St George Illawarra’s No.1 priority to be NRL premiership force

Man on a mission: Matt Dufty (left) celebrates during this year's NRL campaign. Picture:  NRL Imagery
Man on a mission: Matt Dufty (left) celebrates during this year's NRL campaign. Picture: NRL Imagery

The decision on who wears the St George Illawarra No.1 jersey next year will be the most important of Paul McGregor’s coaching career. 

McGregor has two years to run on his contract, but the disastrous end to the 2017 campaign has added a sense of urgency for success next season. 

And he really does have all the necessary tools at his disposal, after throwing the chequebook at Ben Hunt to partner Gareth Widdop.

Cameron McInnes has succeeded where Mitch Rein, among others, at times struggled in meeting the demands of being an 80-minute player. 

McInnes was the league’s top tackler this year and appears ready to join the truly elite category, declaring to this week he has eyes on the NSW No.9 jumper next May.

But it is the Dragons fullback position which holds the key to success.

Widdop did a fantastic job at the back for England, but there’s a three-way race emerging between the young talent of Matt Dufty, Jai Field and Zac Lomax.

Dufty, who like Field has bulked up significantly in the off-season, deserves first shot at it, given he forced Josh Dugan's switch to the centres mid-year.

With Dugan now set to line-up against the Dragons for arch-rivals Cronulla, Dufty can repay the faith McGregor and recruitment man Ian Millward have in him. But Field and Lomax have bright futures, though in Shellharbour junior Field’s case, they’ll need to determine his best position.

He’s already second in the ‘utility’ pecking order behind Kurt Mann, who has floated across the backline with varying degrees of success.

It’s a vastly different pre-season build-up for all NRL clubs, given the successful World Cup filling the post-grand final void. 

The shortened off-season also comes with the lure of playing English Super League club Hull in February, who will already by into their official campaign.

Hull play Wigan for Super League competition points in Wollongong on February, so they’ll be conditioned when they meet the Dragons the following week. 

This columnist made the bold summer prediction St George Illawarra can finish in the top four next year.

It would be a huge achivement, especially as the Melbourne machine, North Queensland and the Roosters look destined to be at the top end of the ladder given the impressive names on their rosters.

It was met with a usual level of derision and predictable comments about McGregor’s record as coach. But the majority of responses were surprisingly upbeat from fans still wrestling with the notion anyone other than Wayne Bennett can bring success.

If the Dragons fullback is one of their best players next year, it can become a reality.