Dragons players in action during 2021. Photo: nrl.com

It was an all too familiar season for the Dragons, a rapid start to the season only to be brought back down to earth with a poor run of form.

It’s a sight all too familiar for the Dragons’s faithful – a rapid start to the season only to be brought back down to earth with a poor run of inconsistent performances that usually involved a scandal or a key player injured.

The Dragons were many fans favourites to finish towards the bottom of the ladder and with a huge pre-season injury to captain Cameron McInnes, their hopes of a finals run were already in jeopardy.

However, they quickly proved the doubters wrong, flying high to a 4-1 start before the inevitable and far too common choke brought them back down to earth, proving many of those same fans right again.

After rapidly slipping away from the finals race as a result of a horrid run of form and a huge blow with an injury to star centre Zac Lomax, it never seemed to look up after the impressive run at the start, they would go on to lose 15 of their next 18 games to round out the season.

To cap the poor season off the Dragons were involved in of the biggest sports scandals of the year when a large group of first grade players celebrated a win at the now infamous ‘BBQ Gate’ at Paul Vaughan’s Shellharbour house during a strict statewide lockdown – which eventually saw the star props 600k contract torn up mid season and 12 other players hit with suspensions and fines.

The Inner Sanctum takes a look at the year in review for the St George Illawarra Dragons.

What worked?

Not many things seemed to go the Dragons way this year on and off the field, it looks like Anthony Griffin will have to place a lot of faith in his talented pool of rookies if he wants to make a serious run for 2022 and onwards.

The main positive that can be taken away is Griffin’s use of the talented youth and how it helped spark what is usually a boring and stagnated attack.

Griffin spent most of the season changing his spine – mainly due to injuries, origin and suspension, however he wasn’t scared of wielding the axe at some of the clubs under performing stars.

The Dragons this season introduced Jayden Sullivan, Tyrell Sloane and Talatu Amone to the regular pool of first graders, these three youngsters gave the Dragons a much needed injection of youthful play as they frequently showcased their versatility in the spine whilst demonstrating their great on-field chemistry they have formed from playing in the younger grades together.

Griffin also began a clean out of sorts, and has recruited impressively for next season and beyond, one of the newest recruits Andrew McCullough was sensational for the Red V and played himself back into the Maroons jersey for game one of State of Origin.

Dragon’s fans alike should feel optimistic heading forward as Griffin has proven he has the pull to sign some marquee names whilst integrating the stars of tomorrow, a combination which should give the fans hope of a return to the finals in 2022.

What didn’t? 

It was a boring season for the Dragons’ attack – ranking 10th for points scored with 474 with 86 of them coming directly from Zac Lomax.

The over reliance on Corey Norman didn’t go down well with the fans as he produced another lackluster season with just 10 try assists in 22 appearances.

Norman never really hit the ground running and found himself with a couple of different halves partners in Adam Clune, Amone and Sullivan.

When the Red V needed a leader in the halves, Norman failed to do that, leaving his younger and inexperienced halves partners with a much larger role to play.

The Dragons’ also struggled to keep hold of the ball in the crucial moments, costing them vital points at pivotal points of the game.

St George ranked 3rd in handling errors (240) and 5th in errors (273), all of these errors slowly added up and began to pile on the pain in an awful back end of the season, as the Dragon’s failed to carry on their early season momentum.

The Red V also ranked 3rd in missed tackles (837), a large contributing factor to their 616 points conceded for the season (6th most in the league).

With Origin, injuries and suspensions all playing a part in a constantly changing team, the Dragons failed to gel together as a unit resulting in the poor for and against.

However with the majority of the suspensions being self-inflicted, Anthony Griffin has a lot of work to do teaching his young side the much needed discipline in the modern NRL.

Who Impressed?

With a season as disappointing as 2021, the Dragons surprisingly had an abundance of players who displayed promising signs for the future.

Ben Hunt steadied the ship for the Dragons – recapturing his respectable form after an underwhelming 2020 season.

Hunt led the Saints with 13 try assists, 284 average kick meters and 3 40/20’s (T-1st in the NRL), his stats don’t portray the full picture as Hunt became the on-field leader for the side, controlling his side’s attack when present.

Hunt was also named the Dragons player of the year for the first time in his Dragons tenure.

Tariq Sims had another solid season for the Dragon’s, leading the pack going forward and earning himself a spot back in the Blues side for Origin.

