'You can't keep them all' is a common rugby league recruitment catch-cry, but how many can a club with junior stocks be reasonably expected to keep?
It's a pertinent question when comes the looming preseason for St George Illawarra, one that sees many panning the roster as the worst on-paper list in the NRL.
Roster builds are cyclical, but it's reasonable to ask how St George Illawarra can be in the position it's in given it's powered by one of the richest junior nurseries in the country in the Illawarra-South Coast. As far as participation levels and talent spread, it arguably runs second only to Penrith in NSW.
The Panthers can't take credit for Sydney demographics - though they try from time to time - but there's no question they've harnessed the game's richest junior nursery to create an NRL juggernaut.
It's something the Dragons have struggled replicate, with recent history littered with outstanding junior classes of which only remnants remain.
The players listed below have gone on to play 583 games for the Dragons - and a combined 742 games for other NRL clubs. Who's at fault in that regard is nuanced argument.
The fact they're possibly about to lose one in Talatau Amone to jail time speaks to the fact things aren't always entirely in the club's hands.
However, clubs aren't entirely beholden to fate either, something a look back the most recent stand-out sides illustrates. You be the judge.
It's positively staggering to think that the Dragons could feasibly have no remaining members on the NRL books for 2025.
Roundly described as a 'once in a generation' junior side, a halves paring of Jayden Sullivan and Talatau Amone spearheaded a charge to just the third SG Ball crown in the Steelers history - and it's first in 23 years.
The back five featured Tyrell Sloan, Aaron Schoupp and Mat and Max Feagai, who've since played a combined 148 NRL games, while Josh Coric and Jackson Shereb starred in the engine room.
Where are they now?
The most interesting departure of the crop.
Drew lofty comparisons to Jonathan Thurston while a Steeler and debuted in the NRL the final round of the 2020 season.
Signed on until the end of 2025 and loomed as Ben Hunt's successor but sought a release at the end of 2022 when the club re-signed Hunt until the end of 2025.
It was thought Anthony Griffin's departure would rejuvenate his Dragons career but the 22-year-old was given permission to negotiate with rival clubs by Flanagan and subsequently signed a four-year deal with Wests Tigers.
Hard to blame the club for the chronic hamstring issues that plagued his early career - and reared their head again this year - but there's no question he could've been brought on better.
Development stalled, and arguably went backwards, under Griffin, something that played a part in the former coach's demise, and was perhaps collateral damage in the 'will he, or won't he' saga surrounding Hunt.
Time will tell but, for a player who had been pitched as the future of the club, he could potentially be the most torturous 'one that got away' for fans in years to come.
Clearly a unique case in this context.
Sullivan's foil for the 2019 Steelers, the Wests Devils product debuted as a teenager in 2021 and established himself as Hunt's halves partner in 2022.
Was stood-down by the NRL under the no-fault policy after being charged over a hammer attack on a roofing contractor in November last year.
Was cleared to return in March when charges were downgraded to local court and finished the season nudging his best despite the court matter remaining ongoing.
Was found guilty on a raft of charges in Wollongong Court a fortnight ago and will return for sentencing in December facing a possible custodial sentence.
Was contracted until the end of 2024.
Still wait and see on the Dapto Canaries product who proved a potent finisher on the wing for the Steelers in 2019 and turned heads on NRL debut in 2021.
Another who stalled under Griffin, was twice dumped from first grade in 2022 and played just eight games before seeking a release alongside Sullivan.
It was knocked back and Cody Ramsey's unfortunate illness opened the door for his return to the to No. 1 this year.
Played 23 games and showed characteristic flashes of brilliance with glaring defensive lapses, with the jury out on his long-term ability as custodian.
Flanagan had planned to provide the 21-year-old with the most significant preseason of his career, though those plans have snagged on an ankle injury suffered at the Koori Knockout that required surgery.
Flanagan has stated a desire to recruit in the fullback position in order to push the young gun who is contracted until the end of next season.
With Zac Lomax also floated as a potential fullback option, Sloan is facing a pivotal year when it comes to his Dragons future.
A star alongside brother Max for the Steelers, debuted 2021 and has thus far played the most NRL games of the entire 2019 class.
