St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor has returned from a leadership camp in the United States determined to leave the club's disastrous 2019 season in the past and focus only on the future for the Dragons.
McGregor and team manager Ben Haran joined the AFL Coaches Association New York Leadership Immersion Program, along with the likes of West Coast Eagles director of coaching Gavin Bell, Essendon assistant coach Mark Harvey and his Carlton and Hawthorn counterparts Cameron Bruce and Adam Yze.
Others in the 15-strong group included Melbourne Storm COO Danielle Smith, who is also CEO of the club's Sunshine Coast Lightning netball franchise, AFL umpire Matt Nicol and Cotton On group executive, operations and logistics Glenn Keast.
During the week-long tour, they visited the New York Giants, Brooklyn Nets and US Tennis Association's Flushing Meadows headquarters, as well as attending NFL, NBA and NHL matches and met with representatives of the United Nations, CBS Sports, Nielson Sports and Oakley.
In an in-depth interview with NRL.com, McGregor said the focus of the tour was on leadership and they heard from speakers with successful backgrounds in business as well as sport.
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While McGregor didn't discover a "silver bullet" for turning around St George Illawarra's fortunes after finishing 15th last season, he returned to pre-season training this week determined not to dwell on it any further and only speak about what lies ahead for the Dragons.
"You concentrate on the present and don't worry about the past, so to speak. That was the big thing I took out of it," McGregor said of his study trip. "They all had stories about that kind of stuff and how they got to where they got to.
"You have got to put a line through when you stop talking about last year – and for us it has got to stop now. We are back preparing for a new year and you can't fix what happened last year. That is gone but if you keep thinking about it you can't get away from it and move forward."
"Deal with what you have got"
McGregor and Haran dined with Fox Sports NFL analyst Eric Mangini, the former Jets and Cleveland Browns head coach, who was also an assistant to Bill Belichick at New England Patriots and has worked with San Francisco 49ers.
The tour group also heard from Brooklyn Nets director of sports science Dan Meehan, deputy chief of the UN's nuclear disarmament office Chris King, CBS director of programming Ryan Triesler and Oakley vice-president Justin Andrews, as well as being guests of Australia's consul-general in New York, Alastair Walton.
In addition, they visited the New York Jets training facility and attended their match against New York Giants, as well as the Philadelphia 76ers-Cleveland Cavaliers NBA clash and an NHL game between New York Islanders and Florida Panthers.
Among the highlights for McGregor was a communications workshop in Harlem with Australian-raised Clara Pagone of New York Speech Coaching, who teaches breathing techniques as part of integrated approach to public speaking.
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"The biggest thing for me was about amplifying your message through communication and connecting with people," McGregor said. "It's important that you make sure your message gets across the assets of the team and is really driving your club and your team.
"It was more of a daily education, you got new ideas and you got to meet different people every day. I don't think there is any one thing you get out of it. It was just a really good education from a business sense as well as a sporting sense.
"Most of the guys spoke about leaders leaving a footprint in every area of the building. Without interfering too much you have got to have a good feel and make sure everyone is tracking along in the right direction.
"I reckon the most important thing is that you have got to deal with what you have got – not worry about what you haven't got. That's something that came up regularly in the conversations."
"Let it go and push forward"
McGregor is determined to only talk about the season ahead and not look back but he admits mistakes were made in 2019.
Before a ball was kicked the Dragons were reeling from captain Gareth Widdop's decision to return to England at the end of the season followed by sexual assault charges against Jack de Belin, who was subject to the NRL's "no fault stand down" policy and did not play a match in 2019.
The loss of Widdop for most of the season with a shoulder injury and serious injuries to Tyson Frizell (ruptured testicle), Korbin Sims (broken arm), Corey Norman (fractured cheekbone), James Graham (broken leg), Tim Lafai (ankle), Zac Lomax (broken thumb), Tariq Sims (groin) and Cameron McInnes (broken leg) took a heavy toll.
At one stage players considered boycotting a match in protest at the ban against de Belin and McGregor admits the Dragons had allowed the constant blows to derail their season.
"That was one of the lessons we learned," McGregor said. "We played the same 17 [players] for [just] two games – in round 5 and 6 – and we always had constant change.
"Four-and-a-half of our top 10 highest paid players were injured or out throughout the year on average per game but we were always worrying about what was missing instead of getting on with what we had.
"Obviously there was a lot of conversation around Jack, there was a lot of conversation around Gareth and other players with injuries and suspensions, but at the end of the day you can't stop those things happening. You don't want them to happen, you don't need them to happen but when they do it is how you deal with it.
"The lessons we learned through that is that whatever is out of our control we have just got to let it go and push forward. We have still got to show sympathy and compassion and be there for one another but at the end of the day we have still got to move forward and there is an opportunity for someone else so let's get on with it."
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"I take responsibility for 2019"
After an end-of-season review involving coaching guru Phil Gould, the Dragons have made eight changes to their off-field staff and are expected to appoint 2016 premiership-winning coach Shane Flanagan as an assistant to McGregor after his NRL suspension ends on December 19.
The NRL has imposed restrictions on Flanagan's return and he can't be considered for a head coaching job before the 2022 season.
Former Cronulla and Newcastle assistant coach James Shepherd has joined Dean Young on the coaching staff, while former Melbourne and Parramatta strength-and-conditioning coach Adrian Jimenez has overseen a start to pre-season training that players have compared to a "drill camp".
There is also a focus on mental toughness after the team fell away in a number of matches last season, with Gerard Murphy of Leadership by Design and mind and performance coach Matt Griggs having been engaged to work with St George Illawarra players next season.
"We have implemented positive change and it is only week two of the pre-season so we have got a very long journey ahead of us, but if we can keep looking ahead to what is next and stay focused on the process of now – and not the past – it will go a hell of a long way for us to get the result we require," McGregor said.
"It has got to be around our behaviours and the standards and values that we accept and don't accept in our organisation. That is what leadership is about. You don't need to have the 'c' next to your name as captain or be a coach or someone in authority to be a leader.
"You have got to be is make sure that the standards you walk past are the standards you accept and I don't think any of us did as well as we could have – me included.
"I take responsibility for the outcome of 2019. There were conversations and distractions constantly and these are things you can't be ready for, but you have got to overcome them."
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The Dragons have signed former New Zealand hooker Issac Luke as back-up to McInnes and he arrived in Wollongong this week on a deal worth little more than minimum wage.
McInnes was mentored by Luke at South Sydney in 2014 and 2015, and with Reece Robson moving to North Queensland in pursuit of a starting role at dummy half, he supported the recruitment of the 32-year-old.
McGregor said the alternative was to switch halfback Ben Hunt to hooker if McInnes was injured but there were few playmakers available to cover for the Queenslander in the halves.
"You have only got a certain amount of money available in the salary cap so when you look at who is available to play No.7 or No.9, 'Bully' is by far the best buy for our club," McGregor said.
"Then aren't any sevens with the experience and capabilities that 'Bully' has at nine so why would you move your seven to a different position and try to find someone else to play seven.
"Reece Robson has gone because he got an opportunity of a lot of money on a three-year deal with the North Queensland Cowboys to be the No.1 hooker and he didn't want to stay behind Cam, whereas Bully is willing to work with Cam.
"Cam is recovering from a badly broken leg and if he gets hurt again we have got an experienced guy and if they are both playing well we will fit them in together. That's all unknown but to not have anyone in that position ready to go would be committing rugby league suicide."