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.

Crystal ball predictions for the NRL finals

From a viewing perspective, this NRL season has been one of the most enjoyable in recent memory. Sure, it has had its low points; who can forget, for example, the game between Melbourne and Cronulla way back at the start of the season when over 30 penalties were blown, or just last week when the refereeing mess that has hijacked the majority of the season descended into farce?

Yes, controversy has dominated the rugby league agenda. But in amongst the chaos there have been some incredible moments that football fans will remember long into the future.

If you’re Panthers fan, you will never forget the day your team came from 18 points down to defeat Manly at fortress Brookvale. If you wear the Red V with pride, you will no doubt remember the spectacular finish against Parramatta, and the war of attrition on holiday Monday against the Dogs.

Those who live south of the border will look back on 2018 as the year a drought was broken and hope that it is a sign of things to come.

And who can forget that tight finish between the Broncos and Cowboys back in round 2 when the Lang Park goal posts acted as an extra man in defence, stopping a rampaging Scott Bolton on the bell.

For every moment of frustration, for every time you’ve screamed at the telly and threatened to put your remote through the lounge room wall, there have been hundreds of feel-good moments to remind you why you love the game.

It is with this new found optimism that I look ahead to how I believe the rest of the season will pan out and who, in this season of endless surprises, will take out the Provan-Summons trophy in October.

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The Top 4

According to most punters, the Roosters and Storm are the only sure things as far as the top four is concerned. Which teams will join them is difficult to pick. Souths and the Dragons are the obvious choices given their current position, but both sides have gone through a form slump of sorts over the last few weeks.

Failure to secure victory against the Tigers and a near miss against the struggling Eels on Saturday night has seen the Bunnies fall out of favour with many neutral fans, while the Dragons seem to still be suffering from a post Origin hangover. As far as I’m concerned, the Dragons are a long way from where they need to be at this point in the season. They’re falling back into bad habits in both attack and defence and, to be brutally honest, don’t look like they can mix it with the Roosters or Storm.

As a Dragons fan this is difficult to type because we have gone through the agony of falling away late in the season so many times over the last few years. Thankfully, a top eight spot is all but secured, so we needn’t worry about missing the eight altogether. But if the Red V are to avoid repeating their elimination final exit in 2015, they must secure a top four placing.

With a relatively soft draw including 4 matches against bottom eight sides, they should get the job done. The Panthers, Sharks and Broncos are nipping at their heels though, so there will be no shortage of drama over the next few weeks.

The dream is still alive for Dragons fans but it will quickly fade if they can’t win the majority of their five remaining games.

As for the Bunnies, there was a lot to like about their finish to the game against the Eels. They have too many gun players in good form to miss out on a top four spot. If the engine room of Sam Burgess, Crichton, Cook and Walker fires – as it has done for most of the season – it is hard to see them getting knocked out of the top four. They do, however, have a significantly harder draw than the Dragons which includes clashes with Melbourne and the Roosters.

For this reason, I believe the only change to the current top four is the Dragons sneaking into third spot.

Minor Premiers

It is hardly a surprise picking the Storm to win the minor premiership given most rugby league fans out there are tipping the same thing. But I’ll go with the flow because I don’t see anyone knocking them off now that they’ve hit their straps.

The most impressive thing about the Storm is their depth. They have a number of players outside their first choice 17 that would get a starting spot in most sides. Just listen to some of the names they have as back-up: Brodie Croft, Riley Jacks, Cheyse Blair, Brandon Smith…

It is truly remarkable what the Storm have been able to do over the last decade and I see them returning to the Promised Land once again in 2018.

Who plays in the Grand Final?

The Storm have played exceptional football over the last month and will be unlucky to miss out on a spot in the Grand Final. Their challengers came in the form of the Cowboys last year and I’m tipping a team in the bottom 4 of the eight to make it to the big dance yet again in 2018.

As much as I’d like to say it will be the Warriors, they’ve been too inconsistent for my liking. Mind you, a number of sides have been either rocks or diamonds this year so it is far too early to put a line through the men from across the ditch.

They take on the Dragons this weekend in Wollongong in a clash that will act as a form guide for the finals.

With the Warriors likely to be out of the picture, I think it will be the Sharks that beat out the other top eight sides to set up a rematch of the 2016 Grand Final.

