There's fresh optimism at St George Illawarra as the Shane Flanagan era gathers pre-season speed but, on paper, the bookies have the Dragons as the worst roster in the NRL for 2024.
It's a pretty glum assessment for what's now a long-suffering fan-base but, sadly for the Red V faithful, it's not a difficult case to make, at least as it currently stands.
With the November 1 signing deadline looming, there's potential for forays into the recruitment market, though Flanagan has publicly tempered expectations when it comes to the roster for the coming season.
The 2025 season is a different prospect, with the club expected to have a stockpile of cash to hit the player market, with less than half the current squad signed beyond 2024.
A marquee half will top the priority list, even in the unlikely event that Ben Hunt sees out the final year of his contract. Hunt's future is one of the major headaches for Flanagan, but there are several more roster questions he'll need to find creative answers to.
As it stands, Hunt is the club's only incumbent representative star and, despite lukewarm assurances he will be in Wollongong for 2024, has made it clear he doesn't want to be there.
Man management and building player relationships has long been a strength of Flanagan, who has said publicly and privately that changes already in motion will ensure Hunt barely recognises the club when he returns in January.
Having to talk down a wantaway captain with two years running on his deal is a strange situation for a new coach to be in as a first order of business, but he's backing himself in that regard. In reality, he has little choice given the dearth of quality halves on the market for 2024.
A number will be free to negotiate for 2025 come November 1, headed by Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai, but the cupboard's bare for the next 12 months. A half-committed Hunt remains a better option that what is currently available.
Beyond Hunt, Jack de Belin, Jack Bird, Francis Molo and Jaydn Su'A have played State of Origin, but it's hard to see any re-entering that frame any time soon.
Blake Lawrie and Zac Lomax have the capability to force their way into those calculations but, all told, the Dragons roster will need to overachieve to reach the finals on overall personnel.
Stocks are paper thin in all four key play-making positions.
Hunt is set to stay, with Talatau Amone seemingly set to partner him in the halves for a third campaign before he was found guilty on various assault charges in Wollongong Court last week.
He will return for sentencing in December facing the prospect of jail time and has been stood down by the club. He looks to have played his last game in the NRL for the foreseeable future.
It comes after Flanagan made the call to release Jayden Sullivan from his contract running until the end of 2025 to link with the Tigers.
That was a decision based on 2025 and beyond, but it's left Flanagan juggling skinny halves stocks and likely needing to look to son Kyle to fill the void despite bringing him to the club as a hooking/No. 14 option.
Starting rake Jacob Liddle signed a contract extension midway through this season but, following the release of Moses Mbye, debutant Connor Muhleisen finished the year as his understudy.
Former Sharks hooker Jayden Brailey had been linked to the Dragons, but Knights coach Adam O'Brien has stated his injured skipper won't be leaving the Hunter.
Lomax is also an option at fullback and him making a successful switch to one of the key spine positions would provide more bang for buck for one of the highest paid players at the club.
Highly-touted rugby convert Savelio Tamale will move into the top 30 from November 1 and is a potential centre option should Lomax shift to the custodian role.
The forward stocks.
It's one area in which the club has a respectable arsenal.
Returning local junior Hame Sele is a good buy, Molo, Su'A, Bird and de Belin have played Origin, while Blake Lawrie is the reigning Player of the Year and a prospect to crack that arena.
As it is across the roster, depth is the main question mark. It's where Flanagan is tipped to focus his energy beyond 2024, with the club having already off-loaded Josh Kerr and Zane Musgrove.
The Couchman twins Toby and Ryan are signed until the end of 2025 after debuting this year while there are some emerging stars set to come onto the club's books.
Highly touted Gerringong duo Dylan Egan and Hamish Stewart are on development deals for 2024 that will see them graduate to the top 30 in 2025.
Kyle Flanagan: Once highly touted career has hit some bumps in recent times. Links with his father at the Dragons as a depth signing having split most of his recent time between the halves and dummy-half.
Hame Sele: Re-joins his junior club he debuted with in 2017. Departed at the end of 2018 to link with his former Illawarra Cutters coach Jason Demetriou at Souths but will bring much needed punch to the Dragons engine room.
Josh Kerr: Showed flashes of his ability in five seasons in Wollongong, but the Redcliffe product was released mid-year to shift to the Dolphins.
Jaiyden Hunt: Struggled to earn regular first grade action in three years with the club. Released from his contract to link with Brisbane on a two-year deal.
Moses Mbye: Tigers paid half the freight on his two years with the Dragons. Was a favourite of former coach Anthony Griffin but played sparingly under interim coach Ryan Carr before being released early to join St Helens.
Jayden Sullivan: Time will tell if it's a shrewd move or one that haunts the Dragons for years to come. Re-signed with the club until the end of 2025 but, with Ben Hunt blocking his NRL path, was released from the final two years to link with the Tigers on a $2.2 million four-year deal.
Aaron Woods: Griffin signing never reached any great heights with the Dragons and was released to join Manly prior to round one.
