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?

Why Michael Maguire is on borrowed time at South Sydney

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After yet another humiliating loss on Friday night, Michael Maguire’s days at South Sydney are numbered.

Or at least they should be, given the way many clubs within the NRL have chosen to deal with coaches when they hit hard times and wins become more difficult to find than oversized pumpkins in a supermarket around Halloween.

Take Jason Taylor for example, the man dumped by the Wests Tigers at the beginning of this year following a run of losses and two years without finals football. He has since been replaced by Ivan Cleary but the way with which he was forced out of the club and to the back of the unemployment line was unjust and based on flimsy reasoning.

The Wests Tigers finished 15th in 2015 and 9th a year later, missing out on the finals by a point. But after just three rounds of the new season, he was thrown out quicker than a misbehaving partygoer at a night club after back-to-back losses including a 40 point thumping at the hands of the Canberra Raiders in the nation’s capital.

Club officials are quick to lay blame on the coach when their side’s on-field performances are not up to scratch, and this was certainly the case at the Wests Tigers earlier this year.

The writing was on the wall for Taylor long before his sacking when Robbie Farah, the clubs’ favourite son, was dropped to reserve grade despite appearing for NSW in Origin just weeks earlier.

Then, when he was eventually pushed out and forced to find another club at the end of the 2016 season, after making a late plea to remain a one club player in the Tigers’ heartbreaking defeat to Canberra at Leichardt in round 26, Taylor’s days were suddenly numbered.

The Tigers poor early season form was all the convincing the club needed to put the final nail in JT’s coffin. A day later he was clearing his desk and drafting a resume.

True, if a club has made a habit of missing finals the coach needs to go because they are clearly incapable of getting the most out of their players or coming up with match-winning game plans. But the Wests Tigers, like many other NRL clubs, seem to feel that if things aren’t going well on the field, it is the fault of the coach, even if the players at their disposal aren’t capable of matching it with the rest of the competition.

This from a club that kept a coach on its books for close to a decade after winning just one premiership and qualifying for the finals on three occasions thereafter.

So how does this relate to Maguire?

Put simply, he may end up the victim of another unjust sacking by an NRL club that believes its coach is the reason for a drop in performance. Not poor management, as in the case of the Tigers, or a lack of player depth which, again, is not the sole responsibility of the coach or something they may have any input in at all.

Since winning the premiership in 2014, Souths have finished 7th, where they made it as far as the qualifying finals, and 12th in a disappointing 2016 season. Once again this year, it looks as if they are destined to finish in the bottom eight. Maybe even the bottom four.

So how will a famous club with a thirst for premiership success like South Sydney respond to this kind of failure? If they are anything like the other proud Sydney clubs and are following the trend of making the coach the fall guy for circumstances beyond his control, he’ll be sacked using the age old excuse that they are “rebuilding the club” or “restructuring the way we go about business”.

But these excuses don’t hold up anymore. Only nine months ago Paul McGregor was on the outer at St George Illawarra along with Peter Doust who were, apparently, both to blame for the Dragons’ underwhelming performances.

Making Doust the scapegoat is understandable, he is in an authority position and is responsible for making decisions that directly influence on-field performance. But blaming McGregor, a man who had been in control of the club for just two full seasons, was hard to stomach.

Already this year, with the same two men at the head of the table, the Dragons have climbed the ladder and are sitting pretty in third position with seven wins and four losses. Yet McGregor and Doust could’ve been handing in their applications to rival organisations in the lead up to Christmas last year.

Then there’s the case of Geoff Toovey who, after four seasons in charge, was sacked in sensational circumstances with the return of advisor and Manly legend Bob Fulton. This despite missing the finals on just one occassion and qualifying for a Grand Final in 2013.

Des Hasler was also within a hair’s breadth of parting ways with Canterbury earlier this year. His record speaks for itself but after the Bulldogs got their season off to a slow start he was being held accountable for his players’ poor form.

So yes, Maguire has plenty to be concerned about. Like Toovey, he has experienced great success during his time as head coach but has suddenly fallen on hard times. The Rabbitohs are struggling to compete with the best teams in the comp and are a shadow of the side that won the Grand Final in 2014; sitting in 15th position and moving in a southerly direction.

Unlike Taylor, and McGregor to an extent, he is operating under a more sturdy board with few weak links and a good track record.

Yet, in much the same fashion as the former Wests Tigers coach, he is leading a team full of fallen champions, fading stars, and young footballers who are fresh to first grade and struggling to establish a foothold.

Maguire has been a fine coach for a long time but will soon fall victim to the modern age mindset that changing the coach will help reverse a sides’ fortunes while the players get off scot-free even though they are the ones participating in the game.

Why must we continue to force the coach to own the teams’ performance after just a few years in charge? Yes, he is responsible for improving and optimising the quality of the players he has at his disposal, but, contrary to popular opinion, he takes no part in the game and is not capable of throwing a pass to his winger or completing a set of six, even if his job, by very definition, is to give that player the best chance to succeed in doing so.

Give coaches a chance to build a legacy. If at this stage the side is still struggling, then consider making personnel changes at the top.

Forcing change because a club is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with failure and the thought of missing finals will rarely result in improved performance. Surely clubs have learned this lesson by now.

Club members will only renew their membership if the team is experiencing success. Sponsors too are drawn to clubs with a rich history of premiership glory. We live in a result driven world so it is understandable that clubs will go searching for answers when things go awry.

But we are asking too much of coaches and laying blame on the blameless when it should be attributed elsewhere – to the players who are a protected spices in the 21st century.