The reason I’ve gone this way is because of the strike power they have up front and the speed on the edges. My only concern is the halves. Matt Moylan has been brilliant at times – as he was against the Panthers a few weeks back – and off the pace at others. Townsend has also been up one week and down the next throughout the year.

Their experience in key positions is what I like most. The majority of their roster has also played finals football before, so will know what it takes to win big games.

The premiers

I’ve already tipped the Storm to win the minor premiership. If this happens, I don’t think anyone will be able to stop Smith, Slater and Munster in the finals. They are big game players and the latter two will be especially hungry to add another notch to their belt before their remarkable careers draw to a close.

Most at stake

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve gone with the Dragons. Fans of the club will know the heartbreak of starting a season with bright-eyed optimism only to have their hopes and dreams crushed following a late season slide. It happened in 2015, it happened last year, and – if the last few weeks are anything to go by – it’s happening again in 2018.

There is plenty of pressure on coach Paul McGregor as well. Now in his fifth year in charge of the club, he must take the Dragons to at least the semi-finals to earn a pass mark. Anything less must be deemed a failure. The number of players selected for Origin this year suggests that the Dragons premiership window is wide open. If they fail to capitalise on this opportunity the door will quickly shut as ageing players begin to wane and young players are blooded in first grade.

Penalty crackdown should be encouraged, on one condition

If the NRL wishes to cure the penalty disease currently plaguing the game, referees mustn’t be afraid to use the sin-bin.

I applaud Matt Cecchin for sending Cameron Smith off for ten minutes on Friday night following the tirade of verbal abuse levelled at him and his assistant by the Melbourne Storm.

It was also pleasing to see James Tamou sent for a sit down on Thursday when the Penrith penalty count was beginning to get out of hand.

If the referees wish to continue blowing regular penalties they must persist with using the sin bin as a deterrent. Hopefully this will send a message to players and coaches that any slight infringement will not be tolerated.

For too many years now players have been coached to slow down the play-the-ball or give away a penalty close to the line to avoid conceding four points. This has led to several unattractive games and an increase in teams electing to kick a penalty goal rather than attempt a try-scoring play.

The catch-22 situation here is that the crackdown on these negative tactics by the referees has in itself stymied the natural flow of the game.

Anyone watching Friday night’s clash between Melbourne and Cronulla, whether at the ground or in front of their television sets, would’ve been left frustrated by the constant blowing of penalties.

They detracted from the spectacle and caused the game to become disjointed and unwatchable. There was no flow, no rhythm, and if you’re a casual fan of rugby league, I don’t blame you for changing the channel.

The NRL will know that it faces an uphill battle competing with the AFL, which continues to expand its reach into the eastern states.

The players are also aware that they are all members of the entertainment industry and that their performances – which influence the quality of the product they produce each weekend – determines whether fans will invest time and energy in supporting it.

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The NRL is not just competing with rival codes, of which there are many at this time of year, they are competing with the entire entertainment industry.

With the advent of streaming services such as Netflix, there are now several choices where there was once few and the battle for attention has heightened.

More and more fans will be lost to these alternative forms of entertainment if the game continues down the path it is headed.

But that doesn’t mean the referees should stop blowing penalties to avoid momentum-restricting stoppages, because if they are there to be given, they have no other choice.

It is important, however, the referees continue to show discretion in their decision-making, as fans will be turned away by the kind of nitpicking that gifts teams field position and, ultimately, victory.

This is the cause of as much frustration as the stoppages created by penalties. No fan wants to watch a game that is heavily influenced by the referees.

And yet the crackdown on negative play should be encouraged. If allowed to continue, it will, quite ironically, lead to a more polished and free-flowing game.

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Defensive units will stay back the required ten meters and allow the playmakers to run. Teams will abandon the wrestle tactic. The ruck will improve. Games will speed up and fatigue will start to play a factor again.

The NRL will look less like Super Rugby, with penalty goals kicked at will, and more like the game ardent followers fell in love with.

But if the increase in penalties is not met with an appropriate punishment, such as a stint in the sin bin for a member of a team that commits several offences, the NRL is in for a mass exodus led by disgruntled fans.

Another option is implementing a 5-minute sin-bin for any player that deliberately gives away a penalty close to their own line. This way referees will be more inclined to send a player off and teams will cease employing tactics that are likely to incur a penalty.

