2017 was really the one that got away from the Red V. They started the season breathing fire and looked ready to embarrass those of us who said they’d miss finals. Their form would stutter but ultimately a win over the Bali-bound Bulldogs would have seen them qualify for the finals.
Unfortunately, they could not get the job done despite all the motivation in the world and instead had to be content in playing an unwilling part in the Cowboys fairytale run to the Grand Final. They also lost star fullback turn centre Josh Dugan to bitter rivals the Sharks.
Despite the horror end of the season, it was far from all bad for the Dragons. Cameron McInness was arguably the bargain buy of the season and is a genuine chance at an Origin call-up in 2018. Paul Vaughan was, for mine, THE buy of the season and should have three Origins to his name already.
The Dragons probably underachieved in 2017 but only due to their overachieving start to the season. It was a strange one, but one thing is for sure, they’ll be looking to start the same way but avoid the fall away that has plagued their recent seasons.
One HUGE positive last season was the Dragons suddenly found alternative ways to the try-line other than barge over plays. Their 2016 season was dire, they were almost unwatchable. They were a far more expansive side in 2017 and benefited greatly as a result.
Recruitment Grading: C
In terms of ins the Dragons have recruited brilliantly, adding a workhorse front rower in James Graham as well as international utility Ben Hunt. In terms of outs, the Dragons have leaked stars galore. Josh Dugan has moved to the Sharks, Taane Milne looks like one that got away, Russell Packer had a monster 2017 was walked to the Tigers, while the ever-reliable Joel Thompson has moved to Manly. Overall I think they’ll do alright out of the moves as they now have an all-star halves combination to build around. Ben Hunt is a massive in and despite playing the end of the season at the Broncos in the number nine, will help lift Gareth Widdop’s game even higher from the number six.
Star Player: Gareth Widdop
The English number six-turn fullback-turn number six was an absolute attacking wizard in 2017. He scored 10 tries, laid off 18 more and made 11 line breaks in his 20 NRL appearances. In the 2017 pre-season the talk was he would return to England, but after an incredible start to the year, he was able to command a big-money contract from the Dragons who had to fend off interest from other NRL sides. His kicking game was impressive, his running game out of this world. He sparked an incredible attacking turn-around at the Dragons that I did not think possible. His goal kicking abilities should also not be understated.
Strength: All-start halves combination
In Widdop and Hunt, the Dragons have an international and supremely talented halves combination. In front of them is one of the better packs in the game with names like Graham, Vaughan, Frizell and de Belin. Working off Cameron McInnes, there are absolutely no excuses for the Widdop/Hunt combo to flourish. Hunt is a wonderful player who cops unwarranted grief for one mistake in the 2015 decider. He was a brilliant backup option to Smith in the World Cup and can now cover both the halves or number nine if needed. Widdop is an attacking machine and has sparkled in an otherwise, at times, dire attacking set up.
Weakness: Lack of flair out wide
For all the jokes about his injury record, the Dragons are going to miss Josh Dugan. His ability to break tackles, make big metres and play the ball quickly sets up a lot of attacking space for his halves and fellow backs. As solid as the likes of McDonald and Aitken are, and despite Nightingale’s incredible record, I doubt any of those three will have too many opposition players shaking in their boots. Matt Dufty looks a genuine star in the making but he only has seven NRL games to his name and needs time to find his feet at this level. Tim Lafai looks the most likely after a solid 2017. He has a freakish ability and should see plenty of ball from Widdop and Hunt. He’s one to watch.
Dragons fans may have had plenty of unflattering words to describe the end of their 2017 season, but in 2018 the side should right that wrong by playing finals footy. As mentioned they have lost some stars but have recruited very well. Hunt is a massive inclusion and the importance of Graham’s work rate should not be undersold.
In Vaughan, they have one of the most destructive middle forwards, while Frizell remains one of the game’s best wide-running second rowers. Throw in de Belin and Sims, as well as the aforementioned Graham and that is one almighty forward pack.
If one of the Dragons backs, most likely Lafai, can find the try-line regularly in the early season, there really doesn’t look to be any reason why the Dragons shouldn’t make the finals.
In Hunt, Widdop and McInnes the Dragons look set for a big season. Dufty will have to hit the ground running but based on his 2017 efforts, he looks ready for a big future in the number one jersey.
The Dragons main problem in past seasons has been scoring points. With the inclusion of Hunt as well as the far improved 2017 efforts, I can’t see a reason why the Dragons can’t worry the more fancied sides and ultimately finish in the top eight.