BLOG: Wholesale changes afoot for Dragons at season’s end

I like many other Red V fans sat frustrated for the better part of seventy-minutes on Sunday, as the Dragons turned out yet another performance bereft of attacking flair and defensive solidity. Unfortunately, this has become an all too familiar sight for this enigmatic side over the last few years. The result on Sunday was a predictable one. For only the first ten minutes of the game did the Dragons ever look like calling the bluff of the betting agencies. For the remainder of the contest, the Farah-less Tigers looked determined to end a tumultuous week off the field with a resounding victory on it. The young halves in Brooks and Moises were poised, level-headed and reverted to playing on instinct when sticking to structures failed them. They did what all good halves do. Challenge the line, link up with the big men, force repeat sets through effective last tackle kicks and suss out the defensive lapses of the Dragons. Most importantly, they manufactured tries through ad-lib football at stages when their attack appeared to have hit a rough spot. A refreshing, reassuring sight for Wests Tigers fans I’m sure. They looked a class above experienced campaigners Marshall and Widdop, who struggled to stamp any authority on the game. The performance was a minor improvement on the lackluster efforts of the last two weeks for the Red V. But it’s going to take radical improvements in both attack and defence if they are to get through a horror three week period against the competition heavyweights unscathed.

There’s no doubting that a clean out is imminent at the Dragons once the curtain is drawn on season 2016. The mediocre, steadily declining performances of recent seasons warrant this. Doust will be axed as growing fan unrest gains traction, while McGregor and his right-hand men will follow in the immediate aftermath. Since Bennet’s tyrannical reign came to an end in 2011, (I really should be more diplomatic given the Dragons won a premiership under his tutelage) the Dragons have finished 9th, 14th, 11th and 8th. Over these four seasons, their biggest achievements have been the sacking of a coach and the acquisition of a halfback who has failed to conjure up the flash in the pan success he showed a little under a decade ago. I admire the guile of Benji. His left-foot step was poetry in motion at the peak of his powers. He was, and still is, a commentators dream when he breaks the tackles of defenders two times his size to score a ninety-meter run away try. But for someone like myself who is so heavily invested in this club, I just don’t see him as an adequate fit for Widdop. That is, of course, if the six and seven is indeed the combination they wish to build their successes around in future. And it should be, given the Dragons habitual point scoring struggles – they sit just fourteen-points clear of the last placed Newcastle Knights in this regard. It would be unjustly myopic of me to suggest that the halves are the sole proprietors of the form slump, but then again, the stats tell an incriminating tale. Benji’s lateral running style leaves players around him flat-footed and confused when the ball is floated their way. The wrap-around play that he so often institutes is rarely executed with any degree of perfection and can be sniffed out and shut down instantly by defensive units. It’s a shame, because this ploy worked like clockwork for the West Tigers through several finals campaigns, albeit during the mid to late 2000’s.

On the other side of the equation is Gareth Widdop, who has been missing in action for the Dragons during several of the losses this season, not through injury or suspension, but through underperformance and limited involvement. His leadership has been equally non-existent, with calls now for his tenure to be prematurely relinquished just five months into its journey. In short, the Dragons attack is predictable, easily read by the opposition defence and prone to periods where it loses direction, either through frustration or lack of ideas. They require an inventive playmaker, someone who complements Widdop or Marshall – whomever they choose to carry on in the role, only one can remain – and can change the point scoring fortunes of the Dragons by playing what’s in front of them. We have, however, reached round 21, which indicates that the pool of free-agents is rapidly thinning. The Dragons have already lost out on the signature of Luke Keary that, up until the tricolours snuck under the radar to snavel him, they looked certain to secure. Its left many wondering what personnel changes, if any, will be made to upgrade the quality of the playing roster. All things being equal, and assuming they fail to lure Corey Norman, the Dragons will need to return to the negotiating table once more to increase the $300,000 contract extension offer to something more palatable for Marshall and his manager.

