Predicted Finish: 15th
Actual Finish: 9th
Best Performer: Gareth Widdop
The Dragons pivot picked up a well-deserved spot in the Dally M team of the season on the back of a magical year. In his 20 games, he registered 18 try assists, scored 10 himself and generally created havoc for his opponents. Throw in 11 line breaks and 71 goals, even a field goal, and you have yourself a nice set of numbers. Across the opening month and a half of the competition, Widdop was in such form that it saw his Red V flying high toward the top of the table. Although the Dragons form would drop off, Widdop himself kept producing. He has a wow of a season that saw him take England all the way to the World Cup final. The addition of Ben Hunt will make him even more dangerous.
Season Highlight: Six from opening seven
The Dragons defied all their critics by firing out of the blocks in early 2017. They managed to win six of their opening seven games, including wins over defending premiers and local rivals the Sharks, as well as wins over pre-season heavyweights the Panthers, Cowboys and Sea Eagles. As mentioned above, Widdop was in sizzling form, although he was far from the only Dragon. Paul Vaughan was an absolute monster, and seemed to inspire other members of the pack. The forwards were so good that the Dragons backs were able to produce an exciting brand of footy that we hadn’t seen from the Red V in years. Great fun to watch.
Best Signing: Ben Hunt
The one issue they Dragons had in 2017 was that when Gareth Widdop didn’t produce, the Dragons suffered. With all due respect to Josh McCrone, the Dragons needed a number seven capable of taking control of the game. Ben Hunt is just that man. Signing before a ball was even kicked in 2017, the Dragons have had an entire season and a bit to prepare for the arrival of the Kangaroo utility. If not for Cam Smith’s record-breaking run of straight games for the Roos, Hunt would surely have seen more game time. He was moved to hooker in 2017 for the Broncos but will return to his favoured halfback position. Widdop and Hunt will form one of the competition’s best halves combinations.
Signing of the season: Nathan Brown and others may have other ideas, but for mine, Paul Vaughan was THE signing of the season. He completely transformed the Dragons pack and seemed to lift others around him through his incredible efforts. He should have played Origin, for the life of me I cannot believe he did not grab a spot on the bench. He made almost 3200 metres and made a ridiculous nine line breaks. He scored eight tries and even laid off a try assist of his own. It was both his go forward and his ability to play the ball quickly which provided a huge boost to the Dragons. As mentioned previously, it seemed to lift those around him with de Belin and Packer in supreme form also.
Number nine firing: I don’t want to sink the boot into Mitch Rein here as he worked his backside off for the club, but when was the last time the Dragons had a creative number nine? McInnes had a wow of a season in both attack and defence. He made a whopping 340 more tackles than any other Dragon in 2017 while creating six tries and scoring four of his own. The numbers are not Cam Smith-like, but McInnes at only 23 years of age has a huge career ahead of him. His distribution on the back of quick play the balls from Vaughan and co laid a platform for Widdop to shine. It is no coincidence that Vaughan, McInnes and Widdop all shined off the back of each other.
The huge number of re-signings: The Dragons signed well, but they also re-signed brilliantly. They managed to extend deals for Aitken, de Belin, Lafai, Mann, Nightingale, Vaughan and the prized possession Gareth Widdop. It looked almost certain that Widdop would return home or link with the Tigers, but the Dragons got the job done and completed their all-star halves combo. They really only saw Dugan and Packer leave, although they’ve arguably upgraded on Packer and look to be heading in a different direction to Dugan. Overall a huge season for the Dragons recruitment and retention team.
Season Grading: C+
The Dragons far exceeded most expectations on the back of their incredible start to the season. Few had them playing finals footy so perhaps C+ is a little harsh, but ultimately they missed out on a finals series they should have played in.
A last up loss to a Bulldogs side with little to play for sealed their fate and saw them head for an early Mad Monday. They really should have done the job on the day, but instead were relegated to spectators for yet another mid to late September.
They signed very, VERY well and will enter the 2018 season a far more confident outfit, but only if they can rid themselves of the thoughts of their horror round 26 performance.
Vaughan, Widdop and McInnes were immense. Others around them very good. Unfortunately, they just lacked that little something extra when the big lights shone on their Red V jumpers.
In terms of a season itself, missing the finals is not acceptable, but given the work that has been put in and some of the results they achieved, 2017 may be looked back upon in a very different, and positive light.