Has missed just six games the past two seasons, featuring in all but one Dragons NRL outing this year.
Contracted until the end of 2024 alongside brother Max, with both free to negotiate with rivals from November 1.
Beat Mat to an NRL debut in 2020 but has managed just 10 games since, with a lone appearance in 2023 under Griffin.
Has been told he's free to look elsewhere immediately. Remains to be seen whether Mat follows.
A powerhouse in the centres for the 2019 Steelers was lured away by the Bulldogs after the Dragons prioritised the signing of aforementioned teammates.
Debuted with the Dogs in 2021 and notched 50 top-grade games after switching to the Titans this year.
People right to question whether the proud Thirroul Butcher should ever have been allowed to head elsewhere.
Vice-captain has been labelled 'the glue' of that Steelers 2019 side. Industrious hooker has remained with the Dragons on a succession of development deals and debuted in 2023.
Played six games for an injury-ravaged Dragons side under interim coach Ryan Carr.
Albion Park Eagles product remains on the club's development list and would have debuted by now were it not for a shocking run of injuries, the latest a ruptured achilles in the Dragons trial against St Helens in February.
Club still sees a future for him in Wollongong.
Graduated to the Steelers captaincy in 2021 and remains on the club's development list. Played 19 games in NSW Cup this year but is yet to crack the NRL.
Yet to crack a top 30 contract and will need to show something in 2024 with the next class of Steelers in Dylan Egan and Hamish Stewart having signed top-30 contracts for 2025.
Perhaps the last great class of St George district juniors given Matt Dufty, Jacob Host, Luciano Leilua and Hame Sele were all products of the club's northern catchment.
Jai Field, Blake Lawrie and Reuben Garrick were the pick of the Illawarra bunch, while Yamba product Reece Robson was at dummy-half.
Dufty and Shellharbour's Jai Field scored a combined 70 tries in a combined 94 games and, with Leilua, were the attacking punch for the side that reached the prelim final under under Mat Head in 2016.
Host and Sele were also members of Jason Demetriou's Illawarra Cutters side that claimed the lower-grade double crown that season.
Where are they now?
Now established as the clubs forward leader after claiming club and people's choice Player of the Year gongs in 2023.
Ironman has hardly missed a game since becoming an established first-grader in 2019, and has now played 125. Could push into Origin frame this year and shapes as a future captain of the club.
As it stands, he is perhaps the only genuine junior-senior conversion from what was elite junior class.
Yamba product and graduate of Endeavour Sports High was recuited young and came through the Dragons lower grades, was part of the 2016 NYC side and played nine NRL games over 2018-19.
With then skipper Cam McInnes blocking his NRL path, shifted to the Cowboys ahead of the 2020 season. Has played 79 games through 2021-2023 and made Origin debut for NSW this year after establishing himself as one of competition's best dummy-half.
McInnes was subsequently let go by the Dragons to make way for Andrew McCullough ahead of the 2021 season in what is perhaps the club's biggest blunder-on-blunder of the past decade.
Can't say he wasn't given an opportunity. In total, played 82 first grade games in the Red V.
The livewire fullback scored 55 tries in 65 games in the NYC, playing in the 2014 and 2016 prelims, and debuted in the NRL with seven games in 2017.
Played 26 a year later and looked to have established himself as the club's No. 1. From there, he didn't go a season without being dropped at some point.
Relationship with former coach Paul McGregor had its ups and downs, and he was no favourite of successor Griffin over defensive deficiencies.
Was released in 2021 and linked with the Bulldogs on a one-year deal where the inconsistency continued. Was released mid-season to join Warrington in the UK Super League.
Kingsgrove product was a NSW Under 20s rep in 2016 and finished the year part of Demetriou's premiership-winning Illawarra Cutters side.
Was a regular in McGregor's pack in 2017 but injuries and form saw him notch just three games in 2018 before he was released to join Penrith. Was released from the Panthers after just five games and linked with Demetriou at Souths on a train and trial deal.
Re-established himself last season and re-joins the Dragons ahead of 2024 season.
Australian Schoolboys and NSW Under 18s rep in 2016, was re-signed until the end of 2018 but could not crack a first grade debut.
