ST GEORGE Illawarra coach Paul McGregor will take a step away from recruitment and retention next year after admitting instability around player contracts was a huge factor in the Dragons disappointing 2016 season.
The Dragons dropped seven of their last nine games to limp to an 11th place finish amid uncertainty around the future of off-contract stars Benji Marshall and Mitch Rein, with both ultimately moving on at season’s end.
With almost half the Dragons playing group off-contract in 2017 – including the likes of Josh Dugan, Gareth Widdop, Jack de Belin and Euan Aitken – McGregor said he won’t let contract talks derail the club’s fortunes again in 2017.
“I’ve been involved [in recruitment] the last two seasons but, after reviewing 2016, [stepping back] was something that needed to happen,” McGregor said.
“There was a lot of external pressure applied, and that’s something I can’t control, but there were times where I let it control me a little bit.
“Certainly my energy was channeled into things that were taking me away from my primary responsibilities and my primary role and I was getting frustrated by it.
“That’s a lesson I’ve learned, you can’t put too much energy into things you can’t control.
“What you can control is the environment you create when the players walk through the gate and keep that tight. That probably didn’t happen as well as it needed to this season."
The Dragons have already been linked to a number of off-contract stars at other clubs, while the likes of Dugan, Widdop and Aitken would attract plenty of interest on the open market, but McGregor is comfortable leaving those responsibilities to recruitment chief Ian Millward.
“There’s a lot of players off contract [in 2017] and I'd like to keep them all, but we’ve got three guys working in recruitment in Ian Millward, Ben Haran and Dave Warwick, from the NRL squad down to our junior reps.
“It’s a huge job in any club and I need to let them do it.
“They obviously ask for my input but I can’t get caught up in all contract negotiations. I need to focus on solely on the 2017 season and the squad of players I have.”
The move to limit McGregor’s responsibilities follows a full review of the club’s dismal 2016 campaign in which they missed the finals for the fourth time in four seasons.
It saw the knives come out for both the coach and CEO Peter Doust and McGregor admits his second season at helm simply wasn’t good enough.
“2015 was a good season for the club. We reached the finals for the first time in four years and we thought we were in a good position to build on that in 2016,” McGregor said.
“Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Our season performance wasn’t good enough and everyone at the club, players and staff, were very disappointed. It was important to review 2016 thoroughly which we did.
"There were a number of things that we identified need improving. We’ve made a number of necessary changes across our football department, programs, training, staff and roster and I’m extremely positive about where we’re headed in 2017."
McGregor is himself off-contract next year and will no doubt be one of the most under-pressure coaches in the competition over the opening 10 rounds.
While he’s not immune to the scrutiny, McGregor said he can’t let it shift his focus away from his job of preparing the playing group.
“Being in this position there is always going to be pressure,” he said.
“Obviously when you’re off-contract it comes up regularly in conversation with family, friends, certainly media.
“Whether you’re on-contract or off-contract, things can change pretty quickly and our careers are made on win-loss ratio.
“As coach I do need to shoulder most of that and ensure it doesn’t affect team performance.
“For me it’s about focusing on the process not the outcome. If you worry too much about the outcome you lose your way.
“I've got to learn the lessons of 2016 to ensure I don’t follow that path again and I’m sure with an improved environment and improved results, contracts will look after itself in time.”
With his own future beyond 2017 up in the air, McGregor is banking on a new, untested, spine that is tasked with sparking what was the second-worst attack in the NRL 2016.
While the likes young-gun Drew Hutchison and skipper Gareth Widdop will carry much of the burden, McGregor believes it’s the men up front that can lead the necessary turnaround next season.
“No one bears individual responsibility, it’s a team game,” McGregor said.
“We’ll have a new combination in our spine and I’m confident we’ll see an improved attack next year.
“What I’m really confident about is that our forward pack can lay a really nice foundation for that spine and that’s the most important thing.
“I’m certainly comfortable in them competing against any team in the competition and for your 9, 7, 6 and 1, that’s a good thing to play behind. If we get that right, then I’m confident the points will come.”