2018 Review: St George Illawarra Dragons

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Our eleventh NRL club review is in - Justin Davies has a look at how the Dragons aimed for the stars but fell short in an all-too-familiar 2018 campaign.

It seems like the Dragons are living through their own Groundhog Day. Buoyed by the signing of Ben Hunt, the joint venture started the season on fire. Winning 12 of their first 15 games which included impressive results against Melbourne and eventual premiers Sydney Roosters set things on course, but again their late season slump struck.

Once the Origin period hit, fans of the Red V felt that sinking feeling again. In the final ten rounds there were just four wins, with the lowest point being a pair of thumpings by cellar-dwellers Canterbury and Parramatta, which ultimately saw them limp into the finals series for the first time since 2011.

The Dragons season topped and tailed with glory - but there is work to be done in the middle portion, where they have consistently dropped their bundle in recent seasons. While injuries to Gareth Widdop and Paul Vaughan didn't help matters late in the campaign, the joint venture showed there is plenty of talent in their ranks with emerging talents Luciano Leilua, Zac Lomax and Jordan Pereira all playing their role when called upon.

2018 was a success overall for the Red V, featuring a return to finals football which included an incredible ambush of Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium that will live long in the memories. Ben Hunt grew into his role as playmaker following his move away from the sunshine state, and Dragons had a forward pack that monstered opponents, earning four of them their place in the victorious New South Wales side, as well as Queensland's sole representative from the club in Hunt.

Despite all the hope, there remained a familiar smell around the Dragons - the fast start that saw them shoot to the top, before the predictable fade out in the back third ofthe season. That leaves some sharp questions for head coach Paul McGregor to answer in the off-season as they look to move a step further next year.

Is McGregor the man to lead that charge? If he can't get a similar tune out of the side in 2019, it might be time for a new man at the helm.

Turning point

The good

Amongst their impressive run in the first half of the season, the Dragons left their biggest impact on a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon at Kogarah, taking on premiers Melbourne Storm. The brutality and precison they displayed that day showed they were a premiership threat, and whilst the ending didn't match the euphoria of that day, St George Illawarra could match it with the heavyweights of the competition.

Through all the distractions, Dragons finished on a high, beating Newcastle 24-14 setting up a lamb to the slaughter trip to Suncorp, against a Brisbane side that had thrashed Manly the week prior. Cue the ambush.

Dragons shocked everyone, in a first half onslaught directed by Tariq Sim's hat-trick to crush the Broncos 48-18, that brought belief back to the red v faithful, and they did bow out the week after in a virtuoso display from Adam Reynolds, the vital signs are promising for 2019.

The bad

As Saints fans queued to secure their Grand Final tickets, the team fell to pieces after the Origin period - combined with injuries this shunted the once-leaders into the bottom eight. The lowest point came on a different Sunday at Kogarah, this time, Dragons' left heads bowed after a 38-0 defeat to Canterbury on an emotional day for the club, just days after the tragic loss of club legend Lance Thompson.

What worked

When the Saints were marching, it came from the tireless work of the forward pack - from James Graham and Paul Vaughan setting the platform, to the workhorses of Tyson Frizell and Tariq Sims and the cutting technique of Jack De Belin - the result was a majority of the pack being selected for rep honours. At club level, they gave enough space for the magic of the Widdop and Hunt combination to weave past defences and pile on the points.

What didn't

When the table wasn't set, the Dragons looked like their old selves. They didn't surpass 20 points in any of their nine defeats in 2018. The backline wasn't stocked with many stars, instead relying on workmanlike performers in Jason Nightingale and Tim Lafai, and whilst Nene Macdonald, Matt Dufty and Euan Aitken had some highlights, when it got to the bigger stage the outside men were stunted and relied on the forwards to provide the try-scoring punch.

The use of the Dragons bench remained puzzling in 2018. They regularly carried a utility on the bench, in Kurt Mann or Jai Field - then bizzarly for a few weeks Jason Nightingale - and it seemed like McGregor aimed to jam square pegs into round holes as it left their rotation mixed up and didn't help fatigue levels near the end of the season. 'Mary' has to find the right bench mix to help out his forwards headed into 2019.

Best player

Fitting with all the Super hero movies released in 2018, that this belonged to the Saints' own Ironman in Tyson Frizell. 'Frizz' lined up 23 times this season in the Red V, and combined with Origin appearances, 2018 brought his best try return of five which included a heroic long-range effort against Souths.

In a star-studded forward pack he was the compass for the Saints, charging forward for 2543 run metres, an average of 100 per game making him a consistent force even when the Dragons were struggling for form.

