, Raiders, Bulldogs and most recently Newcastle, inferior sides that the contending teams have routinely taken care of.

It’s their lack of variation that’s come to hurt them. The Dragons win only one way — their forwards win the middle third and they either collect points there or force the defence to compress and use the numbers out wide. It isn’t an awfully innovative strategy, and they’ve struggled to create chances against strong defences, but it’s an effective use of the talent at hand.

Simplistic, but playing to their strengths, and in the context of the competitive teams, it may be the only genuine advantage they have. It’s a fairly common theory to suggest that any good attack has to come off the back of a solid platform, and the Dragons seem to be working with the best in the competition: they lead the league in meters per game (1701.5), offloads (13.8), and tackle busts (40.3), and they miss the least tackles (25.2).

Those numbers suggest nothing less than a rampaging pack outright dominating their opponents each week. But the attack still fails to fire with any kind of consistency. This is a team relying on their forwards to generate offence rather than using the platform they provide to launch the attack off the back of it. In this sense, they strangely have more in common with the Bulldogs than they do with the Roosters, which is concerning to say the least.

It’s hard to anchor an elite attack with a subpar No.7, and whilst they bide time waiting for BenHunt to arrive next season, they’ve yet to figure out a consistent way to create, instead living or dying by the inconsistent contributions of Josh McCrone. Gareth Widdop has been playing fantastic, no doubt, but when he is tasked with being the lead ball-handler, his impact is significantly restricted. That role doesn’t fit his skillset, and it holds him back from the spots where he is most effective – the instinctive, off-the-cuff play. Too often he is called upon to take the reins, and when he’s focused on leading the team around the park, they are void of any creative play. Hence, it goes back through the middle.

That, coupled with the increasing sample size that teams scouting them in preparation can pick apart and figure out how to shut them down, has led to a decrease in effectiveness.

Truly, the Dragons are a weird contradiction: they’re a scrappy team by construction, but struggle to contest with teams who are built in the same vein (losses to the Sharks, Dogs, Eels and Titans have all looked eerily similar). They predominately launch their attack through the middle, but are also routinely getting out-gained in games they’re losing.

Their simplicity is a double-edged sword. Whilst it may be low-risk and easy to implement, taking no chances and playing to a similar structure can make it straightforward to shut down.

And that’s not to say that they are playing the wrong style, because they are catering to the talent available. Rather, it’s outlining the type of team they really are. That’s how they go from putting up 22 points against the Storm to going try-less against the Bulldogs. And I would heavily suggest using that game as primary scouting for any team tasked with playing them down the stretch, the tactic to move up-and-in used by the Dogs is exactly how to shut them down.

Speaking of their run home, of the teams gunning for the finals, it would appear they have the easiest (last week’s missed opportunity included). Only one of their last five come against a current top-eight side (Brisbane) and three of the five are against struggling teams whose seasons are well and truly over. But it may not be as painless as that — two of the three perceived ‘easy’ games come against the Titans and Bulldogs, who have both beaten the Dragons already this year. And assuming the trajectory lends itself correctly, their season reaches a crescendo against the ninth-placed Panthers in Round 25, a compelling match-up with a pinch of irony, as it was against Penrith that this whirlwind campaign got off to a blazing start way back in Round 1.

After 21 rounds, and some wildly fluctuating form, we’ve got a grasp on where the Dragons truly lie in the premiership hierarchy, and with that a better sense of their identity of a team. Problem is, it’s still unknown whether the Dragons totally grasp who they are. As it gets to the pointy end of the season, that can become a major issue if it isn’t worked out immediately.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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