Jack de Belin: Took up the player option on the fourth and final year of his current deal. Will be free to negotiate with rivals for 2025 from November 1.
Sione Finau: Signed a two-year contract extension in August before debut in round 26 was cruelly cut short by injury. Joins the club's top 30 next year.
Blake Lawrie: Inked a three-year contract extension with the club in January and repaid the faith by picking up Player of the Year and Member's Choice awards at end-of-season awards.
Jacob Liddle: Surplus to requirements at the Tigers, Liddle re-found top form this season and was rewarded with a contract extension until the end of 2025 with a mutual option for 2026.
Michael Molo: Established himself as a regular first-grader after linking with brother Francis in Wollongong, showing enough for the club to take up its option on his services for 2024.
Mikaele Ravalawa: Entering rarified air in the club's overall try-scoring history, with extending his deal to the end of 2026 one of Flanagan's first orders of business.
Billy Burns: Inconsistent at NRL level but may have shown enough in the back-half of 2023 to earn one-year deal for 2024.
Tyrell Fuimaono: On the comeback trail from a career-threatening hip injury, future lies elsewhere.
Nick Lui-Toso: Played 24 games in NSW Cup but didn't feature in first grade. Hasn't been re-signed.
Tautau Moga: Took some of his chances after joining the club on a minimum wage deal but won't return in 2024.
Connor Muhleisen: Steelers product debuted as part of Carr's interim regime. Tipped to earn a new deal.
Zane Musgrove: Featured sporadically in first grade after being deemed surplus to requirements at the Tigers. Has signed with Warrington in the UK.
Talatau Amone: May well have played his last game for the club after being found guilty in assault case.
Tyrell Sloan: Has shown flashes of utter attacking brilliance mixed with notable errors and defensive lapses. With Flanagan making fullback a recruitment priority, will need to find thus-far elusive consistency to hold onto the No. 1.
Jack de Belin: Stated a preference to be a Dragon for life but, at 32, will likely consider all options for what shapes as his last NRL contract should he seek a multi-year deal.
Max Feagai: Injuries have kept him to just 11 top grade appearances since debuting in 2020, with Flanagan having told him he's free to leave if he can find another club.
Francis Molo: Signed as an Origin incumbent but hasn't reached near those heights since joining the Dragons. Will need a big start to 2024 to earn a new deal.
Michael Molo: Did enough for the club to take up its option on existing deal but, after making a PM's XIII appearance, will look to level up next year.
Ben Murdoch-Masila: A Griffin signing has been in and out of the top grade and has been told he's free to look elsewhere for next year.
Cody Ramsey: Future remains up in the air as he battles a career-threatening illness.
Jaydn Su'A: One of the club's most consistent performers when on the park. Will field interest from rivals from November 1 and has been repeatedly linked to shift to the Dolphins.
Moses Suli: Dangerous power-runner but has struggled to address defensive deficiencies. Facing a pivotal year at age 25.
Savelio Tamale: Hyped cross-code convert impressed with the Steelers SG Ball side before graduating to NSW Cup. Current contract see hims move into the top 30 in 2024.
Alec Tuitavake: Joined the club from Manly in March as part of a swap deal for Woods. On a development contract this year that will be upgraded to top 30 in 2024. Yet to feature in first grade.
Paul Turner: Depth signing played one game this year. Still on the books, but free to look elsewhere.
Jack Bird (2024-25): Has battled injuries since returning to his junior club but re-signed in 2022 until the end of next year, with a mutual option on his services for 2025
Toby Couchman (2025): Thirroul product played 15 games after debuting in round two. Tipped for a big future alongside twin brother Ryan
Ryan Couchman (2025): Debuted late this year and played five games. Was re-signed alongside brother Toby prior to debut.
Dylan Egan (2025) : Huge wraps on Steelers SG Ball captain. Signed to top-grade development deal for next year and will shift to top 30 in 2025.
Sione Finau (2025): Re-signed prior to round-26 debut.
Viliame Fifita (2025): 22-year-old joined the club from Manly in March as part of a swap deal for Woods. Yet to debut at NRL level.
Kyle Flanagan (2025): Signed as a utility. Looking to jump-start career at new club and could be first-choice No. 6 come round one.
Ben Hunt (2025): Tentatively committed for 2024, but questions linger over his future in Wollongong.
Blake Lawrie (2026): Forwards leader and future captain of the club locked down long term.
Jacob Liddle (2025-26): Has a mutual option for 2026.
Zac Lomax (2026): One of the highest paid players at the club, with $700,000 per year contract running until the end of 2026. Future in Wollongong was in doubt under Griffin, but has rubbished reports he'd been told by Flanagan that he was surplus to requirements, or that he wanted out of the club.
Mikaele Ravalawa (2026): One of just five players signed beyond 2025.
Hame Sele (2026): Re-joins junior club for next three years.
Hamish Stewart (2026): Hard-running Steelers SG Ball lock is on a development deal next year before joining top 30 in 2025-26.
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