THE Dragons will play under the St George Illawarra banner in all three senior grades next season as part of the NRL’s return to state-based competitions in the lower grades.
The club will compete as the joint-venture in the NSW Cup, which returns in 2018 as the NRL’s second-tier competition, for the first time since 2007.
It will replace Illawarra, which won the Intrust Super Premiership under the Cutters moniker in 2016, and played the most recent season as Illawarra RLFC.
The club will also compete as St George Illawarra in the re-instituted Jersey Flegg (under 20s) competition which made way for the NYC in 2008.
The approach brings the club in line with the NRL’s ‘whole of game’ strategy that will also see top-grade squads increased from 25 players to 30.
Clubs can also add up to six development players, with a minimum of three, with young-guns Tristan Sailor and Steven Marsters already signed on as 2018 as development players.
New rules also prevent clubs from registering an NRL contract for any player before the year they turn 19, a move designed to encourage clubs to develop rather than recruit young talent.
Club director of rugby league pathways Ian Millward said the new model will benefit the club, which draws its juniors from two genuine league heartlands.
“There’s obviously a lot of changes in rugby league at the moment, one of the changes we’ve made is that the reserve grade team is St George Illawarra,” Millward said.
“What it gives us is a clear pathway where younger players aspire to be Dragons right through to our first grade squad. There’s a clear acknowledgment for coaches, training staff and players that when they’re in our environment they are a part of the St George Illawarra Dragons.”
The club will continue to field both St George Dragons and Illawarra Steelers teams in the SG Ball (under 18s) and Harold Matthews (under 16s) competitions.
They will also field separate St George and Illawarra teams in the under 18s women’s Tarsha Gale Cup after the Steelers finished third in its inaugural season in 2017.
“We’re very lucky because of our catchment areas that we have two sets of 16s and 18s,” Millward said.
“It’s a positive step for our club because not every club has the ability to facilitate that flow through from their 16s through to their NRL squad.
“There’s a pure pathway where players are aligned through your club, you have a system that identifies them and brings them through and enhances them.”
Millward also confirmed that former Hull and Wakefield head coach Richard Agar will return to Australia to fill the role of junior recruitment manager.
He replaces Dave Wawrick who has departed the club after 12 months in the role to link with Wests Tigers from next season.
Agar will officially begin his role on November 1 when the club’s junior reps return for preseason training.