The Late Mail: Panthers v Knights
25 mins ago | Hamish Parker
The Dragons in 2019 were a car crash on the highway which you couldn't take your eyes off - and ended with their worst finish in the National Rugby League era in 15th.
They mustered just eight victories in a season which was only slightly better than a visit to the dentist to get a root canal. The constant chopping and changing of the side only exacerbated the sorrow that befell Dragons fans and heighted the calls for ‘Fail Mary', leaving more questions than answers for a side that considers itself a competitive one.
A pair of losses in the opening fortnight to Cowboys and Rabbitohs largely set the tone for the season. There was a brief heartbeat with four-straight wins to follow, but 2019 quickly turned into a forgettable mess for the joint venture side. Losses piled up higher than the protest banners which started to appear on the hills at Jubilee and WIN, and the Dragons lost what should have been the backbone to a successful season - their defence - as they conceded the third most points in the competition (575).
Their late season successes against the Titans which kept them from a first wooden spoon were met with a huge chorus of meh as the season was euthanized mercifully in front of a sparse crowd in Robina which was fitting for the NRL's two worst sides.
Headed into 2020 and his sixth full season as Dragons coach, Paul McGregor has a huge task ahead of him. The former Dragon might have taken the side to its tipping point and he will need a ferocious start to next season to quell the dissenting voices around the club. 2019 needs to be the rock bottom for the Red V, and not the continuation of a malaise which has spread around the club.
After back-to-back losses to open the season, Dragons reeled off four straight victories - their largest streak of the season - which included a pair of Golden Point field goals from Corey Norman and it looked like another top eight season for the Dragons. Alas, this review would still be a week or two away had that been the case. From there, they lurched from thrashing to thrashing with the low point a 45-12 loss in Mudgee to the Knights, in what was a season of dreading turning on the TV on weekends. Plenty might blame the drama which unfolded over the off-season but all considered, the Dragons had a roster that wasn't a 15th place finisher and there has already and will be pressure on Paul McGregor headed in 2020 to get them back to competitive and possibly top eight.
Only saved by the ignominy of the wooden spoon by the Gold Coast Titans, there wasn't much that worked this season for St George Illawarra. Plenty of reputations and egos were bruised by the Dragons work in 2019 and there will be a huge repair job on next season. The year worked in a sense that Dragons it might have been a rock bottom for a side that deluded itself with designs of competitiveness and now, can rebuild themselves into a contender which might not take long in the National Rugby League.
The simplistic answer would be to say everything and clock off for the day. Looking deeper - the Dragons tried to get too extra. Ben Hunt, off-season recruit Corey Norman and Gareth Widdop all tried to fit three into two for the halves which ended with a mix-and-match style before Widdop went down injured. They averaged 17.8 points (including tries from kicks) but outside of beating Bulldogs and Titans handily twice each, Dragons went past 20 points TWICE all season. The backline continued to age and the fullback position also became a poisoned chalice with a forward pack that still boasted plenty of representative experience but without Jack De Belin, there wasn't enough grunt to push past teams like 2018. In the end, a simplistic game plan with a tinker man at the helm, the Dragons didn't know what they were in 2019 and it showed in their performance and final deserved ladder position.
Picking through the wreckage of the Dragons season - there wasn't much in the way of performances for the joint venture to savour. Luciano Leilua, took another step in his growth, the interchange forward sparked a side that had trouble moving the ball. Outside of that, there were consistent performances from Paul Vaughan, Cameron McInnes and sporadic work including a bunch of tries from Mikaele Ravalawa kept them afloat in a rough season.
Tristian Sailor will be the name that is remembered from the Dragons rookie class of 2019. The son of former Dragon Wendell Sailor debuted in against the eventual Premiers Sydney Roosters in Round 23, scoring a try at fullback and might have started to regenerate their backline. Jackson Ford brought some late-season energy to the forward pack in his five appearances with a four-pointer to boot in a lean class for the famous Red V.
Finishing bottom of the four-team competition last year, the Dragons made a huge splash in their recruitment to bring across a handful of the Broncos premiership winning side alongside Blues half Maddie Studdon which got them to a first Grand Final - a 30-6 loss to Brisbane. Centre Jessica Sergis was named Dally M Female Player of the Year as the NRLW competition continues to grow from strength to strength each year.
The Dragons NSW Cup side gave fans something to cheer about in September. They won the minor premiership with a side packed with NRL experience and some youthful talent on the edges headlined by Tristian Sailor. Dragons pipped the Rabbitohs on the last day for first place, then proceeded to take a direct line into the preliminary final with an extra-time success against the 4th-placed Bulldogs.
In the precursor to the big dance, Dragons fell victim to the rugby league version of the Mighty Ducks that were Newtown Jets, who went on to win the Canterbury Cup-State Championship double.
St George Illawarra's U20 side had a fairly average season, sneaking into 8th place and playing in an Elimination Final. They lost that final to eventual premiers South Sydney.
Knives are already sharpened for Dragons coach Paul McGregor so he needs to get his side off to a fast start in 2020. The roster still contains plenty of experience and talent for the Dragons which might move them to fringe top eight side but some major signings are needed to get them playing football that can compete in the NRL but ultimately, it will fall on their halves once again to keep their head above water or quickly they will be burnt again.