Monday 20 November 2017 / 08:25 PM

NRL 2016 preview: St George Illawarra Dragons

In a nutshell…

It’s difficult to say with any certainty whether the Saints overachieved or underachieved in 2015. On one hand, they reached the finals for the first time in four years – despite grim pre-season predictions – but on the other, they won just four of their last 13 games to scrape into eighth, before a courageous qualifying final exit at the hands of Canterbury. Nevertheless, the Dragons have shored up some areas of weakness in another impressive recruitment drive and shape as a potential threat in 2016.

 

Recruitment

2016 Gains: Kalifa Faifai Loa (Gold Coast Titans, 2017), Siliva Havili (New Zealand Warriors, 2017), Sebastine Ikahihifo (New Zealand Warriors, 2017), Tim Lafai (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 2017), Dunamis Lui (Manly Sea Eagles, 2017), Kurt Mann (Melbourne Storm, 2017), Mose Masoe (St Helens RLFC, 2017), Tyrone McCarthy (Hull Kingston Rovers, 2017), Josh McCrone (Canberra Raiders, 2017), Taane Milne (Sydney Roosters, 2017), Russell Packer (2017)

2016 Losses: Shannon Crook (released), Addin Fonua-Blake (released), Craig Garvey (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Nathan Green (Manly Sea Eagles), Dan Hunt (retired), Justin Hunt (Wests Tigers), Mark Ioane (London Broncos), Jack Kavanagh (released), Kris Keating (released), Heath L’Estrange (retired), Trent Merrin (Penrith Panthers), Eto Nabuli (rugby union), Dane Nielsen (released), Rory O’Brien (Parramatta Eels), Luke Page (QLD Cup), Charly Runciman (Widnes Vikings), Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard (released), Shannon Wakeman (released)

 

Despite the departure of Test forward Trent Merrin, St George Illawarra has finished very much on the positive side of the transfer ledger, adding quality depth in the pack and coming up with a couple of outstanding backline pick-ups in Kurt Mann and Tim Lafai.

 

Backs

The Saints’ backline looks relatively settled with new boys Mann and Lafai likely to team up in the centres, and Peter Mata’utia and Jason Nightingale near-certainties for the wing spots. The only change to that line-up will be if Josh Dugan’s rumoured switch to centre eventuates, which would see the versatile Mann thrust into the fullback spot.

Impressive 2015 rookie Euan Aitken and the returning Kalifa Faifai Loa, who debuted for the club in 2010, will be pushing hard for a call-up.

 

Halves

Gareth Widdop and Benji Marshall proved one of the NRL’s most effective combinations in 2015, with the revitalised Marshall’s form, in particular, one of the season’s most remarkable comeback stories. Recruit Josh McCrone is a handy back-up to have on hand.

 

Forwards

Viewed as a distinct weakness heading into 2015, the Dragons’ forwards stood up big time and helped the club craft the fourth-best defensive record in the competition. Tyson Frizell, Joel Thompson, Leeson Ah Mau, Mike Cooper and hooker Mitch Rein all produced career-best campaigns as the Saints’ pack established itself as one of the NRL’s most dynamic.

Big Kiwi props Russell Packer and Mose Masoe are both likely to come into the first-choice 17, tempering the loss of ball-playing star Merrin. Jack De Belin and captain Ben Creagh will be fighting to ward off the claims of several recruits, including Dunamis Lui, Sebastine Ikahihifo and Englishman Tyrone McCarthy, while Will Mathews and Jake Marketo are still in the mix.

McCrone and Kiwi international Siliva Havili will battle it out for the interchange utility spot, with both experienced in the dummy-half role.

Trump cards

Benji Marshall: Second-equal in the Dally M Medal and racking up 22 try assists in the No.7 jumper, it was one hell of a renaissance for the 30-year-old Kiwi great.

Josh Dugan: Such a busy and energetic competitor, Dugan provides the game-breaking punch the Dragons generally lack.

Tyson Frizell: Emerged as one of the most blockbusting backrowers in the game in 2015 to push for a NSW call-up. Frizell recorded 51 tackle breaks and five line breaks in a breakout season, while averaging 36 tackles and 107 metres per game.

