Worrying patterns in McGregor’s coaching career shed light on form slump

Make no bones about it, the next three weeks are the biggest in Paul McGregor’s coaching career to date.

Having lost five of their last six games, the Dragons are in freefall.

For fans of the club, this has become an all too familiar sight in recent seasons and, once again, we find ourselves asking the same old question: why does this keep happening?

It can’t just be the players, for the team that took the field in 2015 – a year best remembered for the Dragons slide from first to eighth and subsequent exit in the first weekend of finals – looks vastly different to the one lining up against the Tigers this weekend.

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For arguments sake, there are only five players still remaining from that Preliminary Final against the Bulldogs.

The rest? They’ve moved on. And yet the Dragons find themselves in the very same predicament three years later.

The only constant through this whole debacle, with the exception of a few players, is coach Paul McGregor.

He was there in 2015. He was there for the disappointment of 2016. And he was there last year when the Dragons dropped out of finals contention after leading the competition in the 7th round.

There have been several coaches on the chopping block this year and McGregor, following his sides’ humiliating loss to Parramatta, has suddenly re-entered the fray.

Just two weeks ago we saw the Panthers sack coach Anthony Griffin despite the fact they were well and truly in the race for the premiership.

The form is there. A top eight finishing position means nothing these days. And a contract even less so.

This leaves McGregor in a precarious position.

Could he soon join Griffin and become the latest casualty of the coaching merry-go-round?

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The simple fact that he continues to produce the same result year in, year out with a different set of players speaks to his coaching methods.

The fact the Dragons had several players represent their state but are struggling to keep in touch with the top four is similarly concerning.

But perhaps McGregor’s biggest flaw, and the reason why his name is being mentioned in this conversation, is his reluctance to make changes when the chips are down and victories hard to come by.

This weekend he had a golden opportunity to introduce Zac Lomax and Jai Field – two talented youngsters who have been a part of the Dragons reserve grade outfit that currently sits in second position.

Anyone who has seen these two play know they are something special.

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While they mightn’t be first grade ready as yet, an injury to Widdop and the waning form of the outside backs provided the perfect opportunity to give them another shot.

But McGregor has opted in favour of Kurt Mann who has failed to provide attacking spark at five-eight when given the opportunity in the past.

The counter argument to giving Lomax and Field another first grade cap is that they haven’t played the entire season and so are unlikely to feature in the finals.

But when a previously high-flying team is beaten – nay smashed – by a side ranked ten spots below them, isn’t it worth trying something different?

What is the purpose of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

Lomax and Field could be the Dragons answer to the Storm’s Jahrome Hughes, or the Raiders’ Nick Cotric.

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The history of Rugby League is littered with stories of youngsters being thrown into the deep end and going on to forge long and successful careers. Why can’t the Dragons become a part of this narrative?

Sure, there is the argument that this current crop of players put the Dragons in title contention, so there is every likelihood they could rediscover their mojo and, consequently, their ladder position.

But they are playing on empty tanks. They are mentally scarred. And they’ve forgotten how to find the try line.

A fresh set of eyes in attack could change things. Adding two or more players from a reserve grade outfit with plenty of form and no baggage could teach them how to win again.

McGregor took a punt by choosing not to rest players after Origin when other teams did.

Say what you will about Griffin, or whoever made the decision at Penrith to rest their Origin stars after the series had concluded – it might just be the gamble that sees them through to the top four.

McGregor let his battle-wearied stars play on and could pay a heavy price for it.

What missing the top eight would mean for the Dragons

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McInnes and Widdop all smiles during the Dragons Round one clash with Penrith. Image source: The Leader.

Seeing the Dragons drop down the ladder is an all too familiar sight for fans of the club.

In 2015, the Dragons were sitting in first position heading into the Origin period. But things quickly turned sour and they ended up finishing the regular season in eighth.

It is a worrying trend that this new Dragons outfit – who were seemingly destined for the finals just a few rounds ago – are following despite having changed a significant amount over the same two year period.

The Dragons lost to the Bulldogs in a heartbreaking elimination final that year and if their season continues the way it is currently then they might just fold once again when the first round of finals comes around.

That is if they make it at all.