The risk in this method concerns that well discussed Rugby League phenomenon – the grey area – because it relies on referee discretion.

But if it helps rub out what is a blight on the game, even while raising the ire of coaches, then the NRL must consider it.

My guess is the referees will buckle under the weight of public opinion and the current crackdown will cease.

But if it does continue, is it too much to ask for the NRL to be proactive in managing it?

Is the hype surrounding Newcastle justified?

When you think of the Newcastle Knights, what comes to mind? If you’ve been following the team for any length of time, you’d probably be inclined to talk about the premiership the club won back in 1997, when Rugby League in Australia was in the grips of war, and again four years later, when one of the game’s greatest halfbacks helped the Knights defeat a highly fancied Parramatta side. If not these, you’d reminisce about the champion players that passed through the club during its glory days, Sunday afternoons spent at Hunter Stadium, the grand final parades, and the turbulence of the Tinkler era that brought with it so much uncertainty.

Things of late have begun to distort the image Newcastle once worked hard to build. Instead of talking about the supreme skills of Johns and Buderus, fans are lamenting the sorry state of a once famous and highly successful club that has lost its aura. Over the last five years Newcastle have won three spoons and failed to qualify for finals. Add to this that all three were won across the seasons of 2015, 2016 and 2017, and you begin to gauge exactly where the club currently stands.

2018 is filled with hope, though. For the first time in the last few years the Knights have a realistic chance of making the top eight. Mitchell Pearce, one of the most polarizing figures in NSW rugby league, joins the club from the Roosters – a side that knows what it takes to play finals football and does so routinely.

Even more exciting for Knights fans is the arrival of Kalyn Ponga. The young fullback may only have a handful of first-grade games under his belt, but he showed signs of great skill and maturity during his time at the Cowboys. The only question that remains now is whether he can deliver on the potential that the Knights saw in him when they sat down to table a deal. A contract worth in excess of a million dollars can often be more of a curse than a blessing for young players who arrive at a club with the expectation of helping deliver a premiership.

The Knights have also improved their depth through the signings of Tautau Moga, Connor Watson, Aidan Guerra, Chris Heighington, Slade Griffin, Jacob Lillyman and Herman Ese’ese. All are quality players who have been a part of highly successful clubs previously. And all will bring a bit of extra experience to the club that will help in the development of rising stars like the Saifiti brothers, Sione Mata’utia, Danny Levi and the powerful Mitch Barnett.

Take Heighington for example. Not two years ago he was a part of the Cronulla side that won the premiership. At the end of last year he came off the bench in the Rugby League World Cup final for England. Playing wise, Heighington’s days are numbered. But you sense he has been brought to the club for more than just what he can deliver on the playing field; his role is to nurture the young Knights forwards and help them realize what it takes to win a premiership.

This won’t be the season Newcastle go all the way – let’s get this straight. It mightn’t even be the year they make the top eight. But it is the beginning of a new era for the Knights. Their premiership window has been brought forward considerably thanks to the work of the management and coaching staff behind a successful off-season recruitment drive.

No longer is Newcastle merely there to make up the numbers. They’re a genuine threat. And I dare say a number of teams this season will fear coming up against them. Forget about easy beats. The Knights are an unknown quantity with a point to prove and for that reason they will cause a number of upsets this season.

This new look side can restore faith in the long-time fans that have begun to drift away from the Hunter and forget about the joy football can bring. They can rediscover the style of football that saw the Newcastle Knights become one of the most popular Australian sporting brands during the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

Johns and Buderus are now nothing more than a distant memory, but the mark they left on the club will withstand the test of time. We may never see the Knights return to the lofty heights set by these two ever again – certainly not for some time yet, anyway. But they, and many others, will be forever known as the architects of a club that inspired an entire generation of rugby league fans from a working-class town.

Growing up during the mid 2000’s, receiving my Rugby League education from Channel 9, much was said about the Newcastle Knights. They were the poster boys of the NRL and the most discussed side on television and in the newspapers. As a Dragons supporter, they were the one side you respected. That respect began to fade away shortly after Johns, Buderus, Gidley, Harragon and MacDougall retired.

I feel the club is on the cusp of returning to those good old days. If they do, the competition, and rugby league in general, will be better for it.

For the first time in a long time, Newcastle fans have a right to feel excited about the future.