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Each year resembles the last for St George Illawarra fans. As we turn our attention to the 2005 season, we approach it with the same optimism and hope that we have seen since the Joint Ventures initial success in 1999.
Previously we have seen Ryles, Bailey and Cooper burst onto the scene, in 2004 we saw Poore, Sims and Head bring about a new-look Dragons line-up. Having played one full year of NRL football, you would expect these youngsters to be fresh and to improve on their last season, and with that thought, success is close for the Dragon faithful.
Approaching 2005 with caution is recommended, with the club suffering the loss of Riddell, Withers, Kite, Blacklock and Firman. Amongst those losses comes the gains of Ennis, Best, Manu and Torrens all players that have proven themselves to be worthy first grade players.
The overall 2005 squad does not resemble a Dragon squad in previous years, this year we have balance and depth. If our injury curse continues, then ready-made replacements are now waiting in the wings. The past year of NRL experience for fringe NRL players Greenshields, Norrie and Holdsworth has shown that they are capable to fill the void if injuries occur, whilst other players such as Wheatley and Asotasi will be relishing the opportunity having joined the full-time squad.
Fullback Led by 2004 Origin debutant Ben Hornby, the Dragons are well-assured of great service from the back. Depth in this position is also evident, with Premier League Player of the Year Clint Greenshields easily slotting at the back, whilst Reece Simmonds has played NRL football in the number one jersey
Wingers The most hotly contested position in the Dragons squad. With the departure of Nathan Blacklock, one wing spot is definitely up for grabs. It is expected that Simmonds will hold onto the number 5 jersey that he held last year, but stiff competition from Colin Best, Nick Youngquest and the goal-kicking Wes Naiqama will ensure a pleasing headache selection for coach Nathan Brown.
Centres The NRL?s most damaging centre pairing of Matt Cooper and Mark Gasnier should allow for the halves to have great support from their outside men. With Gasnier already likely to miss the first month of competition, new recruit Albert Torrens, who is suspended, will possibly find himself starting at centre for the Dragons. Both Best and Naiqama are also capable of filling in the breech, whilst former Tiger Brett Kelly may be seen as a potential replacement.
Five-Eighth Captain Trent Barrett will be hoping to produce the form that saw him win the 2000 Dally M Player of the Year. Depth in this position is sound, with youngster Daniel Holdsworth able to replace Barrett if needed. Wynnum Seagulls recruit Luke Dalziel-Don can also play in the five-eighth position. Ben Hornby may also prove his utility value by switching to play in the second-receiver role.
Half-back The one area where the Dragons could falter if an injury is sustained to premier half Matthew Head. Hooker/Halfback Aaron Gorrell could possibly play a role here, whilst Trent Barrett could be pushed into the number 7 jersey. If an injury occurs to Head, then the Dragons could have a major problem around the scrum-base.
Back Row In previous years the Dragons back-row has been regarded as the weakest link in a star-studded line-up, but in 2005 depth and impact will see a better back-row rotation. Led by Shaun Timmins, Lance Thompson and Dean Young the back-row depth will include Willie Manu, Ben Creagh and Aaron Wheately. Creagh and Manu will prove to be X-Factors for the Dragons line-up off the bench. If they can provide the game-breaking potential, which they both are capable of, then the 2005 season will be a success for the Dragons. Youngsters Corey Payne, Bryan Norrie , Willie Tupou and North Sydney recruit Lee Te Maari will be hoping to place pressure upon the likes of Manu and Creagh to gain a place in the Dragons 17. The depth in the back-row is something that has not been evident since 1999.
Props The towering strength of the Dragons over fellow NRL teams is the great go-forward generate by the Dragons props. Led by Jason Ryles and Luke Bailey the Dragons duo are able to lay the platform for the rest of the team. With Ryles likely to be out at the start of the season, boom youngsters Ashton Sims and Justin Poore are likely to fill the void. The impact that Sims and Poore had in 2004 was superb. Whilst Michael Henderson also played well in his appearances for the club last season. Norrie and Wheatley are also capable of shifting into the front-row.
Hooker The Dragons biggest recruit in 2005 was Newcastle?s Michael Ennis. Ennis is an 80-minute hooker who has been learning his craft from NSW Captain Danny Buderus. Aaron Gorrell is the back-up hooker for the Dragons. Gorrell has been out of First Grade for the past two seasons, having played 16 games in 2002.
Overall the Dragons have a stronger and more balanced side then the last few seasons. With a stack of young talent coming through the ranks, mixed with the experience of Origin and International players, 2005 could well and truly be the Year of the Dragon.