New year, new recruits and new hopes – but can St George Illawarra lift themselves off the canvas to be an NRL force again? Illawarra Mercury rugby league writer Adam Pengilly analyses the five big questions surrounding the Dragons in 2014.
1. STEVE PRICE
Deja vu? It seems highly likely with an extra focus on St George Illawarra’s early season efforts when it comes to coach Steve Price. Gifted a contract extension after a run of three consecutive wins early in 2013, a similar string of results will help his bid to trigger the one-year option on his contract for 2015. Now with a roster he has coveted since taking over from Wayne Bennett, the proof will be in the pudding for Price. An early call on the Dragons’ direction? Don’t bet on it. Red V boss Peter Doust has already indicated Price will be given a little more time to warrant another extension than earlier this season, when a major roster overhaul necessitated a decision on his future before round seven.
2. CROWDED HOUSE
St George Illawarra will walk into the home dressing sheds at FIVE different venues in 2014. But will the fans follow? Believe it or not, the ‘‘home’’ matches at ANZ Stadium should attract a decent gate, if not an atmosphere to match. Homebush will be much more feasible for Bulldogs and Tigers fans to get to, guaranteeing a solid audience. And who won’t want to go to the Heritage Round clash at the SCG or the Anzac Day blockbuster at Allianz Stadium? But the true test will come when the St George Illawarra circus rolls into their spiritual homes four times throughout the year. The response of the disgruntled Kogarah and Wollongong-based fans will be fascinating theatre, particularly if the on-field fortunes aren’t favourable.
3. RECRUITMENT DRIVE
The names alone are enough to whet the appetite of even the most pessimistic Dragons fan: Gareth Widdop, Joel Thompson, Sam Williams, Dylan Farrell and Mike Cooper among others. It’s the biggest overhaul of the Dragons’ roster in recent memory, but it also comes with big expectations. Can Widdop be as effective as the conductor instead of a leading role in the orchestra? Will Williams earn first shot at No7? Can Farrell impress back in the centres? Will Cooper prove another Pommy hit Down Under? They’ll need to click into gear – fast – as Dragons fans will be impatient after a deflating 2013.
4. DAVID AND GOLIATH
They may field one of the biggest halfbacks in the competition if Kyle Stanley ends up wearing the No7, but the Dragons are going to field arguably the smallest pack in the competition. Fit and mobile they may be, but just where are the Dragons going to find their size when the NRL’s big boys are rumbling? Long gone are the premiership-winning mongrel men in Jeremy Smith and Neville Costigan from 2010. And what’s left a few years later is hardly going to strike fear into any opponent in the size stakes. Short-term additions Matt Groat and Josh Ailaomai are big boppers, but who can see them featuring regularly in the top 17? Watch for the Dragons middle to get a real working over next year.
5. KNEE-JERK REACTION
If there is a greater footballing father, he will ensure Kyle Stanley will pull on the Red V at some stage this year. And then stay injury free. On the way back from a fourth knee reconstruction, it’s mind-boggling to think he’s still only 22. That’s right, just 22. Stanley has been through the wringer in the past couple of years. But watching him in pre-season he’s well on track to figure in the trials. Any impact he can have in the halves – or even centres for that matter – will be a huge bonus for Price. And what of Gerard Beale? Stanley’s rehab buddy was starting to make a fist of the No1 last year before succumbing to the same curse. Signed to play fullback last summer, Beale will have to be content with the centres, with Josh Dugan immoveable at fullback.