Sims led the pack with 1914 run meters, 712 tackles and 4 tries. He became a leader on and off the field and proved his dedication to the club, before eventually being told he is free to sign elsewhere for next season.

McCullough was also outstanding for the Red V this season, after the announcement of his signing pre-season, many questioned if he was still at an NRL level after a horrific ACL tear the previous season.

However, ‘Macca’ had a notable comeback year with 1010 tackles at a 97% rate (2nd in the league), 2091 receipts (5th in the league) and 2 40/20’s. 

McCullough proved to be more than a reliable member of the Dragon’s outfit and also earned a recall to the Maroon’s origin side for Game 1.

He was also awarded the Immortal Trophy for ‘displaying outstanding commitment and dedication in all aspects of Rugby League’.

Other notable mentions include, Mikaele Ravalawa with 14 tries in 16 appearances, Zac Lomax with four tries and 35 conversions, Jack Bird with four tries, seven try assists and 83 tackle breaks and Tyrell Sloan with six tries and 13 tackle busts in six games in an outstanding rookie season.

Season Highlight 

Apart from the early four-game win streak, the Red V faithful didn’t have much to cheer about this year.

Wins were a rarity in the back end of the season, however the one that stands out is the 19-18 win over the New Zealand Warriors.

On the back of a shocking kicking display (missing 3 out of 4) from Corey Norman, the Dragons found themselves down 18-14 in the dying seconds of the game before Cody Ramsey found his way over the line as the Dragons levelled proceedings in the last seconds of the game.

Norman would miss the following kick, resulting in a lengthy extra-time period where Norman turned zero to hero kicking the winning field-goal with 90 seconds remaining.

This win rejuvenated the sides’ chances of making a run but was shortly rubbed out by the ensuing and now infamous ‘BBQ Gate’, spiraling their season out of control.

The only other positive for the Dragons’ fans was their moves in the free-agency market, confirming the signings of George Burgess (Wigan), Jayden Su’a (Rabbitohs), Moses Mbye (Tigers) and Francis Molo (Cowboys).

Season Lowlight 

Undoubtedly the lowlight of the season was the ‘BBQ Gate’ involving 13 key Dragons players who were rightly criticised for flaunting strict state-wide Covid restrictions in NSW.

The ‘Dirty Thirteen’ as they were later named, were named and shamed in front of the national media and received harsh punishments from the league.

The leader of this pack, Paul Vaughan had his contract publicly torn up as the Dragons showed no mercy to their star prop.

The Dragons faced a ‘PR’ disaster on the back of this and at one stage were not able to field a starting line-up and were forced by the NRL to spread out the bans in order for them not to forfeit the next three games.

This proved a challenge too deep for the Red V to overcome, as their poor on-field displays began to worsen, as they rapidly fizzled out of finals contention.

It couldn’t get worse for the Dragons right?, as the poor results continued the Dragons ended the season with a bombshell declaring that Tariq Sims was free to negotiate with other clubs and was set to be released from the final year of his contract.

Throughout the last couple of disappointing years, Sims has been one of the standout players and would seemingly have earned another couple years playing for his boyhood club, depending on who you ask down in Wollongong, clearly the board didn’t agree with these and they caused massive uproar not only from their own fans but the rest of the Rugby League world.

It was a very poor move from the Saints as they now look set to chase after Villiame Kikau on a multi-million dollar contract – a move that has many Red V fans scratching their heads.

Aside from the tough season on the field, the Red V faithful had to endure much worse when seeing the poor handlings of their beloved club off the field.

Number 1 off-season priority?

The insertion of the young trio (Sullivan, Sloan and Amone) and new signings has to be top of the agenda for the new look Dragons come 2022.

Putting behind the disastrous 2021 is key in rebuilding the confidence of their key players whilst bringing nearly half of a new team, this may seem tough from the outside.

However it cannot be denied that this side heading into next year is talented and stacked with depth, a finals run towards the bottom half of the top eight has to be expected.

Griffin has a big task on his hands but if he can successfully gel his side, the Red V fans may have a bright 2022 to look forward to.

Way to early best 17 for 2022

Final Say

On and off the field, this season has been forgettable in a variety of different ways. 

If this season can be forgotten about and the new signings can prove their worth, the Dragons will be an exciting team to keep an eye on for 2022

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