Groundhog Day for the Dragons?

Since Round 10 of the NRL competition, the Dragons have lost five matches, enjoyed a bye and beaten the Eels, Dogs, Eagles, Raiders and Cowboys. Hardly a record to write home about considering the form of their victims.

The last win the Dragons mustered of any real significance was on May 6th in a solid victory over the Storm at Jubilee Oval. Over the last ten weeks, their credible performance in the high scoring loss to Melbourne at AAMI Park, is perhaps their next best effort.

After such a stunning start that saw eight wins from their first nine matches and only a loss to the equally hot Warriors blotting the copybook, the following three months have headed down a familiar path.

Convincing losses against genuine title contenders South Sydney, Melbourne and most recently the Roosters, have the Dragons’ fans quivering; concerned that the embarrassing fade out of 2017 is playing out all over again.

The entire rugby league community is noticing, interested and hypothesising as to the cause.

The current slump doesn’t quite match the derailment of their campaign twelve months ago. Flying high after thirteen rounds, the Dragons bumbled their way to ninth place at season’s end with eight losses in their last twelve games.

Surely 2018 will be different? The Red V actually has a ripping run home; with every opponent outside the eight except for the Warriors who sit precariously in eighth.

Even if St George Illawarra do right the ship and find a string of victories against Parramatta, West Tigers, Canterbury and Newcastle in the run home, the competition will not yet be convinced. Their record against top eight teams produces that scepticism.

Five wins from eleven against top eight opposition is borderline, with most of those victories coming very early in the season.

There is a reasonable body of evidence to suggest the Dragons may be teetering on the brink, yet the prudent question is why? The significant drop in performance late in the year across the last two seasons appears too familiar to be co-incidental.

Depending upon to whom you speak, theories vary. Questions about Paul McGregor’s coaching credentials lack merit considering the stellar play of the side earlier in the season. NRL coaches don’t forget how to coach in the space of three months.

What they do have difficulty achieving is drawing consistent performances from their squads, something McGregor has grappled with since the Origin period.

The showpiece of the representative calendar saw five Dragons involved and placed expected stress on the squad, particularly in the forwards. Jack De BelinTyson FrizellPaul Vaughan and Tariq Sims did their State proud and Ben Hunt was again selected for the Maroons in all three games.

Just as the Broncos, Storm and Roosters have historically experienced lean patches through the Origin period with significant representation, the Dragons could most definitely be excused for a clunky performance or two. Yet that was then and this is now. There doesn’t appear to have been any rejuvenation in their play or restoration of their season since the series.

Injuries and suspensions are often cited as viable reasons for struggling teams and whilst never an excuse, can certainly be important factors. The Dragons have been far from belted with misfortune in 2018 and look to be injury and suspension free leading into Round 21.

In fact, 13 members of the squad have played in 15 or more games this season.

Some accuse the Dragons of possessing a soft underbelly or a weakness of fortitude. That too seems unlikely considering their roster. Add Englishmen James Grahamand Gareth Widdop, veteran Jason Nightingale and aggressive young superstars Matthew Dufty and Euan Aitken to their representative talent and the last thing the Dragons could be labelled is physically or mentally frail.

Perhaps it’s just a growing curse; a potentially freakish repeat of sinking form with no real rhyme or reason to explain it, or does the much maligned Ben Hunt bear much of the blame? That doesn’t wash with me either, as his combination with Widdop as a foil was potent early in the year.

Whatever the reason, the Red V faithful grow ever more frustrated, after looking like world beaters two seasons in a row and limping home.

Personally, I lean more towards the need for adjustments to pre-season preparations. The players again hit the ground running in March and April, and it mirrored their phenomenal start of 2017. By mid-season on both occasions, the Dragons began to show signs of fatigue and the spark went missing.

There does appear to be an issue with longevity and sustenance when it comes to the Dragons and perhaps planning a more Melbourne-like slow build throughout a season, will result in some tweaks to the pre-season regime.

Whilst 2018 is far from a write-off at this point, the turnaround would want to come quickly and before a top four spot slips away. I won’t death knell the Dragons just yet, lingering images of their early season form are too impressive, but if things do continue to slip away it will be another missed opportunity for the storied club.

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