Dragons fans' loyalty to be tested in 2020

The St George-Illawarra Dragons fan base is...unique?

The social media department cops it more than any other while the club has a policy in place to screen banners and shield the players and staff from any critical opinions coming from the crowd.

No group slanders their own quite like the Red V, but few remain as loyal at the same time.

That loyalty is being tested in 2020, though.

Off the field, a review of the Football Department resulted in eight staff changes over the summer, but the much-maligned Paul McGregor remains as head coach. Meanwhile, Jack de Belin's court case looks set to drag on through to the end of this season while Tyson Frizell is negotiating his next contract with the Knights circling the State of Origin back rower.

On the field, the spine is unsettled heading into the season, the forward pack lacks depth, and the backline could be regarded as the least-threatening in the competition. 

A Quick Recap Of 2019

Nobody needs much of a reminder about how bad the Dragons were in 2019, so we will keep it brief.

They finished 15th after winning just eight of their 24 matches. Only the wooden spoon-holding Titans conceded more points than the Dragons' 575 at 23.9 points per game.

You couldn't point to any area and say "the Dragons excel there."

Running Metres
Missed Tackles
Penalties Conceded

It's not going to get much better in 2020.

Things may even get worse.

The Backline

Let's start by searching for positives in the backline.

Admittedly, there aren't many.

The first positive is, that even when healthy, Matt Dufty wasn't the first-choice fullback. That's a win for Mary and his coaching staff. As electric as Dufty can be, he's not cut out to play first-grade footy. He's destined to go down a similar path to Bevan French, who right now, is in the mix for the Super League's Man of Steel award.

In Dufty's place comes Zac Lomax. We'd been hearing about him for years before becoming a first-grade regular in 2019. Shuffled around the backline throughout his 13 games, Lomax posed a threat with the ball in hand across the six at either winger or fullback to average 111 running metres per game.

While Lomax may not be a match-winner in 2020, he carries the potential to be a key contributor in future seasons. Likewise, Jason Saab and Tristan Sailor can use this season to develop with an eye on the future.

Just 19 and 21-years old, Saab and Sailor can become a formidable wing pairing if given the chance. The new rule changes protecting attacking players in the air turn the 199 cm and 101 kg Saab into a sought-after weapon at the end of sets. His size is going to be difficult for any opposing winger to handle. Meanwhile, despite Sailor's relatively small stature at 177 cm, he is quick and deceptively strong, allowing him to get by defenders and break tackles as a capable kick returner to start sets. 

A Lomax, Saab and Sailor back three would carry just 26 games of first-grade experience into Round 1 if the three are selected, although, Jordan Pereira stands in Sailor's way at the moment.

As far as the centres go, it's the potential for change that is the positive. Tim Lafai and Euan Aitken are both off-contract at the end of 2020. Aitken is still only 24 years old and is playing for his next contract while Lafai might be playing for his future in Australia at 28 years old.

Ideally, Aitken plays well enough to warrant an extension. He's only a season removed from dominating Greg Inglis and putting his hand up for a State of Origin jumper, barely beaten out by Latrell Mitchell at the time. 

Should both Aitken and Lafai flop again in 2020, they can be moved on and replaced for the start of 2021. The future of the Red V centres will be clear at the end of August regardless of how the pair perform.

The Spine

We've already touched on Lomax at fullback: Plenty of potential but raw.

To make things more difficult for the Dragons, Cameron McInnes won't return from his knee injury until Round 8 leaving Issac Luke to fill the hooking role. Luke makes for an excellent stopgap, but when starting a season already on the back foot, waiting two months to play with your first-choice spine can be season-defining. 

There is only so much Ben Hunt and Corey Norman can do. The Dragons played half of their 2019 season with Hunt at halfback and Norman at five-eighth scoring 21.5 points per game. In the 12 the two didn't feature together in the halves, the Dragons managed just 16.3 points per game. Their health is crucial to the Dragons keeping afloat while waiting for McInnes.

Despite the talented names involved, the Dragons spine lacks time together on the field. Cohesion is particularly low with Luke - touching the ball more than any other player in the team - needing time to adjust to his new surroundings to start the season. And while Hunt and Norman are match-winners, they're working with blunt tools in the backline this season. It's up to the State of Origin pair to sharpen them up, but that could take 25 rounds - maybe longer. 

The Pack

For almost every positive when assessing the Dragons forward pack, a negative is right next to it. 

Brilliant again in 2019, Paul Vaughan averaged 141.3 running metres per game. He's the engine that moves the Dragons pack forward. However, James Graham looks every bit 34 years old with Father Time continuing his undefeated reign on forwards in the game.

Trent Merrin is a handy enough signing despite being past his best before date. The 30-year-old arrives back to Australia from the Super League following a lacklustre stint with the Leeds Rhinos. But the only reason he's there is to fill the gap left by Jack de Belin and his court hearing. 

Tariq Sims has played career-best consistent football over the last two years. He's earned the call to Origin and is entering the first year of a deal that will see him remain at the club until the end of 2022. On the other edge, Frizell is weighing up options to leave the Dragons at the end of 2020.

The shining light, and its similar to the backline, is the potential.

Blake Lawrie and Jackson Ford are both exciting young players. 

Had Merrin not become available, Lawrie wouldn't have looked out of place filling the 13 jersey all season. He averaged 99.5 running metres and 34.6 tackles per game in the 12 he started at lock in 2019. Likewise, Ford impressed throughout his five-game stint to end the season with the last three playing 80 minutes as a starter. 

Eddie Blacker is waiting in the wings for his first-grade debut too. At 195 cm and 116 kg, you won't miss the 20-year-old prop if he runs on in 2020. 

Overall, the Dragons pack looks competitive on paper. They have a encouraging mix of representative and developing talent in the first-choice 17 that will be able to hold their own in the centre-third. It all changes should the injury bug hit, though. Struggling for depth, the Dragons greatest strength could become a crippling weakness if Vaughan, in particular, goes down with a long-term injury.

The Verdict

The NRL is so difficult to predict. 

There is always a team that comes out of nowhere to play finals footy while, more often than not, one heralded as a top-four chance falls grossly short of expectations. 

It was the Dragons falling short of expectations in 2019. Perhaps they're the unexpected bolter in 2020?

Probably not.

When looking at the additions, losses and potential improvements of a playing group, it's difficult to say the Dragons will be any better this season than the last. Meanwhile, the Cowboys and Titans who sandwiched the Dragons on the 2019 ladder have made notable additions that prompt at least heightened expectations for 2020. 

Mary needs a finals appearance to begin getting the fanbase back on side, but that's unlikely to happen. The Dragons look closer to the cutlery drawer than they do the Top 8 heading into Round 1.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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