Price rolls dice by backing Dragons youth

St George Illawarra’s seismic overhaul of their squad is set to revolutionise last year’s NRL strugglers from one of the oldest sides in the competition to nearly the youngest.

In the clearest sign yet Steve Price’s roster shake-up is all but complete, only the opening round selection of rugby league journeyman Michael Witt over Sam Williams prevented the Dragons from fielding the youngest side in the NRL this weekend.

Ricky Stuart’s Canberra (24.29) and the club he fled last season, Parramatta (24.59), are set to boast squads with a smaller average age when the 2014 competition kicks off.

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The Dragons top 17 players come in at just 24.71 - swelled by the inclusion of 30-year-old Witt in preference to 22-year-old Williams. Witt is the only player in the Dragons’ full-time squad to be the wrong side of 30.

Quizzed on whether boasting such a young side was an issue, Dragons coach Steve Price said: ‘‘I think that got floated around a couple of weeks ago, but it’s not something I put too much [focus on].

‘‘It’s a bit of a catch-22 there, some people might like it and some people don’t. Teams that have won the flag over the past 10 years ... there’s been a bit of a mixture there. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong.’’

What Price and the Dragons’ recruitment strategy has done is quickly transform the Red V from an ageing side to a youthful one in the space of a year.

Gone are veterans Matt Cooper and Nathan Fien, who were both 33 when the Dragons began their 2013 campaign, while Michael Weyman, now plying his trade in the English Super League, was 28 in last year’s first round.

It means the average age of that squad hovered closer to 26.

But Price wants his younger charges to fast track their progression as they look to surge clear from near the bottom of the NRL cellar.

‘‘It’s a good opportunity for those guys [who have been in the NRL for a couple of years] to really stand up and make their mark,’’ Price said.

‘‘There are some players who have had about 40-50 NRL games that have a perfect opportunity to make their mark.

‘‘But in saying that you still like to have a few older heads around the organisation. We still have that with the likes of Ben Creagh, Jason Nightingale, Brett Morris and Dan Hunt.’’

St George Illawarra’s opening round opponents will be spearheaded by 19-year-old whiz kid Luke Brooks, who will be hoping to do in his second game what he did in his first in tormenting the Red V.

His direct opponent will be Witt, who has spent four years in the English Super League before being thrown an NRL lifeline before Christmas.

‘‘I think over our whole group we’ve a got a very young squad, but I think the core group are old heads,’’ said Dragons winger Jason Nightingale said.

‘‘Michael Witt starting in the halves brings the age average up a bit, but it’s great to have that sort of mix.’’

Average ages of the top 17 players selected for each NRL side in round one:

• Raiders 24.29

• Eels 24.59

• Dragons 24.71

• Bulldogs 25.12

• Roosters 25.12

• Tigers 25.12

• Broncos 25.18

• Warriors 25.47

• Storm 25.71

• Panthers 25.82

• Cowboys 25.94

• Titans 26

• Sea Eagles 26.06

• Rabbitohs 26.47

• Knights 26.71

• Sharks 26.82

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