Mary McGregor said himself in the press conference following the game on Sunday that cohesion has gone missing at the Dragons this season because they’ve been without a regular spine. While this has had some bearing on the results, a clear inability to score points in attacking field position stems from more than a simple lack of cohesion. This appears to be McGregor’s superficial response in a futile attempt to divert attention away from his sides difficulties, and of course, the mounting pressure he faces in retaining his job as head honcho. Perhaps Geoff Toovey will give coaching another go despite the terms on which he and Manly parted ways if the Dragons and McGregor do fall out of love. His methods are tried and tested, while his bloody-mindedness and resolve would set the Dragons attack on the straight and narrow.

When the Dragons led the competition for a brief period last season, defence formed the crucial underpinning of their victories. In fact, it is what the Dragons claim to be the cornerstone of their game. It was difficult then to watch on Sunday as the Tigers strolled through untouched to score on two occasions. Even more painful was watching three defenders drop off a single player while others stood and watched in back play. There was nothing special about the pass from Halatau to Nofoluma, nothing that should have allowed the latter to breeze past the weary marker defenders and into a gaping hole with ease. But on this and many other occasions throughout the afternoon, the Dragons defence was sadly lacking, particularly up the middle of the field. So much so that the eighth immortal found it apt to lambaste their defensive incompetencies. Is this a confidence issue, or are they not trusting the man beside them? Perhaps we’re viewing the  results of more crude coaching methods?

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Feel free to chime in with your opinions below Dragons fans….

Scattergun season leaves Yorkshire floundering in unfamiliar territory

Inconsistency has plagued Yorkshire’s quest to achieve a three-peat of championship crowns in 2016, as they continue to cling on to their position in the middle of the division one table by the skin of their teeth.

They say a strong Yorkshire makes for a strong England. While many whisper sceptically behind their hands, condemning any such theory, the burden of the old cliché – dated as it might be – weighs heavy on the shoulders of the playing group this season.

We’ve been reminded during this unsunny summer that sheer weight of expectations is a significant encumbrance not to be brushed aside. Before a ball had been bowled in anger during April, we were told in no uncertain terms that there was no stopping the might of Yorkshire, who were bound for yet another year of unbridled successes.

Au contraire. How four months, a coin toss and a few unanticipated departures can unhinge a perfectly architected yellow brick road. It now appears Yorkshire’s deep seated winning culture has inexplicably gone to the dogs – or at the very least – hit a significant bump in a long and winding road.

Yorkshire are not directionless, but they are at this stage in a marathon season rooted to the spot on the championship table with a formidable run home – one that includes a visit to Lord’s and Old Trafford. With Root, Balance, Bairstow and Rashid all away on England duty until at least the final round, it is left to a patchwork side to pick up the slack that flagged somewhere around mid-May.

Had it not been for some pesky South-East weather intervening on a strong Yorkshire performance against Surrey at the Oval, they might well have been able to add a win to their season tally of 116, potentially positioning them inside the top 4. But there’s no point dwelling at this point on what could have been.

All is far from lost for Yorkshire though. While they face a torrid time dealing with injury that constantly attempts to access permanent residency in the Yorkshire ranks, the likes of Leaning, Hodd and Rhodes will be asked to step up to the plate and toe the line through August and September for the defending champions.

The new toss regulations appear to have taken their toll on Yorkshire’s bowling, while their batting, led by messiah’s Lyth and Lees, consistently fluctuates between two extremes – breathtakingly brilliant and unequivocally vulnerable. A proclivity to inspire and frustrate fans in the same session is an inconsistency that must be addressed. Too often have Bresnan and Plunkett been called on to do the heavy lifting down the bottom of the order.

Their bowling performances have laid the foundations for their successes in years gone by, but the scrapping of the coin toss this season has seen Yorkshire struggle to win outright. This issue is not isolated, it is very much a competition wide epidemic brought about by flat, lifeless wickets prepared in the knowledge that the opposition side mustn’t profit from their decision on the first morning. So much so that the toss has turned into a game of Russian roulette for the foolhardy.

