Pressure is a privilege. It’s one of Dragons coach Paul McGregor’s favourite phrases, one he often leans on in what is the NRL’s hottest coaching seat.
By that mark he’ll lead a privileged life in 2019, a year that’s already seen it’s fair share of distractions off the park several months before a ball is kicked.
The fact he’s also off-contract, something he’s sure to field regular questions about, is another headache.
That pressure will only ramp up if the on-field performances don’t meet expectations, but the man himself sees 2019 as a golden opportunity.
Reaching week two of the finals last season, where they were edged out by Souths by a point, was the club’s best result since 2011.
A memorable 48-18 win over Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium was the club’s first finals win since its premiership year in 2010. The result is a roster that is undoubtedly premiership ready.
That window people talk about is open. It merely adds to that pressure McGregor’s so grateful for, but it’s a much better place to be in when than he first took the job as a care-taker in mid-2014.
McGregor went over that fact, and a host of others in a wide-ranging chat with The Mercury ahead of his fifth season as head coach.
THE PREMIERSHIP WINDOW
In McGregor’s five-year tenure he and recruitment manager Ian Millward have overseen dramatic turnover in the club's roster.
It brings unprecedented stability and, crucially, it’s a roster with far more big-game experience than last season.
They went into last year’s finals series with a collective 39 games of finals experience. Take out James Graham and Ben Hunt’s 24 games and the number dropped to 14.
Should they get there this year they’ll take a bank of 87 post-season matches. Similarly at Origin level, the roster now has 19 Origins to its name. It had just six ahead of the 2018 season.
We’re very close to having it right. People say it takes time to get excellence and I think we’ve got to catch it this year because we’re ready.Paul McGregor
“There’s only four players left from when I first started coaching in 15,” McGregor said.
“I had Tyson Frizell, Jack de Belin, Gareth Widdop and Euan Aitken who was a 19-year-old kid. Everyone else is gone.
“It’s taken a few years to get the depth we’ve got, bring the juniors through that we need and have that balance of youth and experience.
“We’re very close to having it right. People say it takes time to get excellence and I think we’ve got to catch it this year because we’re ready.”
Earlier this week the Dragons confirmed skipper Gareth Widdop will depart for the English Super League at the end of the coming season.
The release from the final two years of his contract was contingent on finding a suitable replacement, something the club did in signing Corey Norman to a three-year deal.
He shapes as the long-term halves partner for Ben Hunt, but his arrival in time for the 2019 season – a deal largely subsidised by former club Parramatta – will see him play alongside Widdop.
Incumbent No. 1 Matt Dufty also remains on deck, presenting a welcome selection headache. It’s a silver lining to Widdop’s departure that McGregor says his side have to cash in on.
“It’s a bit of a different situation because we’ve got another quality player who’s come to us from another club that only became available late,” he said.
“We’re very fortunate to be in the position we are with having the quality we do have for 12 months, and it’s only for 12 months.
“We’ve really got to take advantage. They could all be on the field at the same time. It can’t be anything but exciting.”
THE ‘MAY PREMIERS’ TAG
The discussion around the Dragons mid-season form has been so persistent – largely within the club’s own fanbase – it’s had the look of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Dragons led the competition for 13 of the first 14 weeks last season before winning one of six games to drop out of the top four for the first time in round 24, ultimately finishing seventh.
It will leave an asterisk next to their name should they produce another characteristically fast start to the season, but McGregor isn’t about to waste time preparing for a possible slump.
“At the end of any season everyone’s got something they would have liked to have done better,” he said.
“For us it was winning one more game and finishing in the top four. We had a vision we wanted to finish top four and we fell a game short.
“We improved, we showed we’re the type of team that can beat anyone. In 2017 our first back to back losses came in round seven and eight, in 2018 it was round 18-19.
“There was one win between first and eighth. There’s games we could’ve won, there’s no doubt about that. There were four games where our effort didn’t match our potential.
“We’ve looked at what we did those weeks and what we need to do better. You don’t know what’s next, what you can do is learn from the experience of past years and we’re doing that.
“It’s the best teacher and the experience of 2018, the adversity and harsh lessons, will only strengthen our resilience.”
THE ORIGIN DRAIN
There’s no doubt Origin commitments played at least some part in the Dragons late-season wobbles. The club contributed five players to the series, four of whom played all three matches.
Only Frizell had experienced the strain of the taxing rep period before, with de Belin, Paul Vaughan and Tariq Sims all playing in their first series.
It was also Ben Hunt’s first full series having debuted in in game three, 2017. His journey through the series was a well-publicised roller coaster.
McGregor is confident club staff and the players concerned are now equipped with the experience to best navigate that stretch in 2019.
“Every year is a different year with different circumstances,” he said.
“Who would have thought last year that we’d have five Origin reps, which was the highest of any team in the competition, when most experts tipped us to miss the eight.
“Every player’s different you don’t know how any player will respond until they play through it.
“Paul Vaughan came out of Origin better than any player then he got injured. We gave Friz a rest, Jack de Belin was on of our best players in the finals.
“We’re better for that experience. In the end [poor] health hurt us but the experience players got through the Origin series is only going to help us.”
If the Origin period proved anything for the Dragons it was the importance of depth after untimely injuries derailed their finals campaign.
It’s something McGregor’s impressed upon his squad through preseason, driving a mantra of selflessness.
“At different stages of the year everyone’s going to be involved in where we finish,” he said.
“For us to be successful it’s very important we understand that and have a squad that’s selfless in everything we do.
“You look back at our last game, Gareth wasn’t available, Paul Vaughan wasn’t available, we lost Tariq [Sims] during the contest.
To have success you’ve got to be committed, you’ve got to have a focus, you’ve got to have a desire but most of all you’ve got to have a deep squad. We’re fortunate to be in that position right now.Paul McGregor
“It shows how important it is to be healthy and, if you aren’t, how important it is to have depth in that position.
“To have success you’ve got to be committed, you’ve got to have a focus, you’ve got have a desire but most of all you’ve got to have a deep squad. We’re fortunate to be in that position right now.”
In one of the most tumultuous off-season’s in recent memory the Dragons haven’t been immune to negative headlines.
Fans were reminded of Norman’s reputation as party-boy after an unflattering video resurfaced in social media on Monday.
It was not a good look but, as the matter was dealt with by the NRL Integrity Unit when the video first surfaced in 2016, Norman isn’t facing further sanction from the game or his new club.
In a far more serious matter, star lock de Belin will appear in court next month to face a sexual assault charge. McGregor is, and will remain, tight-lipped on the matter.
“Obviously there’s an allegation that’s been made, there’s a denial, and there’s a court process to play out,” he said.
“I’m not going to comment any further other than to say that while ever Jack’s in my care we’ll have support in place around his welfare.”
HIS OWN FUTURE
One thing’s certain as Dragons coach, there will always be speculation about your future. McGregor will be no different as he enters 2019 off-contract.
If the chaotic off-season for coaches is proof of anything it’s that contracts provide a financial safeguard rather than long-term job security.
It’s the type of headache that would admittedly have distracted McGregor in his rookie coaching days but it’s not the case in his fifth year as an NRL head coach.
“Contract negotiations are a long process, I’ve got a manager who’s in discussions with the club,” he said.
“I’m not too worried about it. I’m not an inexperienced coach anymore. I’m very comfortable and confident in myself, I know what leadership style I have, I’ve got a good belief and a good vision of what we need to do.
“I’m employed to do a job for 2019 and I’ll do it to the best of my ability. I’ve got the players there that I think are capable of doing well. I just want to get on with it.”