Long-suffering Dragons fans rarely agree on much, but the endorsement of Shane Flanagan's appointment as head coach has been near unanimous among the Red V faithful heading into 2024.
Bringing in a proven premiership-winner and club builder is one of the few things to be optimistic about, with the bookies installing the Dragons as wooden spoon favourites.
It follows three dismal seasons under Anthony Griffin, who was sacked midway through a 2023 campaign that saw the Dragons finish with just five wins.
The 57-year-old has hit the ground running in an effort to restore pride in the famous jumper he once wore as a player. In a wide-ranging chat with the Mercury, Flanagan outlined his vision and response to the challenges he faces in lifting the club out of the doldrums.
Flanagan's roller coaster ride through his previous stint as a head coach is well-known and he could have been forgiven for thinking his oft-stated desire for a return would never come to fruition.
In the end, he seemed the logical choice, but Flanagan said it's wrong to assume he would have taken on any role that became available.
"I was quite comfortable at Manly doing what I was doing," Flanagan said.
"Seibs (Anthony Seibold) just let me take total control of the offense over there, so that was a really enjoyable year. I had a three year deal at Manly, I was really enjoying my time.
"I just took my time. I had some little feelers here and there in the NRL over the last 12 months and probably had to move. When the Dragons opportunity came up it all just fell into place.
"I've got a long-term affiliation with the club, played here and coached here for a little bit. If I'd gone to new club there'd be a lot to learn about the way it functions, but I've been here as a player and as a coach before, it just gave me a big head start."
Flanagan's candidacy was roundly welcome by fans, but assuming the role was never fait accompli, with sections of the St Gerorge board faction reportedly having reservations.
In the end, the constitutionally required unanimous approval was reached, with Flanagan insisting he's felt nothing but the full support of the board since being appointed.
"A lot of that for me was just media talk,' Flanagan said.
"A lot of the time there can be a little bit of truth to the rumors, but the board had to be unanimous about any decisions they make in regard to coaching.
"That gives me some comfort, and all my dealings with the board have been really positive and direct. They've got a clear focus and pathway they want to go down.
"Obviously they had thought they were going to go in another direction and it ended up with me. That is what it is, but once I showed the direction I wanted to go in everyone's jumped on board."
While there's no question that the club's in need of a rebuild, Flanagan's setting a high bar for his first season in charge. Most pundits feel a run from 16th to the finals is too much to ask.
He's not promising as much, but Flanagan's adamant it's not beyond his current roster.
"Obviously the club's in a transition, but I'm not going to throw any five year plans out there or anything like that," Flanagan said.
"I want to win next year. We're obviously not going to win all our games next year, but we're going to go down fighting. If we get all the fans on board and enjoying the journey, the players will grow from it.
"I saw it happen at the Sharks. The Sharks never won anything, and then all of a sudden we started to win. That momentum, and how powerful it was for the playing group, you can't measure it.
"Hopefully the fans understand that it is a journey, but we're definitely going to be ready to go first game next year."
It's the question that won't go away, and it's certainly the one Flanagan's fielded the most since stepping into the coaching role.
Ben Hunt dropped a bombshell on the club in May when he requested a release from the two-year contract extension he only signed the previous November.
The desire to leave is one he's repeatedly re-iterated. He's given tentative assurances he'll see out 2024, but Flanagan's adamant he'll be there for 2025.
"To put the situation with Benny in black and white, he's sick of losing," Flanagan said.
"A lot of the senior players are. Blake Lawrie, Zac Lomax, they've been there through this losing period, and they're sick of it. I can understand his frustration in that, but Ben's going to be doing everything he possibly can to win.
"If we change the win-loss record and obviously have an enjoyable, successful club and get the Dragons back to what they were, he won't want to leave."
The unquestionably talented Dapto junior has been enigmatic in his top-grade career, combining flashes of brilliance with moments he'd like back.
Flanagan had planned a monster preseason on and off the training paddock for the 20-year-old, but those plans have been set back by ankle surgery and a broken thumb.
It will see the crash course crammed into a smaller window, but Flanagan still believes Sloan can be "an NRL superstar."
"I had a real big November-December planned for him in relation to some really hard training and then some stuff away from football," Flanagan said.
"We haven't really been really able to do a lot of that because he's had his arm in plaster and he's had ankle surgery. Unfortunately we're just going to have fast track that and cram it into two months.
"It's not ideal but that's what we're going to deal with now. He's a super talent, but he's got some flaws and I need to address the flaws.
"It's predominantly around resilience and defensive systems and structures. If we can get him up to speed that area, which I think we can, he'll be an NRL superstar."
If Sloan is the biggest riddle for Flanagan to solve, Zac Lomax would have to be a close second.
On the fringe of Origin selection a few seasons ago, Lomax was badly mishandled by Griffin but found his groove under interim coach Ryan Carr towards the back end of this year.
Flanagan revealed the 24-year-old will be spending plenty of time at fullback through preseason, regardless of what number he ultimately wears come round one.
"He's an unbelievable athlete with his strength and his endurance, but I need to coach him up," Flanagan said.
"He's been a little bit stuck on that right hand side and got stuck in his ways. He needs to have more to his game and playing at fullback could bring that out in him.
"He's definitely an [option] at fullback but, even if he doesn't start at fullback, the training at fullback is going to give him a lot of the skill set that I'm trying to get him to play as a centre.
"He's a super talented athlete, we just need to challenge him."
Uniting the warring tribes
It's something that only Wayne Bennett has truly managed to do, but bringing together still distinctly separate fanbases is the challenge Flanagan faces as a figurehead.
With the club having officially removed the term "joint-venture" from its constitution, Flanagan plans to turn two massive catchments into a single juggernaut.
"It's not a joint venture anymore," Flanagan said.
"We're the St George Illawarra Dragons and we're a really big club. We can look at the strengths of different parts of it, but we're all Dragons, we wear the same jersey.
"I don't think there was any war, but I just want to unite everyone and I'm quite happy to be the figurehead of just one club."
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