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St George Illawarra Dragons 2020 season preview

Every season brings about fresh hope and the Dragons will be optimistic they can rebound from the worst year in the joint venture club's history.

A staff overhaul, including the appointments of premiership-winning Cronulla combo Shane Flanagan and James Shepherd as assistant coaches to Paul McGregor, is said to have forced changes to structures and attitudes.

Adrian Jimenez has also come on board as strength and conditioning coach, replacing Alex Clarke. Jimenez has spent time with the Storm, Panthers, Eels and the New Zealand Test team.

Off-field drama and long-term injuries to key men no doubt contributed to St George Illawarra's 15th-place finish in 2019.

But new captain Cameron McInnes has declared that excuses won't fly regardless of circumstances as they look to mirror Parramatta and Manly's efforts last year and climb from the cellar to September.

The 2020 outlook

What's new

Former skipper Gareth Widdop's departure to Super League club Warrington is a blow but at least it gives the Dragons clarity about their best spine.

Zac Lomax - who signed a bumper five-year extension over the summer - is set to have first crack at fullback. Speedster Matt Dufty has said he is willing to stay and fight for the spot.

On the recruitment front, local junior Trent Merrin is back after a four-year absence and will add starch and skill in the forwards, while veteran hooker Issac Luke has inked a one-year deal as a very handy backup to Cameron McInnes.

Outside back Brayden Wiliame and second-rower/centre Tyrell Fuimaono complete the signings.

Five key match-ups of the Dragons' 2020 draw

The draw

St George Illawarra begin the season with home games against Wests Tigers (WIN Stadium) and Penrith (Netstrata Jubilee Stadium).

The Red V will want to make the most of the home advantage because they face a daunting period from rounds three to eight based on last year's ladder.

It includes clashes with grand finalists Canberra (R3), week two finalists Parramatta (R4), preliminary finalists South Sydney (R6), premiers the Roosters (R7) and minor premiers Melbourne (R8).

If the Dragons are good enough to remain in the playoffs hunt come the last two rounds, tussles against rivals Cronulla and South Sydney could decide their fate.

The Saints have two five-day turnarounds - rounds two and 24.

The stat that gives you hope

They didn't earn the right to attack often enough, but St George Illawarra gave the opposition trouble when they set up near the try-line.

Despite having the third least play-the-balls (540) inside the opposition 20-metre zone, the Dragons had the sixth-best scoring rate with a try every 10.2 plays.

The Roosters (try every eight play-the-balls) were the benchmark in this area, while the Bulldogs (14.8) were the worst.

Dragons' top five tries of 2019

What you need to know NRL Fantasy-wise

"The Fantasy prospects of Cameron McInnes ($900k) took a hit with an MCL injury sidelining him for the early rounds, but there is value to be had elsewhere with Zac Lomax ($389k) set to thrive in the fullback role (and still available at centre in Fantasy). Trent Merrin ($578k) is a former gun who racked up some great stats in the Super League last year while winger Jason Saab ($249k) could be a bargain if he gets a start." - Lone Scout

The coach

Paul McGregor is under more pressure than any other coach, with the extremely passionate Dragons fan base demanding success or his head.

To his credit, McGregor has been happy to accept help in the form of Shane Flanagan when many in his situation would have baulked at such an accomplished coach coming on board underneath them.

But for all the new faces on his staff, McGregor will still bear the brunt of the criticism if St George Illawarra struggle, and calls for his sacking from supporters will grow deafening.

It makes a strong start to the year absolutely critical.

McGregor had the Dragons firing only two years ago, when they almost reached the preliminary final, and will be eager to show that was no fluke.

Frizell addresses talk about his future

Contract matters

A number of St George Illawarra players have unresolved futures, with representative second-rower Tyson Frizell the highest-profile case.

Inspirational prop James Graham's deal expires at the end of this year, and given he turns 35 in September, he may well retire.

Centre pairing Tim Lafai and Euan Aitken, bench hooker Issac Luke and several fringe first-graders like Jackson Ford, Tristan Sailor, Jacob Host, Joe Lovodua and Mikaele Ravalawa are all off-contract.

Improving forward Josh Kerr can activate a player option to stay in 2021, while stood-down lock Jack de Belin is uncontracted past 2020.

The burning question

Are the Dragons better equipped to manage adversity?

It was the season from hell in 2019 and St George Illawarra melted in the heat more often than not.

While the players have said all the right things over the summer, we won't know whether they've been strengthened or scarred by last year's tribulations until the going gets tough again.

Lomax scores with his first touch

Breakout player to watch

Having been signed to the equal-longest contract in St George Illawarra history, 20-year-old Zac Lomax is obviously held in high regard.

The Temora product has the chance to prove himself at fullback, which he's long stated is his preferred position.

Lomax has shown glimpses of his rare talent in 17 NRL matches and could transition into a star with a consistent role in the team.

The quote

"The sooner you realise that you've got to perform under less than ideal circumstances, the better you're going to be. If guys didn't learn that last year, they've got to learn quick." - Cameron McInnes.

Acknowledgement of Country

St George Illawarra Dragons respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples, where our games are played, our programs are conducted and in the communities we support.

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