Yorkshire’s bowlers have toiled for days on end at stages this season, powerless to arrest fluent strokeplay, as batsmen fill their boots and plunder runs to all parts of the ground with ease. Their only reprieve from a 150-over graft, a sporting declaration from the opposition captain.

It should come as no surprise then to find that Yorkshire captain Andrew Gale was among the first to speak his mind on the new toss regulations upon their unveiling in November last year. His statement was brief but insightful: “[no mandatory toss is] Absolute madness”.

Surrey captain Gareth Batty shared a similar sentiment towards the ensuing anarchy of the new toss regulations that saw his team chase leather in the field for 210-overs this week. He too was blunt in his appraisal of the current state of pitches around the country, labelling them – rather crudely I might add – as being “very flat” in nature. This statement may have been somewhat tongue in cheek though, given that Batty was fresh from a trailblazing game that included an unbeaten hundred and eight wickets.

But I shan’t harp on about these toss regulations any longer.

Yorkshire’s Blast form is bordering on farcical, though, their mad cap style has struggled to bear fruit since even the early days of the Twenty-Twenty Cup. The absence of their England players during the period when the Sri Lankan ODI series was taking place hasn’t helped their cause either.

Any hope of a journey to Edgbaston for finals day now appears bleak, with just a handful of fixtures – and therefore opportunities – remaining in the 2016 edition. But optimism and desire so often prevail in this whimsical game we call cricket. To sneak into the top four and progress beyond the North group stage they must win their final two games, and while they’re at it, muster a genie from a bottle to grant an indelible wish. Very rarely do six wins qualify a side for the quarter-finals. Yorkshire’s Blast campaign for 2016 has all but met its maker.

Their Royal London One-Day Cup season started in the worst possible fashion, with a big loss to Worcestershire in a television game at Leeds. Since that dreary summer’s day, where their one-day season looked destined to follow suite, Yorkshire’s fortunes have experienced a dramatic revival. Back to back wins have them perched inside the top three and within striking distance of the unbeaten Derbyshire.

A last start rout of rivals Lancashire whose batting innings ended inside 18-overs – only Martin Guptill surpassed single figures – will give them the momentum they require to begin the march towards Lord’s. The RLODC is the one competition they look primed to win, but with the halfway point of the season having only just been reached, a large majority of the plot still remains. I’d be jumping the gun making any bold predictions at this point in the journey.

Pakistan set to rain on England’s parade

Momentum and consistency are fleeting virtues in Test cricket, yet, as England’s Test side has shown, you needn’t have a team of world beaters to achieve them.

Their series triumph against a hapless Sri Lankan side – who showed few glimpses of proficiency in an otherwise ill-fated affair – capped off a stellar 12 months of Test cricket for a rejuvenated, dogged English side that has risen proudly from the ashes of a cataclysmic derailment just two years ago.

The idyllic state of English cricket has extinguished the markedly universal fan divisiveness born of declining form, bringing about aspirations of a return to the helm of the ICC Test rankings.

But Pakistan’s much-eulogised side – when not the subject of a corruption schmooze – might well spoil the English party.

They travel to England this summer in fine fettle and with an air of mystique surrounding their performances whenever and wherever they venture outside of Asia – which has occurred on just six occasions since 2011.

Not since the now-botched tour of 2010 have Pakistan experienced English conditions, and the unpredictable swing and seam of the Duke ball. During that time, Pakistan’s evergreen, fearless leader Misbah-ul-Haq has tossed away the conservative script – with it, Pakistan’s tainted past – to re-engineer a side in dire straits.

The prognosticated destroyers of England’s volatile and ‘fragile’ middle order – the latter being a cobbled summation of Wahab Riaz’s prose describing England’s batting following a tour game – are Mohammad Amir and Yasir Shah.

The former has successfully negotiated a considerable number of rehabilitation hurdles to clamber his way back into the hearts of Pakistan adherents and the minds of English batsmen.

