THIS week the Dragons took the first tentative steps towards digging themselves out of the hole they finished the 2016 season in.
It was hole so deep that, just over a month after the grand final, they’re almost universally tipped to finish bottom four in 2017, possibly at the very bottom.
Such predictions in November are an exercise in foolishness so Game On won’t be making any but, with the club having turned the first sod this week, it’s worth considering the biggest question marks hanging over them heading into 2017.
There were several factors that contributed to the club’s slide in 2016, injuries, a tough a draw, rep commitments but it became abundantly clear by the end of the season that instability surrounding player contracts was a huge contributor.
With less big names off-contract this season that’s less likely to unsettle the playing group but there’s no doubt it’s speculation about the coach’s future that has the biggest potential to derail their 2017 campaign.
Looking at the situation dispassionately, retaining Paul McGregor as coach was the right decision. As coach he bears ultimate responsibility for the club’s on-field performance – he’d be the first to tell you you that – and the Dragons simply weren’t up to scratch in 2016. Fans might love to see a supercoach parachuted in to fix all the club’s woes in one fell swoop but such hopes are not grounded in reality.
It’s no secret the club is not flush with cash – it’s millions of dollars in debt to the NRL – so paying out a coach in the last year of his contract to basically twiddle his thumbs for a season was never going to be a wise move.
Still, McGregor is a coach under pressure and there’d be no one more aware of that than the man himself. He inherited a roster in deep salary cap strife and took the club to it’s only finals appearance in the past five years. That buys some grace, certainly more than most fans were willing to grant him this year, but if the start of the 2017 season sees a continuation of the form the Dragons finished 2016 finish with, calls for his sacking will only grow louder. It doesn’t afford the luxury of a slow start.
Moving on to the playing group there’s no doubt the Dragons will boast a better arsenal in the forwards next year than they did in 2016. People have suggested the club paid overs to sign Paul Vaughan but he’s just the type of player the Dragons needed up front. His time in reserve grade this season said a lot more about the Raiders forward depth than the three-time Country rep’s ability.
Russell Packer will be better again for his first NRL season in four years and with man-mountain Mose Masoe returning from injury and the Dragons look as formidable up front as they have in a number of seasons. Between Jack de Belin, Joel Thompson and Tariq Sims and Tyson Frizell, who are all under the age of 30, they boast an all-rep back-row.
Of course that still leaves the the biggest question mark hovering over the 2017 Dragons: where are their points going to come from?
Benji Marshall wore the brunt of criticism for the club’s attacking woes last season but the fact remains, in just 16 games, he led the Dragons in line-break assists and try assists. Whether that was evidence of him leading or stifling the attack is a matter of opinion but there’s no doubt it leaves a hole.
Drew Hutchison is tipped as the man to fill it and will carry a fair weight on his shoulders next year. His performances for the Illawarra Cutters in the second-tier finals series last year were nothing short of outstanding. It also bodes well that he was the architect of the most potent attack in the Intrust Super Premiership. It was no surprise to those who’ve watched his rise through the juniors but the biggest difference is a new glint in his eye, a new swagger in his walk.
It’s not arrogance, you won’t meet a more humble kid, but there’s no question he’s flicked the switch. The Red V faithful will be hoping he can do it on the paddock.