With a couple of big signings and the loss of some key players, the pundits seem unsure of what we will get from the Dragons this year. But before looking at the Dragons NRL 2018 chances, it is important to have a detailed look at what happened to the Red V in 2017.
After winning 6 from their first 7 matches, the Dragons crashed and burned so badly that they didn’t even make the top 8. Their frustrating season was summed up by a heartbreaking Round 26 shock loss to the woeful Bulldogs – a loss that saw the Cowboys amazingly leap-frog the Dragons into a finals spot.
While this may be a painful memory for Dragons fans, a closer look at what actually happened suggests there are a few reasons to think the Dragons are a real dark horse heading into 2018:
- In their last 6 losses of 2017, the Dragons’ average losing margin was only 6.33 per game. In fact, the Dragons’ biggest loss for the entire 2017 was in Round 2 against the Eels, where they went down by 18.
The Dragons finished the 2017 season with a points differential of +83 in 2017, which was the third best points differential in the competition (behind only the Storm and the Broncos).
When a team has a great for and against, but they are not sitting as high on the ladder, it often indicates that the team has been performing better than what their Win / Loss record suggests. So, although they finished 9th, the Dragons were highly competitive in every game last year and I don’t think their 2017 performance has been accurately rated by the pundits.
- Although losing Josh Dugan is a big setback out wide, I think the gain of Ben Hunt in the halves is massive! Last year it was the lack of a quality halves partner that really cost the Dragons, as opponents could gang up on Widdop and shut down the Dragons attack.But with Hunt and Widdop scheming either side of the ruck, the Dragons will have no shortage of attacking options available. Although Keary-Cronk and Morgan-Thurston will be regarded by most as the two premier halves combinations in the game, I think Widdop-Hunt will be held in the same high regard by the middle of 2018.
- The Dragons have also lost Joel Thompson and Russell Packer for 2018, but I still think their forward pack will be hard to get on top of this year. Although their new recruit James Graham is past his best, his inclusion to this underrated Dragons forward pack is just what the doctor ordered. With Frizzell, Vaughan, De Belin and Sims, the Dragons have a very athletic forward pack…but with Graham comes mongrel, skill and experience.
Graham is heading into his 16th first grade season and he has played in 8 grand finals! The guy was a rock for the English team in the World Cup in November and although he might not play the minutes he used to, he is still a smart acquisition by Coach McGregor. Look for him and De Belin to play the role of a ball playing forward, providing opportunities for Frizzell and Sims on the fringe of the ruck.
The 2017 Dragons’ underachievement on the ladder is well captured by how high they ranked in key attacking statistics:
- Offloads (1st)
- Tackle Breaks (1st)
- Line breaks (2nd)
- Line break assists (3rd)
- Try Assists (5th)
Where the Dragons were let down last year was their ability to finish off their chances, finishing 6th in terms of points scored. But when you throw in the attacking prowess of Ben Hunt, I think the Dragons attack will be very hard to contain in 2018.
On my player ratings, the Dragons have a deceptively strong squad. Matt Dufty was sensational during his short time at fullback and I think his form was probably overlooked because the Dragons didn’t end up making the 8. He played 7 games and in all those games he was dynamite in attack. With another full pre-season under his belt, I expect Dufty to cement himself as a top quality fullback.
Nene Macdonald and Jason Nightingale are both classy wingers that can finish a try and defuse a kick. Macdonald has a lot of upside and after playing so well for PNG in the World Cup, this could be a break out season for the athletic winger.
Tim Lafai and Euan Aitken are very underrated centres, with Lafai terrific at setting up his winger and Aitken a future NSW centre in my opinion. Lafai had his best season in 2017 since leaving the Dogs and Aitken was injured for the latter part of 2017 and his absence is another factor that I think the pundits overlooked.
The halves are pure class, as I have already discussed.
But it is the Dragons’ forward pack that really led the way early on in 2017 and I think they will be even bigger and better in 2018. Firstly, the hooker Cameron McInnes is close to the most underrated player in the game. His work rate is amazing and he can also find a try close to the line. Up front, the rotation of Vaughan, Graham, Ah Mau and Latimore will be a versatile an experienced front row rotation, while their back row combination of Tariq Sims, Jack De Belin and Tyson Frizell should not be underestimated.
The Dragons also have plenty of options to take up the remaining spots on the bench or to slot into starting team come Origin time or through injury. Luciano Leilua, Jai Field and Zac Lomax are exciting youngsters that I am sure will get time in first grade this year and guys like Kurt Mann, Blake Lawrie, Jacob Host, Mitchell Allgood and Hame Sele provide plenty of depth and will ensure there is strong competition for a spot in the 17.
All in all, I think Coach McGreggor has assembled one of the most well-rounded squads in the competition.
I think the Dragons also have a pretty favourable draw, especially early in the NRL 2018 season. In their first 6 matches of the year, 4 of them are at home and 1 of them (against the Titans in Round 2) is at a neutral venue (Toowoomba). Therefore, the only true ‘away game’ they have in those opening 6 rounds is against the Sharks in the Shire, and that game is such a local derby that the crowd is usually 50/50 anyway.
While the Dragons do have to play the Premiers twice in 2018, their second match against the Storm will be in the lead up to Game 3 of Origin, so you would expect to see Melbourne with a team missing most of their stars. They play an even mix of strong and weak teams, but the draw is certainly not very difficult.
Areas of Concern
Firstly, I want to see how the Dragons will bounce back from last year’s late season capitulation. While there is a slim chance that it knocked the wind out of them and has forced Coach McGregor into some reactionary and knee-jerk changes, it is far more likely that the Dragons have ripped in over the off season and come out in 2018 in better shape. We will know a lot after the first 40 minutes in Round 1, when they host the Broncos at Jubilee.
Secondly, I want to see whether the halves pairing click. Everything is telling me this is a match made in heaven, but there have been instances where two players just have no chemistry on and off the field. Hopefully for Dragons fans that is not the case, but it is always a risk.
Thirdly, as with any team, injuries to key players can cruel a season. If someone like Widdop, Vaughan or McInnes went down early in the season with a serious injury, then they could be in real trouble… but I do think that Coach McGregor has a bit of depth and versatility up his sleeve.
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