The St George Illawarra Dragons will take to Suncorp Stadium on Sunday afternoon with their biggest shake-up of the season - in fact, their biggest shake up under the coaching of Anthony Griffin.

Instead of the status quo, Griffin bit the bullet on Tuesday for the clash with the Wests Tigers by dropping centre Zac Lomax, hooker Jacob Liddle and prop Toby Couchman.

The famous old Red V, who have won just two of their first eight games this season, are under all sorts of pressure, and maybe changes of some description had to be made.

Griffin himself has been asked to reapply for his job if he wants to remain at the club in 2024, while the board are reportedly searching for candidates even as the current trainwreck of a season unfolds.

So the pressure on the former Penrith Panthers and Brisbane Broncos is somewhat understandable.

But pressure doesn't mean making mistakes, or creating a scapegoat when your own decisions haven't worked.

The decision to drop Couchman can be somewhat explained - he is only 19 years of age, and while he has had some nice moments in first-grade, three games in 12 days probably meant it was time for a spell.

Why he has been dropped and replaced by Billy Burns though is completely and utterly unexplainable. As much potential as he used to have, he has struggled at both ends of the park during his time at the Dragons in first-grade, and bringing him into the side means Jack Bird will shift out of the second-row.

One of the great issues with Bird is the constant switching and changing of positions - and that's continuing this year. Two games at lock, one off the bench, two more at lock, and then three in the second-row before moving back to lock this week.

Burns has been solid enough at NSW Cup level, averaging 110 metres per game, but he is tackling at only 90 per cent and has been found out at the top level before.

The decision to axe Jacob Liddle also makes no sense.

I've covered that issue in depth, so we won't rehash it here, but safe to say, he has well and truly outperformed Moses Mbye this year, but now pays the price with his spot in the side to essentially play all of Jayden Sullivan, Ben Hunt and Moses Mbye.

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The true outlier amongst all that is Mbye, but he continues to keep his spot.

The obliviousness was evident after Anzac Day against the Sydney Roosters when Griffin suggested post-game he was "happy with Mbye's defence" despite the fact the utility had missed six tackles.

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It's a question the Dragons have been forced to ask too often - "What game was Griffin watching?"

And now, they are asking it again following the surprise axing of Lomax. The centre has dropped off on his goal-kicking, but that is not a reason to be dropped. After being in a New South Wales State of Orgin emerging camp two years ago, to now not have a first-grade spot is a dramatic fall from grace.

It was made clear in the pre-season that Zac Lomax and Moses Suli were going to swap sides on two counts - wanting to fix the ugly right-hand side defence of the Dragons, and to take the dreaded flick pass out of Lomax's game.

But Griffin in doing so made one of his biggest blunders. Instead of trying to coach the defensive line to simply be better, or for Lomax to not make those flick passes that ended up three rows into the grandstand, he took the easy road out, and elected to switch sides.

In truth, it was hardly Lomax, who tackled at almost 87 per cent efficiency last year, to blame for the defensive issues.

In making the switch, he has destroyed the impact of both Suli and Lomax on attack.

The Dragons can ill-afford to be lessening their weapons in attack, such is the pitiful nature of the Red V with the ball, but that's exactly what has happened this season on both sides of the park.

While the move has helped Lomax's missed tackle rate, it's also done the opposite to Suli, leaving questions over whether it was really worth anything, given it's now also cost Lomax his spot in the side.

Take the number difference for Lomax across the two seasons to date:

Zac Lomax 2022 Average 2023 Average
Games 24 N/A 8 N/A
Tries 6 0.25 2 0.25
Assists 8 0.33 3 0.38
Line breaks 7 0.29 2 0.25
Tackle breaks 83 3.46 13 1.63
Offloads 19 0.79 2 0.25
Running metres 2847 118.63 1070 133.75
Errors 44 1.83 9 1.13
Tackles 350 14.58 111 13.88
Tackle efficiency 86.63% N/A 84.09% N/A

 

And then take the number difference for Suli across the two seasons to date:

Moses Suli 2022 Average 2023 Average
Games 17 N/A 8 N/A
Tries 5 0.29 0 0
Assists 3 0.18 4 0.50
Line breaks 5 0.29 2 0.25
Tackle breaks 90 5.29 18 2.25
Offloads 10 0.59 4 0.50
Running metres 2436 143.29 1082 135.25
Errors 18 1.06 11 1.38
Tackles 181 10.65 88 11
Tackle efficiency 86.19% N/A 89.80% N/A

 

The most immediate and alarming figure is the tackle breaks - Suli was a machine for the Dragons last year, and at his best, should be one of the most dangerous players in the competition.

