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St George Illawarra has arrived at a critical juncture in their joint venture history, with 2006 shaping as one of the most important in the club?s short existence.
Constantly touted as pre-season favourites, you can?t accuse the Dragons of pursuing the even tenor of one?s way. This may have something to do with the engrossment of the club?s fans whose persistent demands for on-field infallibility are oft met with equally capricious protests toward the club?s hierarchy.
Since 1999 the Dragons have failed to win more than 50% of their first 10 matches, with that pattern again unavoidable in 2006 after they stumbled to a disappointing Round 9 loss at the hands little brother the Cronulla Sharks, finding themselves in 11th position on the premiership table.
Like lemmings jumping off a cliff, their legion of supporters prematurely paint apocalyptic estimations, writing-off the season after a few early defeats and ignoring the simple fact that they compete in a 26 round competition which requires slightly better than a 50% winning ratio to make the semi-finals.
Whilst it?s not a perfect picture by any means, they proved last year that a poor start isn?t necessarily indicative of their overall season?s fortunes. It?s not a habit you want to get into but old habits die hard.
There is some good news in all this for those who like to keep an eye on history and it?s fair to say most Dragons fans do.
Just over a month ago they re-signed Nathan Brown as head coach for another two seasons, creating a new slice of history providing he sees out the full extent of his contract, which in today?s world is about as watertight as tea-bag. It will take Brown?s tenure at the club to six years, making him the longest serving coach in the joint-venture club?s history and equalling Roy Master?s record of six consecutive years as first grade coach (1982-87) from the St George side of the equation.
Only Ken Kearney (1954-55 & 1957-61) has carried the clipboard longer, directing the players either side of Norm Tipping in 1956. From the Illawarra contingent, Graham Murray stands out as their longest serving coach with 5 consecutive years from 1991-95, with Brown?s appointment set to eclipse both of these from 2008. Murray was the first Illawarra coach to reach the semi-finals ? ironically they were knocked out in the Grand Final qualifier by St George in 1992.
But exactly how does Brown?s coaching record stack up against the others?
Firstly, it?s only fair to remove ?Killer? Ken Kearney?s record from comparisons, as the five year stint from ?57-?61 all yielded premierships during the Golden Era of the proud St George club that spanned from 1956-66. Likewise, Norm Provan?s stretch from 1962-65 was inside this epoch.
If you take a benchmark of four consecutive years as coach then a pattern begins to emerge from the St George half of the equation. All coaches since Kearney and Provan who were at the helm for this period of time were able to reach a Grand Final.
Graham Langlands (1972-76) helped the Dragons to a Grand Final appearance in 1975 against the Roosters. Unfortunately things didn?t quite turn out the way Saints would have like that day, going down 38-0.
Harry Bath (1977-81) had instant success, winning the ?77 Grand Final in a replay against Parramatta, before taking them to a second in 1979 over Canterbury, the last premiership the club has won.
Bath handed the duties over to Roy Masters in 1982, who guided them to a Grand Final appearance in 1985, narrowly going down to Canterbury by 7-6. That day all three grades contested Grand Finals at the SCG, with a lack of fresh players being attributed as one of the factors in the loss.
Masters stood down at the end of 1987, with Ted Glossop coaching in 1988 before Craig Young tried his hand for two seasons. In 1991, former Illawarra coach Brian Smith assumed control and it wasn?t long before he continued the trend, steering the club to back-to-back Grand Finals in 1992/93.
Smith left for England at the end of 1995 with the Super League war in full swing. Enter David Waite, the former Newcastle mentor, who was like a breath of fresh air to sweep through the club bringing no baggage with him and getting on with the job. He reached the 1996 Grand Final in his first season, losing to Manly in disappointing circumstances. His occupancy of the top job remained constant into the first two seasons of the joint venture and in 1999 he again led them to a berth in the big one. Once more the club failed at the final hurdle, going down to Melbourne in controversial circumstances after a penalty try in the dying minutes of the game.
In 2001, Waite was deposed in favour of his assistant Andrew Farrar, who coached the team for two years before suffering a similar fate and relinquishing the job to Nathan Brown.
To some, history is a guide to the future, and if that saying holds true then Brown?s Dragons will be lining up at Telstra Stadium in the first weekend of October this year. But by the same token, if he fails to reach this year?s Grand Final, will Brown be ridiculed as a failure? It?s a tough question to answer.
Most Rugby League observers would agree that the Dragons have had the best team in the competition on paper since 2003. The names Gasnier, Barrett, Cooper, Bailey, Ryles and Timmins are amongst the most illustrious of this competition and with support in Hornby, Creagh, Head and Young there would seem to be little in the way of this team being united with their maiden premiership.
However they have come up short time and again. Why? Is it the attitudes of the players? Do they possess this elusive ?winning culture? that everyone speaks of?
Ultimately, questions are raised of the coach?s ability: Can he coach at all? Does he have the respect of his players?
I?m of the belief that Nathan Brown is developing as a coach but has yet to fully grasp his potential and imprint that onto the face of his team. But given the unique circumstances the club finds itself in at present, is Brown the man to guide them into the future?
Gun centre Mark Gasnier is weighing up a big money offer from rugby union, whilst Trent Barrett is headed for UK club Wigan. Along with the impending departure to the Gold Coast Titans of prop Luke Bailey, arguably the best in the game, does this place the Dragons in a ?Now or Never? situation?
It certainly seemed to be the unofficial catchcry of the club as people assessed the pre-season form guide. And with the added pressure of re-signing several other up-and-coming-players who find themselves off-contract at season?s end, the Dragons are facing an uphill battle to retain the quality squad that they have consistently assembled over the past 4 seasons.
Unfortunately, there are some things you just can?t argue with. Excusing the Illawarra connection in the club, if the Dragons don?t reach the Grand Final in 2006, Nathan Brown will become the first coach that has controlled the club for four consecutive seasons to fail to do so.
I?m sure there?s plenty of Dragons fans? out there hoping that history repeats itself.
St George Illawarra coaches: Nathan Brown (2003-07?), Andrew Farrar (2000-02), David Waite (1999-2000).
St George Coaches: David Waite (1996-98), Brian Smith (1991-95), Craig Young (1989-90), Ted Glossop (1988), Roy Masters (1982-87), Harry Bath (1977-81), Graeme Langlands (1972-76), Jack Gibson (1970-71), Johnny Raper (1969), Norm Provan (1962-65, 1968), Ian Walsh (1966-67), Ken Kearney (1954-55, 1957-61), Norm Tipping (1953, 1956), John Hawke (1951-52), Jim Duckworth (1948-50), Doug McRitchie (1947), Arthur Justice (1936, 1947), Charlie Lynch (1947), Herb Narvo (1946), Percy Williams (1945), Bill Kelly (1944), Neville Smith (1939-41, 1943), Len Kelly (1942), Norm Pope (1938), Frank Burge (1927-30, 1937), Peter Burge (1937), Eddie Root (1936), Albert Johnston (1933-35), Harry Kadwell (1931-32), Herb Gilbert (1921-24).
Illawarra coaches: Andrew Farrar (1997-98), Allan McMahon (1996), Graham Murray (1991-95), Ron Hilditch (1989-90), Terry Fearnley (1988), Brian Smith (1984-87), Allan Fitzgibbon (1982-83 and 1995).