St George Illawarra Dragons have developed a regular mid-season slump and the players have identified fixing this worrying annual trend as the key to ensuring they make the 2018 finals.
After years of barnstorming finishes for the Dragons to scrape into the finals, Wayne Bennett put the focus on starting well during his three-year reign and they have continued that under Paul McGregor.
However, after winning six of their first seven matches last season, they lost seven of their next 10 to fall frustratingly short of a play-off berth.
The season before they won eight of the first 15 matches but managed just two more victories, while in 2015 they started with eight wins from their first 11 before losing seven in a row.
“It is no secret that we always start well and come to the middle of the year we sort of seem to struggle a little bit,” Test forward Tyson Frizell said.
“We have noticed that and hopefully we can make a change this year and fix that up.
“It is at the back end and during the middle of the year that we seem to struggle.”
Defence was a key area in which they fell away during the second half of 2017 – and not just the average 21.25 points they conceded in the last 12 matches compared to 16.25 in the first 12.
According to NRL.com Stats, dominant tackles plunged form 80 in the first half of the season to 20 in the last 12 matches, while the Dragons were the worst in the NRL for tries conceded from an error with 20 for the season.
In the opening 12 matches they averaged 23.75 points but then scored just 20.66 in the second half of the season.
“That is the main focus this year, getting this team playing well collectively and starting the year off well,” Frizell said.
After being a member of Australia’s World Cup winning team last December, Frizell married his long-time partner Sammy Fahy and hsf their honeymoon in the United States before returning to pre-season training.
It was an ideal end to the year but the Test and Origin back-rower still agonises about missing out on the finals after the Dragons fell from first place mid-season to finish ninth.
“I have only played one finals game during my career [in 2015] so that is something I really want to play in and be a part of,” he said.
“It is hard to take in last year how we missed the opportunity to make the finals and that is why it hurts so much because I know what we could have done and the potential that we had in the group.”
With second-row partner Joel Thompson advising Frizell at his wedding he was leaving to join the Manly Sea Eagles, the 26-year-old admits he will need to take on more of a leadership role.
However, he said Thompson’s departure would provide an opportunity for 21-year-old Luciano Leilua, who is considered the most skilful player at the club.
“It is a massive blow for us [to lose Thompson], he is good for the boys and good for the team,” Frizell said.
“But we have got guys like Luce [Leilua] coming through and as hard as it was to see Thommo go we do have other players there who are willing to put their hand up and take the opportunity.”