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The 2003 season started well for St George Illawarra with a 28-10 Charity Shield win over Souths.
The pre-season victory gave fans plenty to look forward to, but the reality of NRL competition told a different story with several losses at the beginning of the season.
Saints bounced back to out-muscle eventual finalists Canterbury 24-14 (round 6) thereby giving fans an indication of the team's potential.
The Dragons were then able to defeat the Roosters 24-20 (round 7) after they ambushed the reigning premiers on Anzac day. To complete the double, Saints also ran out 34-28 winners over the Penrith Panthers (round 21) - the Panthers went on to premiership glory when they defeated the Roosters 18-6 in the 2003 grand final.
Saints continued their good form with an outstanding first half display defeating the Sharks 28-12 (round 8) to herald in a tremendous return to Kogarah Oval. The match at Kogarah was the first for Saints since 1999 and was a season highlight for many St George fans. For all intents and purposes, it looked like the Dragons were set to have a good season but they were unable to repeat the form, being defeated in the next four matches at Kogarah and in a shocking effort in round 25 when they were disgraced 42-8 by Newcastle.
Nevertheless, Saints bounced back again with a nail biting 26-25 win over the Brisbane Broncos in round 26, this being the best game of the year for the Dragons. Fielding a side of virtual reserve graders, they outclassed a Broncos outfit humiliating them in front of their home crowd at Suncorp Stadium.
In a tremendous second half of end-to-end football, Saints' hooker Mark Riddell [pic left] played the match of his life running amok from dummy half and scoring two tries. Trailing 25-24 with a minute to go, the tiring Broncos were found to be a well offside when referee Tim Mander awarded Saints a penalty from 41 metres out and 10 metres in from touch. Riddell calmly lined up the ball and then piloted it between the uprights to end the Dragons season in style. Earlier in the year, Saints also convincingly defeated Brisbane 32-16 (round 17) at WIN Stadium.
Season 2003 was the first year as Dragons' head coach for Nathan Brown [pic right]. The NRL's youngest ever coach, Brown gave an honest analysis and was first to admit that he found himself on a learning curve. In a season of marred by disappointment, Saints finished 10th in 2003 and two points out of the playoffs. Overall, just as they had in the previous year, the 2003 Dragons struggled for consistency, falling way short of expectations.
Biggest win 2003: 36-16 (v Cowboys at Dairy Farmers Stadium Townsville, round 19, 19 July)
Biggest loss 2003: 42-8 (v Newcastle at Kogarah round 25, 31 August)
Highest match score 2003: 42 (42-28 v Manly at Brookvale, round 16, 28 June)
Lowest match score 2003: 8 (42-8 v Newcastle at Kogarah round 25, 31 August)
Team performances aside, the Dragons' 2003 season will go down as one worst on record for injuries. Coming into the final round of the premiership, Saints had no less than 12 first graders on the sideline: Fullback Amos Roberts, wingers Nathan Blacklock and Michael Howell, centres Matt Cooper and Mark Gasnier, five-eighth Trent Barrett, halfback Brett Firman, second rowers Lance Thompson and Henry Perenara, front rowers Jason Ryles and Ian Donnelly, as well as bench hooker Aaron Gorrell. Overall, Saints had done without a number of high profile players including Shaun Timmins, Mark Gasnier, Lance Thompson and captain Trent Barrett who played just five games for Saints in 2003.
The frustration of the early season losses showed when in April, coach Brown berated Thompson, Firman and Barrett during a sideline incident at WIN Stadium. At one point, Brown 'clipped' Barrett across the cheek and grabbed the jerseys of Barrett and Thompson, literally pulling them into line. Afterwards, Barrett reassures fans that any differences between Brown and himself have been sorted out and in his own words, will cop his coach's slap 'on the chin'.
