KICKOFF: Dragons facing fresh character test

GUTTED: St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor was at a loss to explain his side's capitulation against the Bulldogs at Kogarah last week. Picture: AAP Image/Brendan Esposito
GUTTED: St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor was at a loss to explain his side's capitulation against the Bulldogs at Kogarah last week. Picture: AAP Image/Brendan Esposito

IT was the ancient Greeks who first posited the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy. Wikipedia describes it as: “a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true.”

Now ancient Greek philosophy is not Kickoff’s usual fare, and we should probably cop to the fact that the aforementioned knowledge came as we googled the term trying to make sense of yet another late-season fade from the Dragons.

It’s hard to recall a more empty feeling in our time covering the game than watching Jason Nightingale bid farewell to Kogarah in the rain with a deserted hill as a backdrop after being flogged 38-0 by the Bulldogs on Sunday.

Most Dragons fans had headed for the exits 15 minutes before fulltime. Those that stayed were huddled around the tunnel to hurl abuse at the players as they left the field. A week earlier, Paul McGregor and the Dragons players had described Leichhardt Oval as a hostile environment to play in. Turns out it had nothing on their own back yard.

Tipping the Dragons to fall off their early-season perch is a fun hobby for rival supporters, it’s an easy question for us media types to ask, but it’s a flat out obsession for the club’s own fans. There’s no other fanbase in Australian sport that so readily directs vitriol at their own team.

On Sunday though, it was hard to argue with them. Many predicted the Dragons would finish in the bottom four this season. On that score you could say they’ve succeeded simply by making the finals for just the second time in six years – but we won’t, we can’t and we shouldn’t. Modest preseason predictions can’t be used in retrospect to justify a 2-8 run down the stretch of the season.  

Not that those angry fans were surprised, most of them predicted the exact scenario we’re now seeing played out (some seem more satisfied that their doomsday predictions are coming true than with their side making the finals for just the second time in six years).

It’s easier to expect disappointment than to hope and have your heart broken. McGregor was first asked how he’d address late-season wobbles in round five. It seemed absurd at the time, but there’s no escaping the pattern that’s once again reared its head.

It’s where you start to wonder if it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy – if all the questions, all the denials all the efforts made to avoid the situation that’s befallen them has in fact drawn them closer to the very fate they’ve sought to avoid.

McGregor seemed lost for answers in the post-match presser on Sunday. Tyson Frizell did to. Speak to the players – in particular those who’ve been at the club for multiple seasons – a “here we go again” feeling is palpable. 

The Dragons have spent 22 of 24 rounds in the top four, 14 of them on top of the ladder. The prospect of not finishing there is simply unfathomable. The Panthers are in a similar boat and now the only hope either side seemingly has of reaching week two of the finals is if they end up playing each other in week one. 

While it’s not hard to see why Penrith have hit the skids, why the Dragons have is a harder question to answer. On Saturday they play Newcastle at McDonald Jones Stadium. In three straight wooden spoon seasons, crowds have never dropped below 10,000.  

It makes Saturday’s match in Newcastle a strange affair. Knights fans will turn out in droves to cheer on a side that can’t make the finals, a week after Dragons fans stayed behind in droves to kick their side on the way into them. 

It’s impossible to fathom Novocastrians booing their side, win, lose or draw. Then again, in all their losses over those three seasons, it’s hard to find one quite like the Dragons’ last week.

It’s been a mantra of McGregor’s this year that his players have 80 minutes each week to “go out and protect their character.” That’s the task they face this week. They can worry about the finals next week.

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