St George Illawarra Dragons 2019 season preview

The Dragons' 2018 finals campaign wound up with a bang few would’ve thought them capable of achieving, but their storming finish spelled out what is often forgotten in their late-season clock-offs.

St George Illawarra's premiership window is open, and with three quality playmakers in Ben Hunt, Corey Norman and Gareth Widdop working behind a pack littered with rep players, this is their best title shot since 2010.

With Widdop exiting the club at season's end too, now is the time to take their shot.

The Dragons' propensity to start fast and stall spectacularly from the middle of the year onwards still ranks as Paul McGregor's biggest concern.

But the ongoing court case for Jack de Belin and growing controversy over his availability also looms large as the season kick-off nears.

The 2019 outlook

What's new

The Dragons let go more regulars than they gained, with the club looking to a bumper crop of young talent rather than the market for reinforcements.

The club has lost two quality wingers in Jason Nightingale (retirement) and Nene Macdonald (Cowboys), but Zac Lomax's emergence late last season is easing concerns out wide.

Dragons recruit Corey Norman.
Dragons recruit Corey Norman. ©dragons.com.au

Norman's arrival adds another point of difference to their attack and Matt Dufty's short-term future, though his new two-year contract means he won't be leaving as a result.

The utility bench role is likely to fall Dufty's way following Kurt Mann's departure to Newcastle while Korbin Sims is a virtual straight swap for Leeson Ah Mau (Warriors) in another boost for an already intimidating pack.

The draw

Two trips to Queensland – where the Dragons have struggled in recent years – have them taking on the Cowboys and Broncos in early March heat, making for a tough opening month that also features clashes with Souths and Newcastle.

Three five-day turnarounds, equal-most in the NRL, also loom as a challenge for the Red V with their traditional Anzac Day blockbuster against the Roosters to be played at the SCG off a short preparation.

The Dragons' run into the finals is a relatively smooth one based off last year's ladder. They face the Titans twice over the last six weeks of the Telstra Premiership as well as the Eels and Wests Tigers either side of back-to-back clashes with the Roosters and Cronulla.

The stat that gives you hope

The Dragons conceded fewer tries following a penalty than all comers bar Melbourne in 2018. Just 21 tries were scored against McGregor's side in the set after an infringement.

What you need to know NRL Fantasy wise

Tackle machine Cameron McInnes ($837,000) is one of the hardest-working 80-minute hookers in rugby league and could rival Damien Cook and Cameron Smith for NRL Fantasy points this season. Young gun Zac Lomax ($230,000) looms as one of the most popular cheapies of 2019 in the outside backs, and Luciano Leilua ($447,000) has the potential to be a Fantasy star if he can play big minutes in a stacked pack.

The coach

Regardless of who you ask, McGregor is always one spoken-about coach – rated under pressure one minute, then praised the next. His ability to get the side into the finals in 2018 was his biggest achievement and may have just secured his job for a further few seasons.

NRL.com reported in February that McGregor had begun discussing a contract extension with the club for beyond 2019. Anything less than a finals finish, especially after a contract renewal, won't go down well with the faithful.

Contract matters

Some of the Red V's best and brightest are up for grabs with Jai Field, Blake Lawrie and under 20s Origin talents Tristan Sailor and Reece Robson off contract.

James Graham celebrates a try.
James Graham celebrates a try. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Gareth Widdop's confirmed move to England at the end of 2019 should free up some funds for that quintet, while James Graham will also make a call on the final year of his contract – in 2020 – that is an option in his favour.

The burning question

Can the Dragons manage the rep period drain?

With Tyson Frizell, Tariq Sims, Paul Vaughan and de Belin incumbent NSW forwards and Ben Hunt a likely starter for Queensland again, St George Illawarra will be hurting during and after the Origin period. They'll be better for navigating the scenario in 2018, but it'll be no easy matter this time round either.

Representative bolter

Korbin Sims has floated around Origin discussions and camps more than once and could come into contention given Queensland are coming off a rare series loss. Brother Tariq's shift to the Dragons delivered career best form and a NSW debut last year, though chief on Korbin's to-do list is dropping his average missed tackles from the two per game he missed in 2018.

The player you should follow on social media

Tariq Sims. No other player represents the South Coast of NSW more than the Blues forward. If he's not on the training paddock he's exploring every beach or community gathering around town with his family of four. Add in Korbin's arrival and you can expect a lot more social content coming from the Sims clan over the 2019 season.

The quote

"We go hard at this time of the year and put in the work so we can be there at the back end of the season. We've got a really happy group and we know we can do something special in 2019." – Tyson Frizell.

Arrows indicate players who signed after the submission of initial rosters on November 1, 2018.