An old-fashioned bonding session organised by St George Illawarra coach Anthony Griffin after a frustrating training session is being credited by Dragons players with helping to spark their winning start to the season.
Griffin was unhappy with a pre-season session so he cut training short and told the players they would repeat the session the following day – but this time they would get it right.
And then, he said, they would enjoy a few beers together.
“There was a look of shock among the boys,” second-rower Josh Kerr said. “It was like, ‘Wow. How good is that!’
“It sounds crazy but we haven’t had that here before and honestly it is refreshing. It makes you want to play for the coach and play for each other.”
After a 48-16 humbling by South Sydney in the Charity Shield and an opening round 32-18 loss to Cronulla, the Dragons were widely written off.
However, they have now won three matches in a row for the first time in two years and are targeting a top eight berth, with Kerr saying: "We want to challenge a lot of people's opinions of us."
Yet besides a new coaching staff headed by Griffin, not a lot appears to have changed this season.
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“The talent has always been there and we have got pretty much the same squad but I think it is just the attention to detail and our attitude,” said former NSW Origin lock Trent Merrin, who will make his 150th appearance for the club against Parramatta on Sunday night.
“Different coaches have different ways to bring teams together and this group has really connected with what Hook is putting forward and the way he is building that connection within the playing group. You can tell on the field the last few weeks that we are all working hard for each other.”
With constant speculation over the future of former coach Paul McGregor since the Dragons fell away at the end of the 2018 season after leading the competition for the first 17 rounds, the mood at WIN Stadium gradually got heavier.
Many of the players were close to McGregor and felt burdened by the pressure which increased with every loss last season but they are now a tight-knit group under Griffin.
However, nine players remain off contract, including star five-eighth Corey Norman, fullback Matt Dufty and Merrin.
Griffin has made it clear that they are playing for their futures but he has also provided clear expectations about what they need to do to secure a new deal.
“It is a re-start,” Merrin said. “Everyone has got to put their best foot forward and buy into the system. If you don’t, then you are not in the system.
“It is clarity, it gives us a good perspective of where we need to head to and what areas we need to work on.”
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The NRL’s strict biosecurity protocols had an impact last season as players were effectively only able to leave their home to train or play but the bubble restrictions have been lifted this year and Griffin has ensured his players socialise with each other.
“Last year was tough for all of us but it’s a crazy good vibe at the moment," centre Brayden Williame said. "Obviously winning helps but I think that is built off just everyone getting along."
As he had done at Penrith, Griffin introduced a breakfast club, in which players were placed in different groups each week and told to find a Wollongong café to meet before training on a nominated day.
The one rule was that the players were banned from talking about football so they learned about each other.
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The pre-season bonding session was similar.
“I think we have got a real sense of playing for each other,” Kerr said. “You always have a tough pre-season but the biggest thing Hook changed was that we did a lot of things away from the field together to build a strong culture and strong mateship throughout the team.
“A lot of it really is old school. There were even some days where it was a tough session and he said ‘we’ll cut it here early and we will go for some beers’.
“The boys still talk about a Thursday session that we probably didn’t execute as well as we wanted and our Friday session is usually our tough session but on the Friday he just said ‘look, we are going to do what we did yesterday, we are going to do it better today and then we are going to go for some beers together.
“Something as simple as that starts to develop a bond and now you see some of us boys on our day off we will go and play golf or we will go out for breakfast, go get coffee or do other things together.”
Power of the group
Merrin, the lone survivor from St George Illawarra’s 2010 premiership-winning team, said Griffin had organised a BBQ after training.
“It wasn’t just about the bonding, it was the theory behind it,” he said. “We work hard and we can enjoy each other’s company once we do it and we did. We had a feed and a few beers and sat around talking about life.
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“The power of the group is sometimes better than the power of a session on the field. It’s not always beers, we go out for coffees and have a laugh, talk about things other than football, enjoy each other’s company and get to know each other on a personal basis.
“When you are out on the field and you go into battle, if you know a bit more about the person next to you, you want to work a bit harder for them and that’s what we are doing.”
In previous seasons, the Dragons may have relied too heavily on inspirational captain Cameron McInnes or representative stars Ben Hunt and Tyson Frizell but the season-ending injury to Cronulla-bound McInnes and Frizell’s departure to Newcastle has meant other players needed to step up.
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."We are all doing things together now, we are not really relying on Cam or Friz to do something," Kerr said. "On the field, I can definitely feel that there is a massive difference because we just want to play for each other.
"It feels like you are going into war with your brother, that is the only way I can describe it, and we talk all the time about how there is something different this year."
Top eight ambitions
Dragons players were stung by criticism aimed at them after the Charity Shield and are using predictions that they were destined for the wooden spoon as motivation to finish in the top eight after missing the finals for the past two seasons.
After beating the Cowboys, Sea Eagles and Knights, St George Illawarra are currently sixth and have a chance to climb higher up the Telstra Premiership ladder if they can overcome the Eels at Bankwest Stadium on Sunday night.
“You could see all the critics writing us off, especially against the Knights," Kerr said.
"They had lost Mitch Pearce’s 300th game against the Tigers and everyone thought they’ll bounce back, 'it’s only the Dragons, hang with them for 80 minutes and they’ll go away'.
“The Charity Shield was embarrassing but we spoke after that we don’t want that to happen again and we are doing our best to shut a lot of critics up,” Kerr said. “We want to make the top eight so that is what we are aiming for."
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Merrin admits Parramatta will be a genuine test for the Dragons and describes the unbeaten co-competition leaders as one of the NRL’s benchmark teams but he believes the team is building towards something special this season.
"Obviously it would be great to have a fairytale ending to this season, but having won a competition before, I know how much hard work goes into it," Merrin said.
"But the feeling at the club is exceptional at the moment and all the boys are prepared to work for one another and execute those finer details for the greater good.
"I'm confident, if we can continue to build, buy-in as a collective group and keep all our players on the field, there's no reason why this can't be a season we'll never forget."
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