A product of the famously rich Gerringong production line, Garrick was given an opportunity at the Sea Eagles where he's been a mainstay, playing 112 games since 2019.
Injury free, he'll almost certainly notch 1000 NRL points in 2024.
Could never seem to carry consistent lower grade form into the NRL arena.
Lightning quick half scored 15 tries in 29 NYC games and, with Dufty, was part of the most potent one-two punch in the under 20s competition.
Shellharbour product debuted in the NRL in 2017 and played five games from the bench over that season and the next. Played six games in his preferred halves spot in 2019 but couldn't make it stick.
Played six games for Parramatta in 2020 before joining Wigan where he's since notched 43 tries in 55 games.
Was seen as the pick of the forward bunch in the successful 2016 side with his power running and ball-playing. Made five NRL appearances in 2016 and was signed to a long-term deal.
Spent the entire 2017 season in NSW Cup without cracking first grade amid concerns over fitness and conditioning.
Played 16 games in 2018 and 22 in 2019 before switching to the Tigers alongside brother Joey. Subsequently shifted to North Queensland to link with then Cowboys assistant Young.
Was part of the Dragons 2014 NYC prelim final squad and finished 2016 as a regular with the premiership-winning Cutters and was named in the NSW Cup Team of the Year.
Debuted in the NRL that season and played a further 50 games over the next four seasons before shifting to Souths to re-link with Demetriou.
While many of the aforementioned stars came through the 2014 system under co-coaches Dean Young and Ben Hornby, 2013 under 18s quartet Jack Bird, Euan Aitken, Jackson Hastings and Drew Hutchison were the standout quartet of the 2013-14 crop.
Bird, who's since returned, and Hasting both departed to make NRL debuts elsewhere, while 71 of Hutchison's 75 NRL games have come with the Roosters.
Where are they now?
Shellharbour junior was a standout coming through the junior ranks, playing for the NSW under 18s side in 2013 before leaving for the Roosters without donning the Red V at first grade level.
A self-confessed complicated character, Hastings debuted for the Roosters in 2014 and played 34 games over three seasons before being let go.
Subsequently linked with Manly where he was quickly off with teammates and played just 13 games in two seasons before departing for the Super League where he proved a revelation with Salford and Wigan and earned the league Man of Steel in 2019.
Has returned the NRL a more mature character and is now at Newcastle via Wests Tigers after finding himself at odds with Tim Sheens at the Tigers over his positional future.
Berkeley product was arguably the highest touted of the lot and proved why when he shifted to Cronulla in 2015 without debuting for the Dragons.
Had won a premiership and played State of Origin within two seasons before linking with the Broncos on a deal nudging $1 million a season.
Plagued by injuries, including two ACL tears, while at the Broncos, who released him from the final year of his deal in order to make a Dragons homecoming in 2021. Was a solid performer in disappointing team campaigns in 2021-22 but was again pulled up by niggling injuries in 2023.
Signed until the end of 2025, but one fears the Illawarra product's best years may have already played out elsewhere.
An NYC gun, Aitken debuted in the NRL while still a teenager and was on the fringe of Origin selection in 2018 before a dip in form saw him released by the Dragons to join the Warriors in 2021.
His time in Wollongong had probably run its course, with the far South Coast product now at Redcliffe continuing to build on his 121 NRL games.
Albion Park product was an absolute stand-out at junior rep level and was the spearhead of Demetriou's Cutters title charge in 2016, kicked the winning field goal to claim the premiership.
Was a Junior Kangaroo in 2015-16 and played four NRL games before rotten luck struck him down on the back of the Cutters campaign, tearing his ACL at training in December of that year. The 2017 season had loomed as his opportunity after the club let Benji Marshall go after signing Ben Hunt on a six-year deal from 2018.
It was set to see Hutchison partner Gareth Widdop in the halves in the interim year, though injury saw him miss the whole campaign. He subsequently linked with Leigh Centurions in the English second division ahead of a remarkable career resurgence with the Roosters.
Has now played 71 games for the Chooks and earned the unwavering trust of Trent Robinson as a utility player used in 62 games over the past three seasons.
Is set to continue career with Canterbury next season.
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