St George Illawarra coach Steve Price will have the first six weeks of the NRL season to prove he can turn the Dragons into a premiership force again.
New life was breathed into Price's career yesterday, after title-winning Melbourne super coach Craig Bellamy officially announced he was staying with the Storm for at least the next four years.
Price is off contract at the end of 2013 and the Mercury understands Dragons management have no agenda to pursue another alternative for at least the next two months.
St George Illawarra chief executive Peter Doust made an offer worth more than $5 million over five years for Bellamy to move to Wollongong.
However, they were gazumped by a deal worth as much as $8 million if the former NSW coach commits to a two-year extension on top of the four-season deal he committed to yesterday.
Price will not just be judged by ladder position after six rounds of the NRL season, it will also be a measure of how the revamped Dragons attack is working.
The club has a testing opening to the season, starting with a trip to Melbourne to play Bellamy's Storm and games against Brisbane, the Sharks, Newcastle and Wests Tigers, as well as trying to break the long-standing hoodoo in Canberra.
Round seven is a bye for the representative weekend and by the time the Anzac Day battle with the Roosters arrives, the Dragons hierarchy will have a clearer picture of their intentions for next year.
Former Dragons and Queensland great Mark Coyne said Bellamy's decision helped take pressure off Price.
"It's a good thing it's been done before the season kicks off," Coyne told the Mercury yesterday.
"As much as [Price] has said it hasn't been a distraction, I'm sure it's something he's been thinking about, which would add to the pressure of the situation.
"But now the decision has been made before the competition kicks off, Price knows the job is his if they do well this season."
‘‘At least he knows now that he doesn’t have to worry about the talk of Bellamy coming [to the Dragons].’’
At yesterday’s press conference, held before Melbourne boarded a plane for England to play in the World Club Challenge against Leeds, Bellamy conceded the negotiations had become a distraction for him.
He also admitted the emotional attachment to the Storm proved to be a deciding factor in not moving to Wollongong.
Melbourne won the 2007 and 2009 premierships which were later stripped because of the club’s salary cap rorts, before they claimed last year’s title with the grand final victory over Canterbury.
‘‘They were quite attractive offers from some other clubs, but it was too hard to cut the rope,’’ Bellamy said.
‘‘This is my club, the emotional attachment is very strong especially to the players.
‘‘There’s a fair few of the players who have been here a fair while – six, eight, 10 years – and I really enjoy working with the group of players we’ve got here.
‘‘It was an ongoing process for a little while, probably the last 8-10 days it intensified. It was time to make a decision.
‘‘I was always hoping to have it settled not only for myself, but the club as well. It’s been a bit of a distraction to me.’’
After winning a premiership in 2010, the Dragons missed the finals for the first time since 2007 last year when Price took over from Wayne Bennett.
St George Illawarra struggled to secure a big-name playmaker – they made a big-money offer to Cooper Cronk, but refused to match his $800,000 asking price – before Ben Hornby retired last year.
New Zealand international Nathan Fien is the first-choice halfback, but teenager Josh Drinkwater, recruited from the Manly under 20 squad, is the only other recognised first-receiver.
Coyne denied the drawn-out Bellamy saga would undermine the squad’s confidence in Price or their prospects this year.
‘‘It might have been a factor in the days when I played, but not these days,’’ he said.
‘‘They would be taking the approach that they just [do] what they’re told and work on the day-to-day things to be ready for the season.’’
Still, Coyne said Price would be acutely aware of how important an impressive start to the season would be to his career.
‘‘He’ll know he won’t want to be looking at 2-6 (win-loss) to start the season,’’ he said.
‘‘If that’s the case the pressure will be there, not only for the club but through the media.
‘‘But that is the case with all coaches, it’s such a competitive environment and the longevity of a coaching career ultimately comes down to results.’’