New Dragons coach Shane Flanagan has ruled out making any rash signings as he focuses on building the strongest possible roster for 2025, while revealing he was considering Zac Lomax and Tyrell Sloan in a dual fullback role.
Flanagan, who will return to NRL coaching next season for the first time since his 2019 departure from the Sharks, admits that in the past he would have rushed to fill his roster but is now prepared to wait for the right player to become available.
Instead, the 2016 premiership winning mentor has vowed to improve the talent already in the St George Illawarra ranks, with an immediate focus on fitness – an area he believed the team lacked last season.
In a wide-ranging interview with NRL.com, Flanagan discussed his first pre-season in charge of the Red V and plans to lift the club from the lower rungs of the premiership ladder in 2023 to the top, including:
- Why the Dragons are yet to make a splash in the player transfer market;
- How Lomax could be a fullback with a Dylan Edwards-like workrate;
- Why the Dragons have “under achieved” in recent seasons;
- How he intends to ensure Sloan becomes a long-term NRL star, and;
- Why the new Centre of Excellence in Wollongong can be the final piece in the puzzle to fully unite the club.
A former Dragons player, Flanagan has a good understanding of the club’s pathways after spending the 2020 season in a consulting role and predicted more juniors would follow the likes of Sloan and the Couchman twins, Toby and Ryan, into first grade.
However, for the Red V to become a premiership force again, Flanagan believes will need to sign three or four top line players of the calibre of Addin Fonua-Blake Tom Dearden and Joey Manu, who may be available for the 2025 season.
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“I get a lot of messages about ‘why haven't we signed some players’. Well, the message from me is that there's not the players available,” Flanagan said. “The players that are available now are available for a reason.
“I want good players here but probably because I'm a little bit older now, whereas I would have jumped at a few players in the past and gone to sign them for two or three years, I want to make sure the 2025 roster is the best roster I can get.
“I want to get the good players here in 2025 and I don't want to go and sign players and then all of a sudden realise that I don't want them in 2025, so let's turn the roster that I've got now into the best they can possibly be and then add a few new good ones.”
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Among the talent already at his disposal are Lomax and Sloan – two players widely acknowledged across the game as possessing the ability to become representative stars but who some fear may never reach their potential.
Flanagan hopes Sloan can establish himself as St George Illawarra’s long term No.1 but is also excited about the possibility of Lomax moving to fullback and may consider the pair swapping positions during matches.
Sloan played on the wing in the highly regarded Steelers team that won the 2019 SG Ball grand final, while Lomax has established himself at right centre, but both grew up playing fullback.
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“We could do a bit of interchanging there, which I have done previously [at Cronulla] with Ben Barba and Valentine Holmes,” Flanagan said.
“It is such a big job, and Zac is a big thing, so you could swap them around during different times of the game. It upsets the opposition, and it was a good opportunity during parts of the game to educate Val as a fullback.
“Val was a great fullback. I know he is not playing there now, but before he went to NFL he was doing a good job at fullback.”
Lomax v Edwards
Asked who would start the season at fullback, Flanagan said: “Hopefully Tyrell does”.
However, he is excited about the prospect of Lomax playing fullback and admits that if the 24-year-old, who stands at 1.9m tall and weighs 94kg, “shoots the lights out” in the pre-season, he could wear the No.1 jersey in Round 1.
“He’ll be a different style of full back. He's strong, he's powerful, he's the fittest in the club, so his involvements are going to be high,” Flanagan said.
“For me, he'd probably be similar - but different - to Dylan Edwards, with his involvements and metres carried.
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“When you look at the end of the game, you go, ‘jeez, Dylan Edwards carried for another 200m or 250m, he handled the ball so many times, made three try saving tackles’ … that's the sort of stats we're hoping Zac would pump out if he's at fullback.
“He hasn’t played there for a while and these days fullbacks are so important, especially defensively inside your 20m zone, so that's a learning curve that we've got to get right for Zac in the off-season, but he’s got some real qualities.”
Sloan v Winx
Sloan has been earmarked as the Dragons long term fullback since making his NRL debut as a 19-year-old in 2021 and in full flight there are few better players to watch.
Yet despite playing for the Prime Minister’s XIII against Papua New Guinea in September, there are concerns about Sloan’s defence and it is an area he has been working hard to improve under Flanagan.
