ARE St George Illawarra prepared to revisit the Kurt Mann experiment?
But this time, in the halves?
Still reeling from Drew Hutchison’s knee blowing out this week, ending his 2017 campaign before it began, there are questions to face which could define Paul McGregor’s NRL coaching career.
Hutchison wore the No.7 jersey in the Illawarra Cutters thumping interstate challenge triumph against Burleigh on NRL grand final day
Mann played on the wing in the same game, seven months after making his Dragons debut at fullback, as part of the plan to shift NSW representative Josh Dugan to the centres.
So now, with Hutchison out of the selection frame and Benji Marshall with Wayne Bennett in Brisbane, are the Dragons willing to take another risk on the ex-Melbourne Storm player?
The obvious alternative is Josh McCrone.
This columnist is a fan of McCrone and believes he should have had more opportunities in Canberra during his career.
But it seems odd the Dragons would be willing to invest so much in McCrone next year, at the risk of McGregor’s coaching demise, when he was the back-up plan to Marshall this season.
McCrone played seven games in the NRL this year, for four wins and three losses, each time covering for Marshall’s nagging back and hamstring injuries.
He’s only played 11 NRL games in two years and it’s four years since McCrone has seen finals action.
“I was happy to get a crack in first grade again, after coming to a new club,” McCrone said in an end-of-season package on the Dragons website.
“(It was) a bit of a mixed bag really, probably with consistency.
“But that comes when you’re playing numerous positions and missing a big chunk of footy in the middle of the year.”
Mann seems to have more upside, at 23, a product of the Craig Bellamy Melbourne machine, they just need to work out where his best position is.
He had two nervy games at fullback against his former club and in a 30-2 thumping from premiers the Sharks. As cynical as Dragons fans can be, surely his cards aren’t marked yet, about a future in the No.1 or even No.7 jumpers.
The knock on Mann was an inability to cover the running metres required at fullback as he adjusted to the position at NRL level, as Dugan does so well when fit.
Being dropped certainly knocked his confidence around, but Mann responded with 10 tries in 11 games on the wing, after earning another shot in the NRL in round 12.
The concern remains Dugan’s longevity relies on a move to the centres, particularly after a successful Four Nations campaign, which meant he was still playing in November.
If not Mann, then untested trio Matt Dufty, Shaun Nona and Jai Field could yet bolt into the NRL. Risk and reward for McGregor.
Off contract at the end of the season, McGregor needs to prove to the Dragons’ factions that not only is he taking them in the right direction, and importantly can spark their attack.
Recruitment man Ian Millward maintains the club will not be panicked or rushed into luring Jackson Hastings back to the club, or rolling the dice by signing Todd Carney or Chris Sandow. If they are to move, it seems the Dragons would again pursue Hastings to gain an early release from his Roosters deal. But as Millward indicated, the Dragons are determined not to blow up their strategic planning around their salary cap situation chasing a quick fix. McGregor knows the blowtorch will come if the Dragons are struggling early next season.
Especially given they managed just 14 points per game this year and Des Hasler continues to face a volatile situation at the Bulldogs, meaning there may be a ready-made replacement on the market.