ST GEORGE Illawarra coach Paul McGregor believes he’ll head into his third full season at the helm with the best roster he’s had at his disposal following the acquisition of marquee pair Ben Hunt and James Graham.
Hunt sent the NRL halves market into a spin when he committed to the Dragons on a six-year deal worth in excess of $6 million prior to the start of last season, while Graham proved a bonus pick-up when off-loaded by Canterbury at season’s end.
Neither will report for club duty until early January due to their lengthy World Cup campaigns with Australia and England, while Dragons skipper Gareth Widdop will also play alongside Graham in Saturday’s Cup decider.
Widdop was locked down for four more seasons midway through 2017 while McGregor was also re-signed for a further two seasons. It brings a stability the joint-venture has lacked, with contract conjecture plaguing their past two campaigns.
“I think stability is what the club needs right now and we’ve got that throughout our roster,” McGregor said.
“The world of rugby league can change very quickly, it’s changed this preseason the most I’ve ever seen it, but I feel I’ve got the best squad I’ve had going into my fourth year as a head coach.
“It’s no disrespect to players I’ve had before but, as a squad, I think the depth is at it’s strongest. Our experienced players are signed long-term, there’s only a couple of guys who haven’t got their future sorted at the club.
“We were very patient with the people we brought into the team. We were looking for a halfback for quite some time, Ben came on the market so we bought the best. We needed a replacement for Russell [Packer] and we bought the best [in Graham].
“We’ve had nine guys debut in the last two years who are [local] juniors. They’re going to be better. We’ve had some good buys around that middle base in [Mitch] Allgood and [Jeremy] Latimore.
“We expect Vaughny [Paul Vaughan] to play well again in his second year for the club. Gareth’s coming off a career-best year so it augurs well for a good season as long as we can be consistent.”
The length and richness of Hunt’s six-year deal will ensure his performances come under the microscope, but McGregor believes the 28-year-old will thrive amid the added scrutiny.
“Ben will be fine, I think he’s looking for a new challenge in his career,” McGregor said.
“What he did last season revealed a lot of character. Early in the season he got put back to Q Cup and when he came back he got moved to a position [hooker] he hadn’t played in quite some time.
“He played well enough there to make the Queensland side and then he made the Australian side. How he handled all that shows we’re getting the right person.
“Before that he played in a grand final as a halfback and had been a dominant half for quite some time. I love a running half and he’s a running half, he likes to take the line on.
“If he shows those attributes, and his competitive nature, there’s no pressure on him. The pressure’s on everyone, it’s a team sport, and we’ve got to share that across the board.”
Widdop and Hunt will have a limited time to gel due to their World Cup commitments but McGregor is confident they can click quickly despite a shortened preseason.
“In a perfect world you’d like to have them both here now but they’re in a situation where they’re playing for their country in a World Cup final and they need to recover from that,” McGregor said.
“Ben watches a lot of footy so he’ll have a good idea about how we play. The blue print’s there so he’s going to know what he needs to do before he comes in and we’ll obviously have some contact before then.
“We’ll still have a six-week block before [our] first trial match and, for players of that class, that’s plenty of time to get a combination happening.”