His wide of the crease in-swinger and bouncer, have, if the tour match against Somerset is a suitable means for appraisal, improved out of sight since we last saw him as a shabby haired, impressionable, morally impaired 18-year-old. That’s some feat, given much of the period spent away from the game was under lock and key in a place unfamiliar with even the most reprehensible adaptation of cricket.

The latter is a 30-something leg-break exponent whose Test career, while yet to reach a crescendo, is making waves on the international scene. His participation and influence will go unheeded though if he is unable to extract turn from the mid-summer green seamers he is presented with across the four Tests.

He was the leading wicket-taker in dissimilar, spin-friendly conditions in the UAE against England last October. If he can channel this form, and put into practice his recently revamped googly, he shapes as the series’ chief wicket-taker.

The discernable similarities of the two bowling cartels is an oddity that has made itself scarce in this current decade. Yet, herein lies perhaps the most mouthwatering, decisive battle of the four-match series.

England’s seamers will come into the series high on confidence, having finished off the battered carcass of Sri Lanka in a series where just one touring batsman managed to bat beyond a hundred.

But Pakistan’s street-smart batsmen are a different kettle of fish. Their level-headed middle order, led by the guile of Misbah and accompanied by the eccentric, yet immaculately honed strokeplay of Younis Khan, are bound to prosper no matter how well England’s bowlers execute their discipline.

Their spin-orientated batting line-up mightn’t be the most qualified to cope with the Lord’s slope or an Edgbaston green top, but you can sure as hell expect their tenacity and wristy homegrown techniques – perfected on the slowest wickets the world over – to grind out a great profusion of runs on a regular basis throughout the series.

On the other side of the ledger is an English batting unit struggling for any real consistency. All the signs of a developing fissure in the middle order were there against Sri Lanka’s bowlers, who – bearing little more ammunition than a glorified county attack – proceeded to routinely take the outside edge and batter the front pad of England’s premier batsmen. With the exception of a Moeen Ali hundred at Durham, England’s scores were inflated by the blistering form and twin centuries of Yorkshire’s Johnny Bairstow.

There is a stark contrast between the textbook, forward defence of England’s 10,000-run custodian Alastair Cook, and the gung-ho merchants of Pakistan’s lower order. But this series will seek to prove that application and monotony at the batting crease are reserved for the faint hearted and unadapted in this day and age.

England’s unrushed, more considered stroke play will be required to match the ingenuity of Sarfraz Ahmed and Asad Shafiq operating at full throttle – an eccentric style of play that keeps the scoreboard ticking over with vigor.

England’s one saving grace, Ben Stokes, whose Cape Town double century is an example of this enigmatic style, will be absent from the XI at Lord’s, leaving a significant void in the English middle order.

Is this England’s most settled side in recent history, or are they the most gettable outfit in world cricket? This series will give us an indication.

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How the NRL is holding us to ransom over the National Youth Competition

For the past eight seasons, the NRL’s National Youth Competition (NYC) has been at the vanguard of junior player development. The new broadcast rights deal will, however, bring an end to the competition responsible for identifying and facilitating the games most promising under-20 talent.

The competition has long found censure in regards to its substandard quality. Scorelines are a case in point. Many concede that in a majority of cases the NYC leaves players ill-equipped and unprepared for the rigours of the big time in the NRL – particularly in regards to defensive structures and general toughness.

The concern is that these defensive inadequacies will filter into the first-grade arena and infect its superlative standard.

Game quality aside, the financial burden on both the NRL and its subsidiaries is arguably the greatest drawback of the NYC. Exorbitant running costs associated with interstate travel and accommodation, not to mention player and staff wages, are significant financial blows for NRL clubs to incur, particularly given that the competition offers little return on investment, monetarily speaking. Television and sponsorships are the only viable sources of income.

Finance and player development have become mutually exclusive in the NYC, effectuating a catch-22 situation for NRL clubs. In this case, without a short-term investment in the under-20s, the long-term gain of a talented youngster retained in the wings for first-grade is forfeited. This is a hefty fee to pay for an investment fraught with instability, particularly in an age of market volatility and third party agreements.

