Despite not entering the season as one of the more fancied sides, it’s fair to say that the Dragons and their fans will be disappointed with their output in 2016.
An 11th placed finish accurately depicted their season, as they were far from the worst side in the competition, but were comfortably outside the top eight sides across the 26 rounds.
The source of their struggles was a simple one, yet one is that is very difficult to correct quickly; a lack of points.
The Dragon’s halves partnership of Gareth Widdop and Benji Marshall really can’t have any excuses and must shoulder a fair amount of the responsibility and therefore blame.
Both are supremely talented and very experienced players and both have created plenty of highlights in years gone by.
Josh Dugan and Euan Aitken are both try-scorers, and tackle breakers. Mitch Rein hardly starved them of service, and their forward pack wasn’t routinely beaten off the park as their lack of points would suggest.
Jason Nightingale is one of the better wingers in the modern game and has scored many tries over the years, including some ridiculous efforts that only he and a few elite wingers would have been able to score.
I really can’t offer a valid reason as to why the Dragons struggled to score points in 2016. Unfortunately for fans, neither could Dragons coach Paul McGregor.
58 tries in 24 NRL premiership games is simply not good enough. It’s hard to win games at this level with under 2.5 tries scored a game. Realistically a team needs to score 20+ points in the modern game to give themselves a chance of victory.
Obviously, there is the odd 8-6 game, but the majority of teams are able to score two to three tries in a short period of time, let alone across 80 minutes.
Kurt Mann, despite copping more than his fair share of criticism after a tough initiation into the fullback role, topped the try scoring charts with ten tries.
Aitken managed seven tries, while Jason Nightingale scored six. Across their top three try scorers (53 combined games) the Dragons recorded 23 tries.
NRL rookie Bevan French scored 19 tries in just 13 games by himself.
Despite plenty of criticism, Widdop managed 14 try assists, while Benji posted ten, so to place all the blame on the Dragons halves would perhaps be a little too harsh.
So what will change in 2017 to ensure the Dragons score more points?
First and foremost, former Rabbitohs hooker Cameron McInnes will offer far more creativity from the number nine position than the man he replaces in Mitch Rein.
Rein is a super consistent player and tackles his backside off every week, but he can hardly be accused of overplaying his hand in attack.
McInnes will be expected to make metres out of dummy half and provide plenty of quick service to Widdop and Dugan in particular.
Secondly, Gareth Widdop will have a new halves partner in 2017, likely to be Josh McCrone.
Marshall’s move to the Broncos, combined with a horror injury to likely replacement Drew Hutchinson hands McCrone another chance to resurrect his NRL career more through necessity than any great form, but it’s a chance that I expect the former Raider to take with both hands.
He is a quality player, and despite spending the majority of the 2016 season in reserve grade, he was once seen as a genuine future star during his time at the Raiders.
McCrone also led his NSW Cup championship side the Cutters to a thumping 54-12 victory over QLD Cup champions the Bears.
He showed during his time in the Illawarra red that he could both find the line and ensure others found it also.
Obviously, it’s a big jump back to first grade, but the 29-year-old has 140 NRL games worth of experience to call on. This is not an NRL rookie playing out his depth, this is a player who once excelled at the top level, and even played three representative games for Country Origin.
Paul Vaughan’s signing is also a big plus, as his big body, and creativity should be a big plus going forward.
Once earmarked as a future Origin representative, Vaughan was pushed out of Canberra after missing the team’s finals campaign having been relegated to NSW Cup.
He will make plenty of metres, and create second phase play with his offloading ability. Tyson Frizell, despite a stellar season, was forced to do too much up front in this regard.
Nene McDonald’s signing will also provide a big, tall, body-wide. He has had no trouble finding the try line in his short NRL career and will be battling the likes of Fai Fai Loa, Mann and Nightingale for a spot on the wing.
Ultimately it is likely going to take a change in structure and perhaps some off the cuff creativity from the likes of Dugan or Widdop, but the Dragons have some improved weapons at their disposal in 2017.
Red V fans have had enough of seeing their side compete as competition also-rans, and there is no more room for excuses for McGregor and co.
The Dragons need to fire early in 2017 if they’re to be any sort of fixture come finals time and to do that, they’re going to need points and plenty of them.