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Dragons 2021 season preview: Renewed hope or a false dawn?

Since leading the 2018 competition from the opening round until a month before the finals, the Dragons haven't had much to celebrate.

A gritty finals exit after South Sydney halfback Adam Reynolds kicked three field goals against an injury-depleted team gave hope for the following season but instead, Red V fans have had to endure two years of frustration.

There have been legitimate excuses for St George Illawarra's demise, like the loss of Gareth Widdop and unavailability of Jack de Belin, but ultimately a lack of results cost coach Paul McGregor his job.

However, the Dragons have had a long-term focus on a group of young players who are just beginning to emerge into the NRL ranks and the future looks bright.  

The Dragons' 2020 season in review

The 2021 outlook

What's new

After finishing 12th last season and 15th in 2019, the Dragons have undergone a major overhaul of their coaching and playing ranks.

Anthony Griffin replaces McGregor as coach and he has bought in experienced duo Matthew Elliott and Peter Gentle as assistants.

Captain Cameron McInnes has played his last game in the Red V after rupturing his ACL in a training mishap just days after signing with Cronulla for next season, while the departures of Tyson Frizell and James Graham mean Griffin will have an entirely new on-field leadership team.

Ramsey re-signs with the Dragons

Star playmaker Ben Hunt was chosen ahead of second-rower Tariq Sims for the captain’s job, and new recruit Andrew McCullough will also play a leadership role.

Like McCullough, former NSW Origin utility Jack Bird has also made the move from Brisbane to Wollongong, and he is likely to start the season in place of centre Euan Aitken, who has joined the Warriors.

Griffin has bolstered St George Illawarra’s forward depth with the addition of Daniel Alvaro (Eels), Kaide Ellis (Panthers) and Poasa Faamausili (Roosters).

The draw

The Dragons recorded an NRL.com index score of 198 when the 2021 draw was announced in November, ranking them fifth for the toughness of schedule with 12 matches against 2020 finals teams.

Dragons fans will be hoping their team can start the season well as they face a tough run home, with their last six matches against the Rabbitohs (twice), Panthers, Roosters, Raiders and Cowboys.

St George Illawarra are drawn to play home and away matches against the Sharks, Roosters, Rabbitohs, Raiders, Tigers, Bulldogs, Sea Eagles and Cowboys.

Will Hunt lock down Dragons' No.7 jersey in 2021?

Burning question

Can the Dragons' Generation Next lead a Red V revival?

St George Illawarra boast some of the best young talent in the NRL but whether they are ready yet for NRL action is unknown.

Teen playmaker Jayden Sullivan, 18-year-old five-eighth Tom Amone, centres Mat and Max Feagai, 20, and fullback Tyrell Sloan, 18, were all members of the club’s 2019 SG Ball champion winning team, and there are others just behind them.

Cody Ramsey and Zac Lomax, who was a member of last season's NSW Origin squad, are both 21.

The hope is that as the youngsters establish themselves at NRL level in the coming seasons, the Dragons will emulate the feats of Penrith last year.

Stat that gives you hope

The Dragons started well in most matches but fell away last season, trailing at halftime in just eight of their 20 matches.

If Griffin can prevent the second-half fade-outs St George Illawarra could be finals contenders.

Breakout player

Almost anyone who has seen Jayden Sullivan play would be excited by his potential.

Sullivan is vying for a playmaker role with Ben Hunt, Corey Norman and Adam Clune but the 19-year-old is considered a star in the making after making his NRL debut in the last match of 2020 against Melbourne.

Almost as impressive as his on-field talents is the fact Sullivan is willing to be patient and learn as much as he can from the likes of Hunt and Norman. It is only a matter of time before he forces his way into the line-up.

Vaughan drives hard to score

Contract matters

Having re-signed boom outside back Cody Ramsey, the Dragons' focus is likely to turn to the futures of Paul Vaughan, Matt Dufty, Corey Norman and a host of other players coming off contract this year.

Griffin has told the 10 players unsigned beyond this year that they would not receive an offer until he had a chance to evaluate them. McInnes has already signed with the Sharks.

Vaughan has an option for another season, while Dufty, Norman, Tyrell Fuimaono, Jordan Pereira and Trent Merrin are off contract at the end of the season.

What you need to know NRL Fantasy-wise

Jack Bird ($374k) is a very popular option in the centres despite a horror run of injuries, and should be a steal if he gets plenty of minutes in the forward pack. Zac Lomax ($627k) was the highest-scoring centre in Fantasy last year but doesn't come cheap, while Jackson Ford ($441k) and Max Feagai ($246k) could both be cash cows and new signing Andrew McCullough ($724k) is a potential cut-price keeper.

Dragons utility player Jack Bird.
Dragons utility player Jack Bird. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

The quote

Tariq Sims:  "Probably what's stood out the most this year that everyone's been put on notice and no-one's above the team. It started from day one and it's carried all the way through."

The good, the bad and the likely

The good: The Dragons will be hoping a change of coach and a host of players trying to earn new contracts will see their fortunes turn around after two dismal seasons.

The bad: St George Illawarra have lost a lot of experience with Cameron McInnes sidelined with an ACL injury and the departures of Tyson Frizell, James Graham and Euan Aitken. The Dragons have some great young talent but the club’s depth looks challenged and it could be another long season if Griffin is forced to rely on rookies.

The likely: Expect the Dragons to either scrape into the top eight or finish just outside it if they can find some consistency this season. The club has too many good players to finish near the bottom again.

Dragons in 2021

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