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“Tyrell’s still young and offensively he's a class player - he can split sides open like nothing - but the other side of the game is just important, or sometimes more important,” Flanagan said.
“That's where he needs to focus and that's where we'll be doing most of our work with Tyrell - making his tackles, getting his numbers right, being aggressive and being strong.
“He’s a bit of a rough diamond and if we can polish him up, we've got a player and a half there.
“He's like a Winx-type filly; the breeding is there and we've seen it, we just need to get the right training into him and we're going to have a quality athlete there so our job is to get him up to speed.
“We've had a major, major hiccup with him suffering a syndesmosis in the [Koori] Knockout, which is unfortunate, and then he broke his thumb so everything I had planned for him in early December went out the window, but we'll get there.
“He’s a good learner and he does look good at the moment - he's put on a bit of weight because he hasn't been running - but he has a lot of work from an education perspective.”
Headed by Ben Hunt, the Dragons captain and Kangaroos representative, Flanagan believes he has a squad that can do better than they have in recent seasons.
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Instability caused by uncertainty and constant changes to the coaching staff since 2019 has had an impact on the players and Flanagan believes they need to be fitter.
“The over-riding message that I get, especially from all the senior players – and Ben Hunt would be a classic example - is that this current playing group, staff, supporters, the whole lot … the management and board, are sick of losing,” Flanagan said.
“I’m not saying we will win the comp next year, but we're going to compete really hard and we're going to win a lot more football games.
“That's the start of the process and if you can then add three or four quality players to your roster, you'll turn things around quickly, but I've still got confidence in the group that are here at the moment that they can be better.
“I think they have under achieved and are probably a little bit of a victim of the coach changes over the last couple of years. I'm big on systems and structures, and on the field, especially defensively, we'll see a lot more disciplined side.
“They just thought that sometimes what they were doing was okay and it's not. That's the point that I've got across from player number one, Ben Hunt, right down.
“If you think you don't need to change, you're in big trouble because what's happened previously is not good enough.
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“I think because of all those coaching changes, and there was S&C changes and people in and people out, my thoughts from the outside looking in at the team last year was that they probably weren't fit enough or strong enough.
“That’s been a definite focus in our preseason and come Christmas time, and next March, they'll be a lot stronger and a lot fitter, so they'll be able to compete for longer periods of time because of that.”
The kids are alright
The Dragons only signings so far are prop Hame Sele (Rabbitohs) and playmaker Kyle Flanagan (Bulldogs) but insiders say the next crop of juniors coming through is even better than the class of 2019, which included Sloan, Jayden Sullivan, Talatau Amome, Aaron Schoupp and the Feagai twins, Max and Matt.
Another set of twins, Toby and Ryan Couchman, made their NRL debuts last season and Flanagan said the likes of Dylan Egan, Hamish Stewart and Savelio Tamale weren’t far behind.
“The Couchman boys are still really, really young and playing in the forwards,” Flanagan said.
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“They’ve put on 4kg each in the off-season, and they will be better for it next year, so I’m excited to see them mature and play because they are going to be long term NRL players.
“The pathways program, and obviously where the club is from a junior development point of view, is in good shape and we have got some really good young ones coming through, so that is exciting.
“They are probably 2025 debuters, they could get there earlier but I'd like to think that the NRL side is going a lot better next year, so it makes those young ones bide their time.”
CoE to unite Red V
The team will split training between WIN Stadium and Netstrata Jubilee Stadium next season in a move Flanagan believes will make it more appealing for Sydney-based players to join the club.
However, with work due to commence early next year on St George Illawarra’s Centre of Excellence at University of Wollongong’s innovation campus, the team is expected to be based fulltime in the city, along with the club’s administration.
“We’ve got 10 or so players who live up in Sydney, so we're going to use both facilities now. We've got Kogarah and WIN so it's crazy not to use both,” Flanagan said.
“They've basically been based in Wollongong, but Kogarah and the St George area is still our home, as well, to right down the South Coast. We're a big club so we need to train up there and that's attractive to some players.
“We're getting a high-performance facility built that will start in January or February. Then we'll have world class facilities and that, for me, brings our club back together.
“We're still a little bit disconnected because the admin and so on is at Kogarah and the footy [department] is at Wollongong, so that's another connection piece for me, which is exciting.”