Under the pump

Ben Creagh: On the verge of breaking Ben Hornby’s all-time Saints appearance record, Creagh started on the bench in 15 of his 21 appearances last year, and will be under pressure to retain a spot in the 17 with so much forward depth in the wider squad.  

Sebastine Ikahihifo: The rugged forward was too enigmatic to cement a place in the Warriors’ top 17 – which says it all about the 24-year-old, really. A solid player, but the veteran of 39 NRL games consistently found himself on NSW Cup duty due to frequent handling and discipline lapses.

Russell Packer: By all accounts he’s turned his life around after a jail stint for a vicious assault, but after narrowly avoiding being deported back to New Zealand, Packer will be among the most heavily scrutinised players in the premiership as he mounts a remarkable comeback to the elite level.

 

X-factors

Tim Lafai: Bewilderingly cast aside by Canterbury to make room for Will Hopoate, Lafai could be one of the buys of the year if he can add some much-needed firepower out wide for a Dragons side that struggles to pile on points.

Mose Masoe: Looking to follow the lead of fellow Kiwi-born forwards Sam Moa and Sia Soliola by enjoying an NRL renaissance after an impressive Super League stint, the giant prop is still only 26. If he can make the same sort of impact that he did during Samoa’s 2014 Four Nations campaign, the Dragons will get excellent value out of the former Roosters, Panthers and St Helens bookend.

Cooper Cronk: Strong rumours the club is about to make a major play for the off-contract Melbourne superstar could prove unsettling for the squad in the short term – particularly for current linchpin Marshall.

Achilles heel

The Dragons scored an NRL-low 71 tries during the 2015 regular season – despite having one of the most threatening halves pairings in the competition. The added firepower of Lafai should help alleviate that deficiency.

 

2015 Stats Leaders

Tries: Gareth Widdop – 9

Try Assists: Benji Marshall – 22

Line Breaks: Josh Dugan – 10

Tackle Breaks: Josh Dugan – 107

Offloads: Jack De Belin – 27

Average Metres: Josh Dugan – 185.3

Average Tackles: Mitch Rein – 39.1

Goalkicking

After landing just two-thirds of his attempts in 2014, Widdop lifted his success rate to a handy 78 % last year. Marshall boasts over 400 first-grade goals at 71 %, while Dugan and Lafai are both able back-ups.

 

The coach

A contender for Coach of the Year honours in 2015 given the Dragons’ early-season plight, Paul McGregor has emerging as potentially one of the finest coaching brains in the NRL. ‘Mary’ is signed until the end of 2017, but a strong start to this season should see the club tabling an extension offer.

 

The captain

There’s a strong likelihood that Ben Creagh will be starting from the bench, as he did for a solid chunk of last season – and could lose his place in the 17 altogether. To that end, McGregor recently named Widdop as co-captain for 2016.

Rep drain

Dugan is close to a certainty for the NSW side – at fullback or centre – while Frizell is rated a strong chance for the Blues, and Lafai, Thompson and Rein are all fringe candidates.

 

The draw

The Dragons’ draw has been rated the hardest in the competition in terms of opponents, playing all seven of their fellow top-eight sides from 2015 twice. Back-to-back games in Queensland in April against both of last year’s grand finalists will be a gruelling litmus test, while they kick the campaign off with consecutive away games against Melbourne and Cronulla.

Big clash

The Saints have a showdown with Souths at the SCG in Round 3, which could be one of the club’s season-defining clashes after tough early assignments against the Storm and Sharks.

 

Best line-up

Josh Dugan, Peter Mata’utia, Kurt Mann, Tim Lafai, Jason Nightingale, Gareth Widdop, Benji Marshall, Russell Packer, Mitch Rein, Leeson Ah Mau, Joel Thompson, Tyson Frizell, Mike Cooper. Int: Ben Creagh, Jack De Belin, Mose Masoe, Siliva Havili.

 

What the bookies think

Premiership: $34 (13th)

Minor premiership: $34

Top 8: $2.50

Top 4: $7

Wooden Spooner: $11

 

CBS experts’ prediction

Will – 10th

Telly – 12th

Drew – 11th

[YouTube – NRL Hub]

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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