Across the backline, Gareth Widdop sparkled with his early season performances, 11 of his 17 try-assists came in the first half of the season, as did half of his own tries. Probably the biggest asset Widdop had was his absence which coincided with the Saints' slump, and his final act of the season was the breathtaking first half demolition of Brisbane in the finals underlined his value.

Rookies

Appearing more regularly late in the season, young centre Zac Lomax debuted in Round 10 from the bench, but had to wait in the wings behind Euan Aitken in the three-quarter line-up. Through Aitken's injury, Lomax was able to carve out three more late season appearances, where he showed glimpses of his exciting attack, and calm with his 11 goals, including a few clutch ones in semi-finals. Overall his performances showed there are some prime cuts to challenge for starting spots next season.

The other major rookie for the Saints was Kiwi flyer Jordan Pereira. His three tries in eight appearances is a modest return, but the youngster showed in his returns and the barrage of high kicks from Adam Reynolds in the semi-final loss to the Rabbitohs that he is capable of taking one of the vacant wing spots for 2019 after the retirement of veteran Jason Nightingale.

Feeder club round-up

In the NSWRL Intrust Super Premiership, the Dragons were one of the stronger clubs, finishing second after the regular season and finding their way to the penultimate weekend of the competition, eventually falling to premiers and state champions Canterbury in a tight contest. The Under 20's Jersey Flegg Cup side scraped into the finals in 8th place, falling at the first hurdle in an elimination final week loss to the 5th placed Roosters.

Looking ahead

2019 looms as another successful year for the Dragons, with the club retaining much of their roster from this season, with the exception of the retiring Nightingale, and departures of McDonald & Leeson Ah Mau. Aided by their experience in finals footy, and some more fortune with injury, there's no reason the Red V can't again be involved in the finals series - and possibly further.

Add another year of the Widdop-Hunt connection behind the devastating forward pack the Dragons possess, and it puts them up there with the contenders, and undoubtedly Red V fans will be hoping to be in that number, on the first Sunday in October.

Potential 2019 lineup

Based on current signings

1. Matt Dufty
2. Zac Lomax
3. Euan Aitken
4. Tim Lafai
5. Jordan Pereira
6. Gareth Widdop
7. Ben Hunt
8. James Graham
9. Cameron McInnes
10. Paul Vaughan
11. Tyson Frizell
12. Tariq Sims
13. Jack De Belin

14. Jeremy Latimore
15. Blake Lawrie
16. Luciano Leilua
17. Kurt Mann

2018 Results

1
St George Illawarra Dragons 34
Brisbane Broncos 12
W
2
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 16
St George Illawarra Dragons 20
W
3
Gold Coast Titans 8
St George Illawarra Dragons 54
W
4
St George Illawarra Dragons 30
Newcastle Knights 12
W
5
St George Illawarra Dragons 16
South Sydney Rabbitohs 12
W
6
St George Illawarra Dragons 40
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 20
W
7
Warriors 20
St George Illawarra Dragons 12
L
8
St George Illawarra Dragons 24
Sydney Roosters 8
W
9
St George Illawarra Dragons 34
Melbourne Storm 14
W
10
South Sydney Rabbitohs 24
St George Illawarra Dragons 10
L
11
St George Illawarra Dragons 25
Canberra Raiders 18
W
12
Penrith Panthers 28
St George Illawarra Dragons 2
L
13
St George Illawarra Dragons 0
BYE
14
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 16
St George Illawarra Dragons 18
W
15
St George Illawarra Dragons 32
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 8
W
16
St George Illawarra Dragons 20
Parramatta Eels 18
W
17
Melbourne Storm 52
St George Illawarra Dragons 30
L
18
St George Illawarra Dragons 16
Wests Tigers 20
L
19
North Queensland Cowboys 10
St George Illawarra Dragons 24
W
20
Sydney Roosters 36
St George Illawarra Dragons 18
L
21
St George Illawarra Dragons 12
Warriors 18
L
22
Parramatta Eels 40
St George Illawarra Dragons 4
L
23
Wests Tigers 10
St George Illawarra Dragons 20
W
24
St George Illawarra Dragons 0
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 38
L
25
Newcastle Knights 14
St George Illawarra Dragons 24
W
Finals Week 1
Brisbane Broncos 18
St George Illawarra Dragons 48
W
Finals Week 2
South Sydney Rabbitohs 13
St George Illawarra Dragons 12
L

By the Stats

32
Competition Points
15
Matches Won
0
Matches Drawn
9
Matches Lost
519
Points Scored
472
Points Conceded