Welcome to The Debate, where the Mercury sport team discuss the big issues in Illawarra, national and international sport. This week, Mercury sports writers CAMERON MEE and JOSH Bartlett discuss all the fallout from the Dragons COVID nightmare.
Mee: Well Josh, both the NRL and St George Illawarra have come down hard on the 13 players involved. On top of $305,000 worth of NRL fines and a total 20 weeks in suspensions, the club has fined each player and ordered them to complete community service. And Paul Vaughan has had his contract torn up.
In many ways it's refreshing to see the club and the league hit the players hard for such a blatant breach of both NSW public health orders and the NRL's biosecurity protocols. Andrew Abdo and Peter V'landys are fed up by the behaviour of the footballers, with the Dragons now the third club to have players embroiled in some sort of COVID controversy in recent weeks.
We'll start with the most important question, did the NRL and Dragons go hard enough, or could they have sent a bigger message with harsher sanctions?
BARTLETT: I think the message has definitely been made clear. To be honest, Saturday's house party wasn't the crime of the century, but it was just silly and unnecessary from the Red V players involved. I think we've seen COVID-related spot fires dealt with in the NRL this year - but this was the line in the sand type moment. It was particularly a huge statement from St George Illawarra, who clearly won't tolerate this type of behaviour.
Before we jump into potential implications for the Dragons' season, I have to ask: what does this mean for Vaughan? Is his careers in tatters, or will NRL - and English Super League - clubs be lining up for his signature?
MEE: You're right, it was nice to see St George Illawarra CEO Ryan Webb come out so hard in his criticism of the players involved. It's unusual for a club official to be so critical in public and is a reflection of his anger, given the players were explicitly told multiple times not to have any parties over the weekend. Additionally, the fact the Dragons imposed their own penalties on top of the NRL's is another big moment, for too long clubs have simply allowed the NRL to deal with discipline instead of taking responsibility for their players' actions.
In regards to Vaughan's future, it's an interesting one. The prop has been well below his best in the past two seasons and had been skating on thin ice for a little while. He had already taken up a player option for 2022, but there was little appetite for him to remain at the club beyond next year and there were whispers the Dragons had been looking to move him on this season.
A former Origin forward with a contract currently valued at $800,000, it's highly unlikely another club will be willing to fork out that sort of cash to sign him. History shows no crime is too great to ward off NRL teams from signing players, just look at Matt Lodge, Josh Dugan and Todd Carney, so I would tip Vaughan to pop up somewhere in the league next year, but on a significantly reduced deal.
So with Vaughan out and the other 12 players suspended, the Dragons are in turmoil with just eight games to play before the post-season. Given everything that's happened this week, can they still make the finals?
BARTLETT: Let's just put aside the COVID drama for a second and look solely at footy for a minute. It's a real fork in the road type moment for the Red V. When you are under so much external pressure, clubs usually respond in two ways. They come out absolutely firing, or they just continue to dig a hole for themselves.
In many ways, I think the bye has come at a perfect time for the club. They have a week to get ready for their next game, although the task doesn't get any easier against a red-hot Manly outfit. The one saving grace is the NRL's most in-form man Tom Trbojevic is unlikely to back up from Wednesday night's Origin game, though there would be question marks over whether Tariq Sims and Ben Hunt line up for the Dragons.
I think it's a crucial game for St George Illawarra, who are sitting in seventh spot heading into the last two months before finals. If they could snare an unlikely win, it would give themselves a little breathing space from the Sharks and Knights. But that remains a big 'if'. In the run home, who do you think shapes as the crucial figure for Anthony Griffin's side?
MEE: I have to say it's Jack de Belin. He's a player who has come in and in just four games provided an added dimension to the team's attack. He provides the punch up front that all good middle forwards do and he also has that ball-playing ability that takes a bit of pressure off Ben Hunt and Corey Norman.
Given the way he's repaid his faith in the club with his behaviour over the past few days, he certainly owes it to everyone at the Dragons to deliver on the field throughout the remainder of the season. He has to serve a one-game suspension, but once he's back on the field, de Belin should only continue to get better and better with every week.
Corey Norman and Matt Dufty also shape as two players who could make or break this team's season. It's entirely possible they have already checked out, given both have already been told they will not be with the side next year. On the flipside, however, they are playing for contracts and have attracted little interest from the 15 other clubs.
Both players have stated their desire to remain in the NRL beyond this season and they need to deliver over the final two months of the season to convince another team to take a chance with them.
The next few weeks will see multiple youngsters have an opportunity to shine, who are you most looking forward to watching?
BARTLETT: I think you're right on Norman and Dufty, particularly the custodian. Whether he lands in Canberra or the Broncos, or somewhere else for that matter, Dufty will be hoping to make a big impression in the coming weeks. It will also be fascinating to watch how the man tipped to replace him, Cody Ramsey, continues to develop. I'm also hoping we get to see more of Tyrell Sloan.
We depend on subscription revenue to support our journalism. If you are able, pleasesubscribe here. If you are already a subscriber, thank you for your support.