After exploding out of the gate and leading the competition through seven rounds, the Dragons were unable to maintain their hot form and a landslip end to 2017 saw them become the first team in premiership history to fall from the top of the ladder to completely out of the playoff picture, falling one game short of the finals. Some big-name acquisitions appear to have rounded out their squad and filled in their flaws, but can the Red V bounce back and climb into the top eight?
2017 SNAPSHOT: 9th (12-12); Points For – 533 (5th), Points Against – 460 (6th)
BEST RECRUIT: After putting pen to paper early in the year, marquee man Ben Hunt will make his long-awaited arrival to the Red V and slot into a well-suited halves pairing alongside club captain Gareth Widdop. The Dragons were crying out for a presence at halfback last year, and if Hunt can match his peak Broncos form he’ll put this team over the edge and transform the attack.
— The Dragons (@NRL_Dragons) November 11, 2017
KEY MAN: Gareth Widdop was far and away the Dragons’ best in 2017, but was overburdened with playmaking duties that took energy away from his brilliant instinctual play. With the arrival of Hunt, Widdop should be free to get back to playing his more preferred secondary role, carrying over his strong form for England in the World Cup.
UNDER THE PUMP: The Dragons’ powerful forward pack was the driving force behind their hot start before falling off and regressing back to average. Switching out Russell Packer for James Graham should shore up their middle defence and improve their consistency, whilst a better run of health for Tyson Frizell will see his impact return to normal levels. If they fail to fire, the Saints will fall well below expectations; plenty rides on their big men.
Coach Paul McGregor believes the addition of Test incumbents and finals regulars Ben Hunt and James Graham can remedy the @NRL_Dragons late-game struggles that cost them an @NRL finals berth last season @Mitch_Jenno https://t.co/z0OjGyRUxM
— Mercury Sport (@mercury_sports) December 26, 2017
SELECTION POSER: With the exit of backline staple Josh Dugan, the fullback job is wide open. Boom rookie Matt Dufty appears to have inside lane after getting an early audition down the back end of the season, but concerns over his size still hold him back. Kurt Mann is the safest option, whilst Jai Field and 18-year-old young gun Zac Lomax present other youthful options. Euan Aitken might be worth a shot as a Dugan-esque ball-runner, but is unlikely.
YOUNG GUN: After dominating the NYC competition with his rare combination of mobility, size and skill, Luciano Leilua could provide a dynamic spark off the Saints’ bench and help bridge the time while Paul Vaughan rests, a problematic area in 2017. A familiar name in NRL circles, Leilua has already displayed his comfort at the top level in his few chances and has proven he’s ready for a chance for a full-time role.
BREAKOUT SEASON ALERT: Cameron McInnes was a bargain buy for the Dragons last year and put forth the best season of his career to date. His defensive output was terrific — leading the league with over 48 tackles per game — but his running game left plenty to be desired. With the addition of Hunt and behind a strong pack, McInnes should find himself with extra space to carry the footy, and if he can add to the offensive side of his game, he’ll be in the running to push for a rep jersey.
THE STAT: After racing out of the blocks and winning six of their first seven, the Dragons fell right off, only winning four games in their last 12 which eventually saw them fall out of the playoff picture. Consistency has to be on the agenda for 2018.
COACH’S JOB SECURITY DANGER RATING: Moderate – Faith in McGregor was low to start 2017, but a hot start cooled pressure and secured him a two-year extension that already looks premature. By the back end of the season the Dragons were struggling for consistency and saw their play dip across the board. This year may quietly be make or break for Mary at the Dragons. If he wasn’t already signed on past this year, this rating would be higher.
— The Dragons (@NRL_Dragons) November 22, 2017
THE DRAW: Glass Half Full – A cozy start to the season with six of their opening 10 games at home and five of those coming against non-playoff teams from 2017. They avoid any heavy travel, leaving Sydney only five times through the year. Striking a neat balance, 12 of their fixtures are against finals teams with the other half against bottom eight sides.
Glass Half Empty – Only two of their final seven games are at home in a tough period where they face two of last year’s top four (Roosters and Eels) and a tough away trip to face the 2017 runners-up in Townsville.
POSSIBLE LINE-UP TO START 2018:
1 Matt Dufty
2 Nene Macdonald
3 Euan Aitken
4 Tim Lafai
5 Jason Nightingale
6 Gareth Widdop
7 Ben Hunt
8 James Graham
9 Cameron McInnes
10 Paul Vaughan
11 Tyson Frizell
12 Joel Thompson
13 Jack de Belin
14 Leeson Ah Mau
15 Tariq Sims
16 Hame Sele
17 Luciano Leilua
WAY TOO-EARLY FORECAST: Playoff contender, 6-10 range.