After years of inconsistency and close shaves, the St George Illawarra Dragons appear primed for success based on the players they have acquired and the talent they already have at their disposal.
The addition of James Graham should prove a particularly beneficial signing, given that he is likely to act as a forward leader for the club.
Graham is expected to build upon the dominance of the Dragons forwards from 2017 that saw both prop Paul Vaughan and lock Jack de Belin top the stats for metres made in their respective positions.
With a roster that Dragons coach Paul McGregor labels as the best he has had in his time at the club, the pressure is now on the players to live up to that expectation.
Doing so is easier said than done but the Dragons faithful will be hopeful that it rings as true on the field as it does on paper. McGregor has a talented and exciting roster to work with.
The deal was done 12 months ago so fans have had plenty of time to get used to Ben Hunt being the Dragons No.7 but he only started training in January, along with English prop James Graham.
Hunt was targeted as the top-shelf halfback the Dragons haven’t had in the 19 seasons of the joint venture, given that Trent Barrett’s preferred position was five-eighth, and the hope is that he lives up to the hype.
It is universally agreed that Graham’s leadership up front will benefit the Dragons forward pack and team-mates are already talking up the influence he has had at training.
The Dragons begin the season with four of their first six games at home, including the Telstra Premiership’s opening match at Jubilee Oval against Brisbane, so it will be important they again get off to a good start.
After four years of splitting home games between Kogarah, Wollongong and Sydney’s bigger venues, the Dragons will now play five matches each at Jubilee Oval and WIN Stadium.
The annual ANZAC Day clash with Sydney Roosters will be Allianz Stadium, while the Dragons are taking their round 11 fixture against Canberra to Mudgee.
The Roosters, Cronulla Sharks, Melbourne Storm, Canterbury Bulldogs, Parramatta Eels, New Zealand Warriors and Newcastle Knights are the teams the Dragons are drawn to meet twice during the regular season.
The stat that gives you hope
The Dragons averaged the most metres per game (1,706m) in the NRL last season, led the competition for off-loads (353) and the amount of metres they made from effective off-loads (110.6m per game).
Paul Vaughan (3419m) and Jack De Belin (3177m) were among the NRL leaders in their positions for metres gained, as was Tim Lafai (3168m) and the centre also led the way for offloads (64).
With Hunt wearing the No.7 jersey, the Dragons will have a halfback who runs the ball and can capitalise on the work of the forwards.
What you need to know NRL Fantasy wise
Jack de Belin’s ($861,000) combination of high defensive workload combined with a knack for an offload makes him tailor-made for NRL Fantasy, and fellow tackle machine Cameron McInnes ($811,000) isn’t far behind. Paul Vaughan ($799,000) is the highest-rated prop in Fantasy at the start of the new season, James Graham ($671,000) is a little under-priced if he gets back to his best and Luciano Leilua ($228,000) could be a bargain if he can break into an admittedly stacked forward pack.
Since taking over the Dragons midway through the 2014 season, Paul McGregor has gradually reconfigured a playing roster that featured big name outside backs but was light on forward power.
As a result, the Dragons now have one of the top forward packs in the NRL and with the addition of Graham and Hunt, McGregor has described the 2018 roster as the best he has coached.
“I feel now that I have got a roster that I am totally comfortable with, I think it is the best roster in the time I have been at the club,” McGregor said.
The Dragons have one of the most settled rosters in the NRL this season, with Jason Nightingale and Lesson Ah Mau the biggest names coming off contract.
Promising forward Hame Sele is likely to be a player the Dragons will be keen to keep, but Jeremy Latimore, Mitchell Allgood and Jordan Pereira were only signed for this season on one year deals.
The burning question
Is Ben Hunt the superstar halfback the Dragons have been seeking since the merger of St George and Illawarra in 1999?
Cameron McInnes was considered a future South Sydney Rabbitohs captain before joining the Dragons last year and many at the club have been impressed by his leadership values and work ethic.
With no established NSW Origin hooker, McInnes is expected to come into contention for the Blues No.9 jersey if he can build on an impressive 2017 season in which he topped the tackle count across the NRL (1155), and had a 95 per cent tackle efficiency.
The player you should follow on social media
When captain Gareth Widdop isn’t playing or training, he’ll often be at the beach and posts photos or videos on his Instagram account, including one recently of a shark.
Widdop also posted footage from a drone he was testing last month.
Jamie Soward says…
“James Graham is a big recruit from the Bulldogs. They wanted professionalism at the Dragons and they got their man in James Graham.
“St George Illawarra Dragons finish 8th.”
Backs: Ben Hunt, Darren Nicholls, Euan Aitken, Gareth Widdop, Jai Field, Jason Nightingale, Jordan Pereira, Kurt Mann, Matthew Dufty, Nene Macdonald, Patrick Herbert, Reuben Garrick, Steven Marsters, Timoteo Lafai, Tristan Sailor, Zac Lomax.
Forwards: Blake Lawrie, Cameron McInnes, Hame Sele, Jack de Belin, Jackson Ford, Jacob Host, James Graham, Jeremy Latimore, Josh Kerr, Leeson Ah Mau, Luciano Leilua, Mitch Allgood, Paul Vaughan, Reece Robson, Tariq Sims, Tyson Frizell.
Note: These club squads are subject to change. Each club is required to submit 29 of their official 30-man playing squad to the NRL by March 1. The final spot in theses rosters can remain free up until June 30.