Instead, he has been well short of that this year, struggling to get the ball in the right position.

It has often felt attacking plays to his new right-hand side of the park have been slow moving and without depth, leaving him almost at a standing start when he receives the football.

That leaves him unable to do nearly as much as last year. His try assists have gone up, but that's purely down to some excellent passing from the big centre.

His best skill is when he is demolishing defences on his own though, and the statistics surrounding that dropping like a stone are a major concern given the side switch which was supposed to help the Dragons in all factors.

Add to that the issues with Suli's error average being on the up, and the fact he hasn't scored a try yet, and it's hard to justify the side switch when Suli was the Dragons' best weapon in attack last year.

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It's even tougher to justify when it came about reportedly because of a coach's desire to remove a flick pass.

And yes, sure, Lomax's error rate has dropped, but when you consider that the average was driven up by a number of games last year where Lomax had five or even six errors, things have to be taken into context.

Without those outliers, the numbers across the two seasons look quite similar on that front, while Lomax's defence - his tackle efficiency more specifically - has gone on a downhill slope this season.

He is running for slightly more metres - about 15 per game - but when it's considered that all of his line breaks, offloads, and particularly tackle breaks are down, all it means is he is tucking the ball under the arm more, rather than actually producing productive attack - which is something the Dragons have lacked sorely anyway since Griffin's arrival.

It's little wonder Lomax was reportedly agitated when Griffin delivered the news that he would be dumped on Tuesday.

In attempting to change sides and learn the role assigned to him by the coach, he and the other player impacted have both gone downhill, yet, the attention on his goalkicking has seemingly made him one of the scapegoats for Griffin's dreadful decision-making and the Dragons' overall woeful start to the campaign.

It makes next to no sense, and you could only imagine the reaction from Liddle was fairly similar.

The fact Griffin couldn't even give Lomax an answer straight away around why he had been dropped only confuses the situation further.

“That's true — no detailed feedback for that reason (Lomax taking a week off),” Griffin told the media this week.

“My job as a coach is to care for him, particularly at times like this. For any player who gets dropped, it's hard.

“I do that with the utmost care on a case-by-case basis.

“I wanted Zac to have a bit of time to process it, and then we will sit down as coach and player and go through it.'

“It comes back to performances, and hopefully for his sake (he's not out of the NRL) for too long.”

Griffin also hinted that there are things Lomax needs to work on within his own game, although refused to publically state what they are.

In truth, all it seems to be is a coach unable to admit his mistake and change things back to the way they were - when Suli and Lomax were both besting defences regularly.

Instead of coaching a flick pass out of the game or changing the defensive structure, Griffin blew the whole thing up, and now, it's blown up in his own face spectacularly.

The decisions being made at the Dragons make next to no sense, and anything other than a big win over the Wests Tigers on Sunday on the back of these changes should all but force the club's board into immediate action.

2 COMMENTS

  1. You know what makes no sense, Griffin being the coach. A total plodder that was turfed from Brisbane and Penrith for good reason and has proven worse than McGregor. Lomax’s form has fallen off a cliff under Griffin and this latest round of changes from Griffin are mostly pure insanity plain and simple. We will be able to write off the season for the dragons officially in at most another 4 weeks and the even more incompetent board will still allow Griffin the luxury of keeping his job until season end. Griffin is a symptom of an ineptly run club that has frankly accepted mediocrity as being a core Red V value. If these clowns were around in the 1950’s and 1960’s we would never have won a single premiership let alone 11 in a row.

    I have been following the club for 51 years and they are an utter joke and have been so for 11 years since Bennett left.

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