Keeping a player resolute to a club’s mantra in the face of a large pay rise is especially difficult for a club with little capital inflow. A 2015 report revealed that clubs such as the Newcastle Knights and Gold Coast Titans were ranked 12th and 13th respectively in terms of developing the greatest number of first-grade players from the NYC.

Unremunerative investments have unearthed further complications for the NYC. For a long period of time, an investment in the under-20s was nugatory and counterproductive for clubs like the Melbourne Storm. They yielded very few players directly from the NYC, as their under-20s side churned out players for the Cronulla Sharks and its NSW Cup affiliate across the opening six years of the competition. Instances of this nature have dramatically reduced over the past few seasons.

These ideologies aren’t empty platitudes, they are genuine concerns for a schismatic competition. One that appears boundless on paper, yet is frivolous and flawed in reality. One that, most importantly, is moving towards a foregone conclusion: the demise of the NRL’s most pragmatic junior rugby league pathway.

Pragmatic in the sense that imitating the NRL’s framework deals with reality, as well as the pitfalls and plateaus of being a professional rugby league player – training, travel, nutrition, media work and team camps. It just so happens that some of the perks associated with operating a competition of the NYC’s magnitude are simultaneously cracking open the nest egg of clubs which are struggling financially.

Despite the costs, we should still lend credence to a competition that has uncovered innumerable diamonds in the rough for the NRL. Throughout its eight years of operation to date, the NYC has provided us with a product that is fundamentally accessible – both for clubs and the public – and a means by which to assess the next crop of footballing maestros.

The NYC’s vastly populated alumni roll is a testament to this. In its inaugural season alone, the competition exposed some of the current day superstars – Trent Merrin, Ben Hunt, Ben Barba, Wade Graham and Gareth Widdop to name but a few. By removing the NYC, surely we are removing an essential bridge to first grade and compromising the health of the NRL over the succeeding decades.

Despite the copious number of threads validating the pros of the NYC, any and all approbation of this competition is rapidly eroding. With every season comes further calls for its neck by the rugby league fraternity, effectively blunting the cogency of any counter argument.

I for one wholeheartedly agree that this competition, while having served as an essential breeding ground for some time, is in need of a seismic overhaul in order to address both the financial and logistical concerns that are ubiquitous under the current system.

An ostensibly enhanced nine-week competition played across state lines in lieu of the Holden Cup looms as the most likely avenue for the NRL to take following the implementation of the next broadcast rights deal.

If the NRL was to sketch up a blueprint of objectives and requirements for an ideal NYC, they would be sure to appease any criteria pertaining to the enhancement of game quality. Without this, we are left with a competition that is ultimately sterile, commercially unattractive and unproductive in readying players with the physical and mental attributes that are required in the NRL.

That’s why a nine-week competition, while addressing the financial disquietudes, will repeat the failings of the NYC in terms of player development. It’s why any future competition must be played statewide – independent of the NRL clubs – thus acting as a feeder competition for the Queensland and NSW Cups.

This will allow young players, specifically forwards, to learn the ropes and complete their rugby league apprenticeships against seasoned pros. It’s why there must also be a steady progression and perspicuous understanding of the stepping stones between each of the SG Ball, Harold Matthew’s, under-20s and Queensland/NSW Cups.

A clear-cut pathway will ensure players – primarily those that are underdeveloped – avoid falling victim to the endemic flaws of the system, particularly during years when walking away from the game appears the most rational option. Not every player that graduates from the NYC is of the same pedigree as Nathan Cleary, Tom Trbojevic and Ashley Taylor, whose natural rugby league prowess and smarts have enabled them to make a seamless, untarnished transition directly from the NYC to the NRL.

Whatever you make of the current format and its logistical deficiencies, by no means should an under-20s competition be eradicated. The NRL has not yet succumbed to its steady disillusionment with the NYC, but it’s doing everything it can to hold us to ransom over it, while simultaneously heightening our intolerance of it.

These players are the future and the lifeline of the NRL. They must be treated accordingly, through the implementation of a sustainable rugby league breeding ground that is an untiring advocate of their development.

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