On the upside, 2003 saw the return of mercurial winger Nathan Blacklock from Rugby Union. The competition's top try scorer, 1999, 2000, 2001 Blacklock, scored a record 27 tries for Saints in 2001. 'Tingha' was granted a release from Saints in June 2002 before signing with the NSWRU. "I am very excited about playing rugby league again" Blacklock said. "It's where my heart is. I feel like I've come home."
Meanwhile, Dragons front rower Luke Bailey [pic left] was playing the best football of his career. A powerful runner who consistently topped the tackle count, Bailey was named man-of-the-match in State of Origin I. Bailey, along with team mate Shaun Timmins, showed great form with NSW eventually wrapping up the 2003 Origin series 2-1.
Another player highlight for Saints came in the form of a tremendous gesture from Lance Thompson [pic right] who took a substantial pay cut so the club could retain other players under the salary cap. In a sign of true club loyalty Thompson 25, also donated $10,000 to the St George Junior League and indicated that he will only play for the Dragons.
Dragons 2003 top player stats, first grade:
Most games (out of 24): Ben Hornby (24); Mark Riddell (24); Matt Cooper (23); Brent Kite (23); Dean Young 22).
Most tries: Nathan Blacklock 14 tries (12 games); Matt Cooper 11 tries (23 games).
Most goals: Mark Riddell 69 goals (82 attempts, 24 games).
Most field goals: None.
Most points for 2002: Mark Riddell 7t+69g = 166 pts (24 games).
Dragons player awards:
Ben Hornby [pic left] - Integral Energy Dragons Medal. (other nominations were Luke Bailey, Matt Cooper and Lance Thompson).
Matt Cooper - Geoff Selby Memorial NRL Coaches Award.
Luke Bailey - Red V Members Player of the Year.
Nathan Tutt - Mark Coyne Award for Premier League Player of the Year.
Dean Young - Paul McGregor Award for Most Valued Contribution to the Club.
The Dragons are close to finalising their 2004 roster with a number of new signings confirmed, including backrowers, outside backs, front row forwards plus "triangles".
New NRL Signings:
E Asotasi (Canterbury), N Youngquest (Sharks) [pic right], J Olzard (Wests), A Frew (Halifax), B Scott (Steelers Jersey Flegg), L Roberts (Souths), L Withers (Tigers), C Greenshields (Tigers), L Russell (Dragons Premier League), S Katu (Souths) , C Payne (Canterbury), S Fa'logo (NZ), N Long (Manly), D Tangata-toa (Sharks), J Ellem (Dragons Premier League), J Poore (Dragons Premier League), T Jensen (Manly), W Palu (Rugby Union).
Players who have re-signed or extended their contracts:
Mark Gasnier (2006), Shaun Timmins (2006), Lance Thompson (2006), David Howell (2006), Nathan Blacklock (2005), Brett Firman (2005), Michael Henderson (2005), Ben Creagh (2005), Bryan Norrie (2005), Henry Perenara (2004), Reece Simmonds (2004).
Negotiations are continuing positively with captain Trent Barrett, who is under contract to the end of 2004, to extend his commitment to the club. Other Dragons players already under contract for 2004 include Luke Bailey, Mark Riddell, Jason Ryles, Matt Cooper, Ben Hornby, Wes Naiqama, Michael Howell, Mathew Head, Aaron Gorrell, Brent Kite, Dean Young, Ryan Powell, Ashton Sims and Brett White.
Players who will not play for the Dragons in 2004:
John Cross (retiring; 2004 Steelers Jersey Flegg coach), Craig Stapleton (Parramatta), Amos Roberts (Penrith), Chris Leikvoll (Warrington, England), John Wilshere (England), Chris Nero (England), Ryan Tandy (released to Souths during the season), Wise Kativerata (released to Souths during the season), Dean Byrne (Souths), Ian Donnelly (Manly), Nathan Tutt (Manly), and Hassan Saleh.
For a full season review, visit the SOTV Dragons history site (2003) - click here