When we look at the top two teams in the NRL today – Penrith and Cronulla – it’s not hard to identify one of the big secrets of their success.
As we mentioned weeks ago, both have built a team based on a philosophy of retaining junior talent, proving the benefit of keeping a young and successful group together as they prepare to enter the NRL.
It’s taken a little while, but it’s now reaping dividends, with stars who played together in the junior and reserve grade ranks making up the bulk of their successful squads, enhancing their ability to play cohesive football because they know each other’s games so well.
Admittedly it's a much harder position to maintain in the results-driven, big contract era we find ourselves in - but it clearly works.
But there was another club setting the former under-20s comp alight at the same time, with a young team renowned for playing a thrilling, high-speed brand of attacking football.
They finished third in the NYC in both 2016 and 17, making it all the way to the preliminary final on both occasions. Though they couldn’t get over that final hurdle, the future looked bright.
But while Penrith, Cronulla and many other successful clubs were able to keep that talent and incorporate it to an extent, the St George Illawarra Dragons didn’t.
What self-respecting team from the Illawarra lets someone with the last name Wishart go and play for Melbourne?
After another season ending in mid-table mediocrity, Dragons fans must be wondering how they became a feeder club, preparing exciting young talent for the NRL before letting someone else reap the benefits.
Those who stayed
Lomax was tipped as the headliner in the Dragons’ talent pool and was offered a big-money contract as a star of the future. Though he’s given us regular reminders of his ability, he’s struggled for the consistency he showed in earlier seasons and has been unable to turn the team’s struggles around.
Lawrie made his NRL debut a year earlier than Lomax but has been a quiet achiever, bringing up his 100th NRL appearance this year to little fanfare and seemingly reaching a plateau.
Dufty enjoyed a golden start to his time in the NRL, scoring a try on debut and securing the club’s No.1 jersey as a genuine talent despite his size. But after the Dragons’ made the finals in just his second season, the promising local junior became a scapegoat.
Yes, his defence has regularly been called into question, and deservedly so, but there were a multitude of issues at the Red V that had little to do with him. If the Panthers can turn Dylan Edwards from a maligned liability into one of the game’s best, you have to wonder if Dufty could have turned it around with more support from the club.
The fact he experienced similar issues at the Bulldogs makes things less clear, but as a local talent with an abundance of potential, the Dragons let Dufty down. Despite his issues, he still finished as their top try scorer twice. Clear potential.
Those who left
It’s worth noting at this point that the Dragons haven’t made the finals since 2018 – and it was that run that may have lulled the administration and coach into thinking they could let so much junior talent walk out the door. Just look at some of the names who have gone on to succeed elsewhere.
Jason Saab: Despite the reputation he was already developing and a two-try NRL debut, Saab was only given seven first grade games in two years for the Dragons, stuck behind Jordan Pereira and Mikaele Ravalava. He then went to Manly, scoring 26 tries in 27 appearances in his first season as an NRL starter.
St George Illawarra hasn’t had a top try scorer with 20 or more four-pointers to their name since Brett Morris in 2010. Ravalawa has scored 27 tries across two seasons. Pereira has scored 12 tries in 44 appearances and no longer plays for the club.
Hindsight is 20-20, but it doesn’t take much digging to show why this was a terrible decision.
Reuben Garrick: Unlike Saab, Garrick was never even given a shot in first grade by then-coach Paul McGregor before being moved to Manly, making his NRL debut in 2019. He’s finished with double-digit try hauls in three of his four seasons on the Northern Beaches, locked up goal-kicking duties and finished 2021 as the NRL’s top point scorer. He’s gone from strength to strength.
In fact, last year his own personal points haul was just over 100 points fewer than the entire Dragons team.
Luciano Leilua: Another highly regarded local junior, Leilua made his NRL debut for the Dragons in 2016 after coming through the ranks, but only played 43 games for the club in the span of four years before he was released to join the Tigers. It’s understandable why he couldn’t break into the Dragons side given the form Tariq Sims and Tyson Frizell were in at the time, but it’s another release that seems ill-conceived in hindsight.
Leilua has become one of the game’s most dynamic back-rowers, with his form at the Tigers and now the Cowboys regularly catching the eye. He’s shown that he can perform in multiple systems, proving he has a level of consistency the Dragons never bothered to tap into.
Reece Robson: Recent reports suggest the Dragons actually want Robson back, despite their own foolishness in letting him go.
Robson was already highly rated at the Dragons, an Australian Schoolboys, junior Origin and junior Kangaroos representative who even represented the Prime Minister’s XIII while he was still signed to the Red V. But despite his extensive credentials, Robson earned just seven games in the NRL across two years under McGregor.
Like Leilua, Robson was stuck behind an in-form talent in Cameron McInnes. He ultimately left for the Cowboys – before the Dragons let McInnes go just a year later in a mind-boggling decision.
And since the move, Robson has shown the Red V the error of their ways, securing the starting role and steering the Cowboys to the top half of the table, displaying the kind of form that has him in the conversation for a Kangaroos call-up for the World Cup - while the Dragons rely on Andrew McCullough to make a difference before he retires.
While those names are the headlining departed Dragons, that young talented group also contained current Titan Patrick Herbert, English Super League Man of Steel candidate Jai Field, as well as recent Rabbitohs debutant and NSW Cup try-scoring machine Izaac Thompson.
It’s also worth noting that Saab, Garrick and even Herbert have all played finals football since 2018 – something the Red V have failed to achieve. Robson and Leilua will join them in that category this year.
Those who’ve come since
Dragons fans could probably accept losing all this talent if they’d had any benefit to show for it, or some big names who have come in and delivered in roles these youngsters could have filled.
Instead, the club and coach Anthony Griffin have made some questionable decisions that have failed to inspire confidence.
Andrew McCullough, for all his experience and industry, lacks the incisiveness and game-changing ability that Robson could have offered. Josh McGuire, another former student of Griffin, appears to be coasting.
Even the club’s best buy, former Rabbitoh Jaydn Su’A, already wants to leave and he hasn’t even been there a year.
Tautau Moga has proved himself a capable finisher since coming into Griffin’s first team, but the 28-year-old has lost a lot of pace in recent years. Meanwhile, Saab was revealed as the fastest player in the NRL just this year. Tell me that Saab wouldn’t have scored this try.
Dear @NRL - I wish to submit that Tautau Moga is the slowest winger that has ever player rugby league. I dare someone to prove me wrong.@9_Moley @BuzzRothfield @MCarayannis @MichaelChammas @LaraPitt_ @Pitt_anthony @markMGgeyer @SteveMascord pic.twitter.com/8EtIX0mJOc
— Drew Starkey 🅁🅅🄽 (@AndrewMStarkey) August 28, 2022
To lose a lot of junior talent is one thing, but to replace them with players who are closer to the end of their careers or the nadir of their potential than their best is mind-boggling considering how little success the club has had in the past decade.
Where to from here?
Clearly there’s change coming, with assistant coaches and head office staff reportedly leaving or being forced out – and there’s also massive uncertainty over Griffin’s future and, subsequently, that of Ben Hunt.
But have the Red V realised the error of their ways?
The recent decision to give Talatau Amone a contract extension is a good sign, and they’ve also secured recent extensions for Mat and Max Feagai as well as Jaiyden Hunt and Jayden Sullivan. There’s a good base of junior talent once again being assembled, but it’s up to the club now to do whatever it takes to keep them and ensure they're well supported.
They’ve had to learn the hard way, but now - regardless of what happens to Hunt and/or Griffin - they have to ensure those lessons haven’t gone to waste.