Their road to the finals looks an easy one from a distance, but for a side as inconsistent as the Dragons it is difficult to judge.

They have the third placed Sea Eagles this Sunday before taking on the Knights, who gave them a right old scare not that long ago, in round 21.

Two rounds later they take on the Gold Coast who not only handed them their backsides last time around but are playing each round like their lives depend on it, so tight is the cluster of teams vying for a top eight spot.

Their only relief will come against the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs who are both competing for the competition’s ‘most boring and predictable team award’ at this year’s Dally M Medal night.

Much like the Bulldogs though, the Dragons are struggling to score points. It is a monkey they have been unable to remove from their collective backs for the past few seasons.

Last year Widdop and Marshall were blamed for their lack of creativity and this theory seemed to hold true when the Dragons went on a point scoring rampage early in 2017 under a reformed halves pairing.

But the last five or so rounds have seen the Dragons slip back into some bad habits. And there can be no better example of this than on Friday night when the fast-finishing Raiders sunk Dragon heart’s in golden point.

Or on the Gold Coast in round 17, where they could only muster 10 points against a side that was well and truly out of the top eight at the time.

Friday night’s game was there for the taking but like the Dragons of old they reverted to relying on defence too early and let the Raiders dictate terms to them.

When they defeated the Cowboys 28-22 way back in round seven they were relentless.

Even in a losing effort against the Storm they managed to pile on 22 points against what you could argue is the competition’s best defence.

But the well has since run dry and there are worrying signs that the Dragons will rely on their old mantra of ‘defence wins football games’ through fear of losing – much like they did at Canberra Stadium last Friday.

If so, their points differential will go south quicker than the share price of a bankrupt mining corporation and they’ll be lucky to win more than two of their last six games, all but ruling them out of the hunt for a spot in the top eight.

More evidence of the Dragons change in attitude came on Friday night when they began running sideways rather than straight up the middle of the field.

Last season, opposition sides were able to shut down their attack quickly because the defensive line would shuffle across the field and wait for the Dragons to run out of space on the edges.

They look far more dangerous when they give the ball to the likes of De Belin, Packer, Frizell and Vaughan who punch holes in the middle of the ruck and allow the halves, as well as Cameron McInnes, time and space to run the football or steal crucial meters out of dummy-half.

Take the effort against the Tigers earlier this season for example. The Dragons were able to put 28 points on the scoreboard because the forwards gave the halves room to manoeuvre.

Nightingale crossed three times that afternoon thanks to the brilliance of Gareth Widdop who threw three rocket passes off the back of some well-timed block plays.

Without the go-forward of the meter-eaters up front, however, the halves wouldn’t have been given the opportunity.

And that was the Dragons biggest problem last year – the halves overplaying their hands and attempting to create try-scoring opportunities when they hadn’t strapped on the blue overalls and earned the right to do so.

Against Canberra there were signs the Dragons had dismissed this mindset from their thoughts – particularly when the forwards got the ball within meters of the line off the back of a 65 meter drop out – and others where fans were left wondering what exactly has been achieved over the past eight months.

All these questions will be answered over the coming weeks as well as others such as: ‘did the Dragons move too early on re-signing Mary McGregor?’ and ‘will Ben Hunt provide something that McCrone currently is not?’

Which leads me to my next point – why has McCrone, at times, been shunned by McGregor in favour of Kurt Mann in the halves when the former is quite obviously the more competent halfback and the latter a natural born centre?

It beggars belief McGregor is still toying with the halves combination at such a crucial point in the season.

He made this ill-fated move against the Titans and paid full price; there was no attacking creativity until McCrone was brought off the bench and injected into the action in the second half.

If McGregor continues to make these errors in judgement then the Dragons will continue to play like a nothing burger football side that are woeful on their worst days and commendable but nothing more on their best.

3 wins from their last ten games against opposition sides ranging from gettable to hopelessly out of touch is a testament to this.

The final straw will be if they lose to Newcastle in round 21 or the incredibly tame and structured South Sydney in round 22.

A loss to Manly this weekend is forgivable but losses beyond this clash will show the Dragons have come nowhere through two years of constant tinkering and remodelling.

The question then will be: where to next?

