SO after holding all their salary cap cards last year, the Dragons are prepared to go all-in on Broncos playmaker Ben Hunt.
They were always ready to launch into the market, though it’s hard to gauge the club’s strategic planning when David Warwick and Peter Mulholland have left the recruitment office in recent times and coach Paul McGregor is off contract at the end of the season.
The next big signing must be a coup to turn their premiership fortunes around and appease the restless Dragons faithful at the same time.
It’s early days, but the scuttlebutt out there suggests signing Hunt could be to replace captain Gareth Widdop, rather than partner him in 2018.
The Dragons are expected to be patient with Drew Hutchison and provide him another chance in the NRL when he is fit again, after the luckless anterior cruciate ligament injury which has ruined his year already.
Widdop’s form has been patchy the past two seasons and he has previously been forced to deny suggestions he wanted out of the club.
So the picture may become clear early on this season, perhaps even by May or June, about Widdop’s future, particularly if the Dragons can land the Hunt deal early.
The knock on Hunt has always been whether he possesses the kicking game to be the dominant premiership halfback Brisbane – and now the Dragons – desire, even though he came close to winning one in 2015.
But at 26, he is coming into the prime of his career and still has upside.
In the meantime, Dragons fans are anxious for Widdop to start the season in style and offer some hope for a finals campaign.
They scored just 341 points last year, only above Newcastle in the points-for column.
A return to WIN Stadium this week came with a declaration from Widdop, who said “I’ll certainly be taking charge more”.
In vowing to help reshape the Dragons’ attack, Widdop maintained he had confidence in the players in the squad who could fill the gap once reserved for Hutchison.
“It opens an opportunity and obviously we’ve got Josh McCrone, who played 150 first grade games and Jai Field and Shaun Nona,” he said this week.
“So we’ve got plenty of players for that position.”
Previously, this column discussed the Dragons taking the risk on switching Kurt Mann to the halves, after his failed move to fullback last season.
The early indications are Mann at halfback is unlikely, as McGregor tries a number of options during preseason training, at the Auckland Nines and during trials against the Tigers and Souths.
And there could still yet be a selection shock or two to come, with Matt Dufty impressing in his first NRL preseason, putting Josh Dugan’s move to the centres back on the table.
Mann has been touted as a potential halves candidate to partner Dragons captain and fellow former Melbourne Storm player Gareth Widdop.
They include the experienced McCrone, the untried Shaun Nona, who was super-impressive in the Illawarra Cutters premiership and national championship success, and emerging talent Jai Field.
Nona in particular is an exciting prospect.
At 26, he’s done a lengthy apprenticeship in the Queensland and NSW Premiership competitions. But it would mean Widdop would truly need to take over the organisation of the team behind what is an impressive forward pack.
If not, the discussion on whether Hunt is the long-term solution, or worth the offer of close to a million dollars per season, will intensify.
But wherever you stand on Hunt, now it’s out there, signing him could prove as important as early wins this season for the Dragons.
They really cannot afford another battering from their own fan base, after the ongoing sideshow of missing out on key signings in recent times.