By Martin Gabor (NRL.com)
After seven rounds of the National Youth Competition season, the Dragons looked anything but a side capable of finishing in the top four.
Languishing near the bottom of the table with just two wins and one of the worst defensive records, Mat Head's men seemed destined to miss out on the finals.
Nearly five months later, they find themselves preparing for a qualifying final against the Cowboys on Friday night for the right to earn a week off and a spot in the preliminary finals.
It's an incredible turnaround for the Red V, and according to recently inducted Team of the Year member Matt Dufty, it all stems back to a frank discussion amongst the players and coaching staff.
"We were two wins from seven games and sitting near the bottom of the comp, so given the start to the year we had, it's an incredible achievement for us to finish top four," he told NRL.com.
"Mat Head brought us all in and we had a team meeting. He spoke to us and basically brought up what are values were and what our goals were.
"We knew we had the talent in the squad, but we just weren't executing on the field.
"I think it was Anzac Day against the Roosters where we turned things around. It was pretty easy to get up for a big occasion like that and the boys just lifted. We all put in for each other and we haven't looked back."
The Dragons will head into the finals on the back of a three-game winning streak and will face a Cowboys side many are predicting to go all the way in 2016.
It was one-way traffic up in Townsville when they met in Round 5 as the hosts ran out comfortable 38-18 winners, but the Dragons showed plenty of improvement in a 30-all draw seven weeks later.
Dufty said it would be a daunting prospect trying to contain one of the most formidable attacking sides in the competition, pointing out his fellow Team of the Year members as the men to stop.
"I reckon the Cowboys are the toughest team in the comp," Dufty declared.
"We've played them twice and both games have been really tough. We've had a great rivalry this year so all the boys are looking forward to the game ahead.
"They've got talent everywhere from Kalyn Ponga at the back to Gideon Gela-Mosby on the wing and Brandon Smith at hooker. We're going to have to mark up so it's going to be a huge test."
And while the Cowboys finished the year with a whopping 772 points (second in the NYC) the Dragons were just 35 points behind them and have the attacking capabilities to trouble anyone.
Dufty alone has scored 23 tries and set up 19 more; his double against the Eels in Round 25 making him the leading scorer in Holden Cup history (55), moving him past former Raider Drury Low.
"I didn't really know about the record until I was pretty close and someone told me," he admitted.
"My dad told me about it when I started getting close but I didn't let it affect me too much. I kept an eye on it when I knew I was really close and to break it is a huge honour."
The 20-year-old admitted there was a strong chance he could have finished the year playing in the Intrust Super Premiership for the Illawarra Cutters, and while he played a few matches for the reserve grade side, he felt his best move was to see out the year in the NYC.
The local junior recently re-signed for a further two seasons and it's a matter of time until he makes his NRL debut.
"Playing reserve grade was a great experience," he said.
"Mary (Dragons coach Paul McGregor) called me and asked me what I wanted to do.
"He said 'we don't mind if you play NSW Cup or 20s for the rest of the year because it won't change our plans for you next year moving forward'.
"I'd played 90 per cent of the year with the 20s boys so I thought I owed it to them to finish off the season with them."