Dragons remarkable turnaround a testament to players’ character

Amongst the drama and intrigue that currently surrounds the NRL transfer market fiasco, one quite remarkable story-line has gone largely unnoticed by the Rugby League community.

The St. George Illawarra Dragons, given next to no hope of winning the premiership just two months ago, sit top of the premiership table with just one loss to their name. It’s not quite the Leicester City fairy-tale, particularly when you consider that we are just six rounds into the season and the Dragons have’t yet taken on the competition heavyweights, but it is a miraculous turn of events given the disastrous state of club just a few months ago.

Let’s look back at the events that led to their demise.

The Dragons finished season 2016 in eleventh position. The club was in disarray. Fans were campaigning for the coach and chief executive to be thrown out of the club like a drunkard being tossed out of a nightclub following a booze fueled brawl. And criticism was being hurled at the halves, namely Widdop and Marshall, like stones from all and sundry. The problem began and ended with them.

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But as time has passed, some seven months now, the Dragons have become a more professional outfit and winning games has quickly become a habit.

The real test will come when they face the Cowboys this weekend, and then the Roosters followed a week later by the Storm. Only in the aftermath of these encounters will we know whether the Dragons are capable of challenging for the crown in 2017.

They’ve shown signs of having what it takes to make it to ANZ Stadium in October. Against a rampant and in-form Sea Eagles outfit last weekend they ran out 35 to 10 victors in a game many expected the home side to run away with like a cat burglar stealing a TV in the dark of night.

So what has been the catalyst for the dramatic turnaround from chumps to, dare I say, champs?

It’s hard to look past their pack, in particularly the big names – Vaughan, De Belin, Frizell, Thompson and even Packer – who are dragging the club kicking and screaming into a new era.

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Much of the Dragons game last year was based around defence, and it needed to be given they found points harder to come by than a property listed for less than a million dollars in the city’s CBD.

But so far this year, the big men have provided the go forward and given the Dragons field position, allowing the halves to play close to the line instead of trying to create something from an impossible range. And hasn’t Widdop flourished.

The old story in Rugby League goes that members of the cities’ football club never have to empty their pockets for a coffee again once they’ve payed their dues; such is the admiration for their skill. Rumour has it Balmain legends Steve Roach and Paul Sironen are still being offered free drinks on the peninsula by overawed fans clinging onto the success of the late eighties. Gareth Widdop had no such luck around two months ago and was made to pay for every coffee, muffin and breakfast burrito he ever consumed, plus an extra surcharge. Now the race is on to snap up his signature before another club swoops in on him.

This is quite the turnaround but he is far from the only player that has experienced some success under the Dragons’ new style.

Former St George Illawarra hooker Mitch Rein labelled the Dragons a boring football side after he left the club on bad terms. One must wonder whether this was purely him airing his dirty laundry or whether there was truth to his claims.

But since Cameron McInnes has come along to spice up the Dragons attack, nothing about it has been remotely sleep inducing. His presence around the ruck has added an extra dimension to the Dragons game that opposition defensive units have found difficult to counteract.

Under Marshall, Widdop and Rein, St George Illawarra’s kicking game was almost non existent, and when it was, nothing came of it. McInnes has added run and carry out of dummy-half, been as solid as the rock of Gibralter in defence, but, and perhaps most importantly, has provided grubbers in behind the defence that have either led to try scoring opportunities or forced repeat sets.

Again, these opportunities only arise when the forwards are doing their job.

I cannot end this column without mentioning the transformation in Lafai’s game because, while he hasn’t earned the accolades or the plaudits that the likes of Widdop, McCrone, Frizell and Vaughan have, he has played a pivitol role in the Dragon’s reawakening.

Two weeks ago against the West Tigers it was his vision and strength that sent Nightingale over for a hat-trick. Sure, none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the brilliance of Widdop in the lead up play, but it was stunning Rugby League nonetheless, delivered by a player regaining the confidence that saw him play a vital role in the Bulldog’s march to the Grand Final in 2014.

Wingers are only as good as their inside man after all.

Having said all this, it takes just one poor performance for the bubble to burst and the cycle to start all over again. It’s the way the Dragons bounce back from narrow, or damaging, defeats that will decide whether they are genuine challengers.