Welcome to our column, The Debate, where the Mercury sport team discuss the big issues in Illawarra, national and international sport. This week MITCH JENNINGS and CAMERON MEE discuss the NRL season reboot and what it means for the Dragons.
Jenno: Well Darnell, it seemed long on the horizon but we're edging close to seeing footy back on the park. I guess we haven't wanted to delve too much into it at risk of jinxing it all - as some players and even referees seem to want to.
Still, with a draw for the next two rounds and a locked in date, it's suddenly all very real. We'll know the rest of the draw in a week or two but, with what we know now, do you think the COVID-19 stoppage has worked for or against the Dragons?
Mee: The break came at a pretty good time. The effort was there in the opening rounds, but two losses from two matches can very quickly turn into four or five and before you know it, your season's over. Now, they've had a chance to reset, reassess the gameplan and crucially, welcome back a host of players.
Korbin Sims, Mikaele Ravalawa and Cameron McInnes are all back from injury for round three, while Tariq Sims returns from his one-game suspension. McInnes in particular is a massive addition, how do you feel his return will impact the team?
Jenno: It's huge. Given how tightly contested the opening two games were, there's every chance they get over the line with McInnes there. I think the stoppage has worked for them no doubt, for the reason you've mentioned and others.
You're right that two losses on the bounce can quickly turn to four or five and I think it was definitely looking that way when they were staring down the barrel of Canberra and Parramatta on the road and then games against the Rabbitohs, Roosters and Storm in the following month. It was a nightmare draw so just about any rejig was going to be favourable.
As it turns out they've got the Warriors and Bulldogs in the two rounds we know about. It's much friendlier than what they were looking at but, honestly, who knows what to expect from the Warriors first up. They're a punter's nightmare at the best of times, let alone the extraordinary circumstances we're currently in.
We've all seen the emotional scenes of players leaving their families behind and all the rest and the sacrifice they're making to get the comp going. I've got no doubt that will be a part of their narrative and there's every chance they'll play the best game of their season straight out of the gate.
At the same time, the Warriors haven't exactly built a reputation for mental toughness and resolve in adversity. What do you make of that one?
Mee: I'd much rather play the Warriors than the Raiders, but you're right, we don't know which Warriors team will show up Saturday week. The way the Dragons start the match will be crucial, they can expect the Warriors to come out firing and ready to go.
If they can withstand that early onslaught in the first 15-20 minutes, the Warriors will likely lose a bit of steam and the Dragons will have a chance to take control. If they don't start well, then they could be in for a very long afternoon.
The following week against the Bulldogs is a bit easier to predict, we know what to expect from that side. They'll try hard, they'll defend well but they won't produce anything too spectacular in attack. If the Dragons can avoid the dogfight, they should be able to come out with the two points. How confident are you they'll be 2-2 after four games?
Jenno: I'd say reasonably, but the fact is they have to be if they want to make the finals. There's no reason they shouldn't be either. The Warriors have been through hell already and are nursing an injury toll before we even get back under way. The Bulldogs have turned themselves into a gritty side but the Dragons are a 20-point better team on roster alone.
In the shortened 20-round season they'll need to win at least 10-18 to get there. The 20 rounds will see everyone play each other once and then five rematches. I think the Dragons can reasonably expect to face the Roosters, Rabbitohs and Eels twice in the all-Sydney "rivalry rounds" we're hearing will close the season so it's essential they bank these two or they'll be out of contention.
I hope it's not the case, and I know you're with me on this one Darnell, I'm not at all keen to cover a season where the Dragons are largely out of the finals race; the red v faithful are never shy with their opinions.
Mee: Last year was bad enough, two seasons in a row will not be enjoyable for journalists or fans. They had some reasonable excuses in 2019, a horror injury toll, plenty of bad luck, and, of course, the Jack de Belin saga.While that issue continues to drag on, there likely won't be as much sympathy for the side this year if they produce another failure.
Fans were calling for McGregor's head pretty early on last season and those howls only got louder as the losses mounted. It won't take much for the knives to come out yet again when the season restarts. How much pressure is Paul McGregor under right now?
Jenno: I do get asked that a lot and my feeling is, yes he's under pressure, but I don't feel it's exerting on him. The club had its worst ever finish last year, there's whispers of a possible Wayne Bennett return, the fans are restless. They're realities everyone - including Mary - are awake to.
Day-to-day though, I don't think it's weighing too heavily. I'd be very surprised if - in this economic climate - any club is willing to sack and pay out a coach, particularly on the back of a season that's had so many variables already. It could change quickly if they're out of finals contention early in the piece. To put you on the spot - can you see them making the finals?
Mee: Looking at the ladder right now, it's going to be tough. Of the teams currently in the eight, the Cowboys are probably the most vulnerable, but we've still got the Roosters who you'd expect will recover from a slow start. Those two losses before the break hurt, but I can see the Dragons getting up there. Top four is probably out of the question, but a seventh or eighth finish is where they should end up. The only teams currently above them that I'm afraid of are Melbourne and Canberra. But the likes of Brisbane, South Sydney, even Parramatta, if the Dragons show up and perform, they should be able to win those games. Am I being too optimistic here?
Jenno: I think top four is out of the question for any side without a win, with the obvious exception of the Roosters. If you look at the eight as it currently stands, I think the Knights, Panthers, Broncos and Cowboys are all very catchable and for-and-against is pretty negligible at this point.
I did put you on the spot. Predictions are very difficult when we don't the rest of the draw - who they'll play twice - and I guess none of us really know how well teams will adapt to the changes in having one referee and the six again in place of penalties, which we discussed last week.
Paul McGregor seems to think it could suit his side and I tend to agree. There's a lot of variables but, to put on a simpler spot, does the Dragons season rest on being 2-2 after four rounds?
Mee: Yes. Naturally a lot rests on the draw, a couple of soft matches after the opening two could change things, but it's a long way back from an 0-4 or 1-3 start in a regular season, let alone a shortened one. With the Warriors and Bulldogs up first, I'm optimistic 2-2 is exactly where they'll be in a few weeks time. If they get there, it's anyone's game.
Jenno: Anything less than 2-2 and I'll put a line through them; and that'd be a long year. I'm also confident enough that's where they will be and a better assessment can be made from there.