The season ahead for the St George Illawarra Dragons has become all the more important following the contract extension of Anthony Griffin before a ball has been kicked.

Despite the club narrowly escaping the bottom four last year, Griffin has had an option on his contract taken up by the club, meaning the Dragons are in for the long haul.

That might seem a risk, but the club have plenty of young talent coming through and have been tipped anywhere from the bottom of the top eight to the bottom of the table for 2022.

A team with talent which could shine, and yet, a team which has made some odd recruitment decisions and could plummet even further down the table as teams around them pull out all the stops to improve.

Here is the Dragons best 17 for 2022.

Recruitment report

Ins: George Burgess (Wigan Warriors, 2023), Jack Gosiewski (Manly Sea Eagles, 2022), Moses Mbye (Wests Tigers, 2023), Tautau Moga (South Sydney Rabbitohs, 2022), Francis Molo (North Queensland Cowboys, 2024), Jaydn Su'a (South Sydney Rabbitohs, 2024), Moses Suli (Manly Sea Eagles, 2024), Aaron Woods (Cronulla Sharks, 2023)

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 19: George Burgess of the Rabbitohs looks on during the NRL round six match between the Bulldogs and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium on April 19, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Outs: Gerard Beale (released), Eddie Blacker (Penrith Panthers), Billy Brittain (released), Adam Clune (Newcastle Knights), Matthew Dufty (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Kaide Ellis (Wigan Warriors), Hayden Lomax (released), Cameron McInnes (Cronulla Sharks), Trent Merrin (retired), Corey Norman (Retired), Jordan Pereira (Brisbane Broncos), Shaun Sauni-Esau (released), Paul Vaughan (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Brayden Wiliame (rugby union)

NRL Rd 17 - Cowboys v Dragons
TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 06: Matt Dufty of the Dragons is tackled by Jake Clifford of the Cowboys during the round 17 NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the St George Illawarra Dragons at QCB Stadium on September 06, 2020 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Re-signed: Tyrell Fuimaono (2023), Cody Ramsey (2024)

Full squad
Daniel Alvaro, Jack Bird, George Burgess, Billy Burns, Jack de Belin, Poasa Faamausili, Mathew Feagai, Max Feagai, Jackson Ford, Tyrell Fuimaono, Jack Gosiewski, Ben Hunt, Josh Kerr, Blake Lawrie, Zac Lomax, Moses Mbye, Andrew McCullough, Josh McGuire, Tautau Moga, Francis Molo, Cody Ramsey, Mikaele Ravalawa, Tariq Sims, Jaydn Su’a, Moses Suli, Jayden Sullivan, Aaron Woods

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 01: In this handout image provided by NRL Photos Tyrell Sloan of the Dragons scores a try during the round 20 NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Browne Park, on August 01, 2021, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by NRL Photos via Getty Images )

Who plays where?

This is shaping as one of the big questions for the Dragons, with Tyrell Sloan and Cody Ramsey seemingly the two options to replace the departed Matt Dufty, who has joined the Canterbury Bulldogs for the new season.

Jack Bird has also been talked about as an option, but he will provide far better value to the Red V in other positions on the park.

Sloan was on a development contract until earlier this year, but has been secured on a top 30 deal by the club.

Impressive during his handful of games at the back end of last year, Sloan also played for the Indigenous All Stars at the start of this year and has all the attacking ability to make him one of the biggest stars in the game with time.

Mikaele Ravalawa has turned himself into a genuine first-grade option over the past two years and will be the first winger picked for the Dragons in the new year.

The Fijian has always had a strong running game, but his defence, ball-handling and rugby league IQ have also improved.

Cody Ramsey should be afforded the other spot.

The speedy youngster has played 21 games since his late 2020 debut and has shown consistent improvement since debuting in the top grade.

Back up is really only going to be provided by players out of position, like recruit Moses Suli, Tautau Moga, or the Feagai brothers, who are all centres but can play wider.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 07: Mikaele Ravalawa of the St George Illawarra Dragons is tackled by Tim Glasby of the Newcastle Knights during the round four NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the St George Illawarra Dragons at McDonald Jones Stadium on April 07, 2019 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

The centre pairing at the Dragons paints an intriguing picture heading into the new year.

Jack Bird was first picked in the three-quarter line last year alongside Zac Lomax, but team balance dictates he plays elsewhere this year.

Lomax will continue in his role after an excellent 2020 season which turned into a strong 2021 campaign when he wasn’t on the sidelines injured.

Both the Feagai brothers - Mathew and Max - will be pushing for first-grade spots, but it’s hard to see either of them winning out over Moses Suli if he can get back to his best.

Suli was once touted as one of the best young centres in the game and had a mammoth breakout year, but has since faded at Manly. He will be looking to get back to his best at the Dragons, and if he can, then a combination with the speedy Ramsey could be deadly.

