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?