Following an off-season littered with headlines, both good and bad, the St. George Illawarra Dragons commenced their 2019 campaign with a poor loss to the Cowboys in Townsville.
One of the biggest talking points in the lead up to season kick-off was how the club’s new-look spine, featuring recent signing Corey Norman, would play.
And above all, Saturday night’s loss highlighted that there will be teething problems for the side to grapple in the opening rounds.
Whilst in Corey Norman, Ben Hunt and Gareth Widdop, the Dragons have a unique balance of creativity, playmaking and kicking ability, it could take a few weeks for the side to uncover the best way to manage these at different stages of the game.
We saw a similar situation with the Roosters last year, who welcomed two players with bold attacking abilities in Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco prior to the 2018 season. In the early stages of the season it was clear that the side were struggling in their attacking direction and execution, with much of this due to the fact that the combinations within their spine were still being developed.
Dragons fans should expect the same this season and therefore refrain from panicking.
Despite what was mostly a clunky performance with the ball in hand against the Cowboys, there were certainly glimpses of the attacking threat the Dragons could pose, and with that some positives to take out of the game.
Most gleaming of these perhaps was the variety in the kicking game from the halves, with Widdop also offering a few different options with the boot in attack.
Other than a couple of kicks which skidded dead, Hunt and Norman kicked strongly from long range, which helped the side get out of trouble when they were losing the field position battle at different stages. The major advantage of having a pair of halves with a right and left foot respectively will continue to become apparent as the season unfolds.
In the attacking third Widdop placed two beautifully placed cross field grubbers, which with slightly better execution will cause all kinds of trouble for opposing teams this season.
In terms of creativity with the ball in hand, it was only the final pass that was holding the Red V back, particularly in the first half. However, after struggling to complete sets and making a number of unforced errors early in the game, it became clear the side went into their shell, which impeded their attack in the second half.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for the side’s spine to find some rhythm will be Widdop further familiarising himself with the fullback role, both from an attacking and defensive standpoint.
Having formed a damaging partnership with Hunt last season, Widdop will over the coming weeks need to get a better understanding for how Norman plays as well and help the side find the right balance across its three big attacking pieces.
Undoubtedly, given the class they possess within their spine, it won’t be long before fans get to truly witness the damage their side can cause in attack. However, much like the Roosters last year, it may take a few games for this to happen.