Behind the Feagai brothers, Tautau Moga also provides depth, while the utility value of Moses Mbye could also be called in the centres.

Like so much of Anthony Griffin’s side heading into 2021, the halves are no sure thing.

Ben Hunt, as club captain and on the back of a strong 2021 despite the side finishing 12th on the back of eight straight losses, will take his spot in the halves. Don’t discount how critical his injury was to that losing streak either.

His partner will be one of Talatau Amone or Jayden Sullivan, following the departure of Corey Norman.

NRL Rd 19 - Dragons v Titans
GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - JULY 25: Jayden Sullivan of the Dragons runs the ball during the round 19 NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Gold Coast Titans at Cbus Super Stadium, on July 25, 2021, in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Both Amone and Sullivan impressed in the limited opportunities they were provided at the back end of last year, while the duo also guided the Illawarra Steelers to the 2019 SG Ball premiership.

Sullivan played some hooker at the end of last year and could well be considered for the utility spot, however, with Moses Mbye’s versatility, it means he is likely to take the 14, leaving room for only one of Amone or Sullivan.

There is barely anything between them, however, Sullivan should have the inside running on the spot.

Behind Amone and Mbye, Jack Bird could also fill in, but the depth looks skinny otherwise.

Middle forwards
The Dragons have made some additions which can only be considered “odd” for the new season in the middle third, with Aaron Woods and George Burgess joining the club. Francis Molo has also joined the Red V, although that is a far better signing.

Add the trio to their already established middle forwards - Blake Lawrie, Jack de Belin, Josh McGuire and Josh Kerr, and there is plenty of depth to play the positions for the Dragons. Jackson Ford also turned himself into an excellent option at lock last year.

All the talk has been that Jack Bird will move to the lock position, and frankly, with the number of centres, it makes the most sense.

Add that to de Belin’s seeming lack of ability to be the ball-player he once was, and it makes even more sense, with de Belin moving up front to join Blake Lawrie in the starting front row after he continues to make a name for himself in 2021.

That means all of McGuire, Woods, Burgess, Molo, Ford and Kerr will be left fighting for bench spots.

MUDGEE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 27: Jack Bird of the Dragons looks on during the Charity Shield & NRL Trial Match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the St George Illawarra Dragons at Glen Willow Regional Sports Stadium on February 27, 2021 in Mudgee, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The Dragons have an incredibly concerning lack of depth at hooker. Andrew McCullough will take the starting role to begin the season, but a long-term injury could prove disastrous.

Sullivan played hooker in his absence at the back end of last year and did it well, but isn’t a week in, week out number nine, while Moses Mbye could also fill in.

Both of those options are realistically only stop-gap measures though and the Dragons will be sweating on McCullough staying fit for the entirety of 2022.

Tariq Sims will once again take his role in the second-row during what is set to be his final year with the club.

He will be joined by former South Sydney Rabbitoh Jaydn Su’A, who is a Queensland Origin player and played in the grand final last year - an excellent recruit for the Dragons.

They are a little shorter on back up in the second row, however, still have plenty of options, with Billy Burns, Jack Gosiewski, Tyrell Fuimaono and Jackson Ford all able to play on the edge.

NRL Rd 19 - Rabbitohs v Dragons
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 26: Jaydn Su'a of the Rabbitohs is tackled during the round 19 NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the St George Illawarra Dragons at ANZ Stadium on July 26, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

As much as the Dragons would love to create room for Amone and Sullivan in the team it’s just not going to be possible when Mbye, who can play at fullback, centre, halves or hooker, is in the side and screaming out for the number 14 jersey.

The other three positions go to players who can all spend time in the middle.

With Tariq Sims and Jaydn Su’A likely to be 80-minute - or close enough too - players, there is simply no need to have a specialist second-rower on the bench.

That said, Josh McGuire and Francis Molo edge out Aaron Woods and George Burgess for the first two spots on the pine, with McGuire a force in the middle third and Molo an Origin player in 2021, with the ability to have plenty of impact.

The last spot comes down to Josh Kerr or Jackson Ford. Both can play in the middle, but can also shift out to the edge. Ford is the more natural edge player though and had some excellent performances last year, so takes the spot ahead of plenty of strong options.

The best 17

1. Tyrell Sloan
2. Cody Ramsey
3. Moses Suli
4. Zac Lomax
5. Mikaele Ravalawa
6. Jayden Sullivan
7. Ben Hunt
8. Blake Lawrie
9. Andrew McCullough
10. Jack de Belin
11. Jaydn Su’A
12. Tariq Sims
13. Jack Bird

14. Moses Mbye
15. Josh McGuire
16. Francis Molo
17. Jackson Ford