Our own Rick Edgerton is in to wrap Game II of #Origin and looks ahead to the decider in a fortnight...
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Injuries and inconsistent form have hampered the Dragons campaign in 2007.
Ever since the injury to Mark Gasnier in the pre-season Charity Shield, St George Illawarra have struggled to put an experienced side on the paddock. Since then, a string of players have joined Gasnier on the sidelines. Most notably Wes Naiqama, Dean Young, Ben Hornby, Brett Morris, Ashton Sims, Mathew Head and Simon Woolford have all had their stints in the casualty ward.
To date, the Dragons have used 31 first grade players. To put this in perspective, you have to go back to 1995 to find the last time a Dragons side used more than 30 first grade players in a season. The most players a Dragons team has ever used in one season was 35 (1971, 1982 and 1983). The Dragons club of 2007 busted through the 30 player barrier after just 12 rounds of competition.
But injuries aside, the form of the Dragons has been below par this year with the team languishing at the lower end of the NRL ladder. Thus far, they have been unable to string two wins in a row together.
Best player - Ben Creagh
Backrower Ben Creagh is the only player to have played all 13 games for the Dragons this year and is easily the club's most consistent performer. Starting as a winger in 2003, Creagh quickly progressed into the centres before finding his place in the second row and lock forward positions. At only 22-years-old, Creagh has made 79 appearances for the Dragons and is perhaps the youngest 'veteran' in the injury-ravaged squad. His season statistics are impressive enough with 179 hit ups and 320 tackles, making him the club's top performer in both areas. But it is the hard hitting quality which has impressed fans the most. Already a representative player (Kangaroos v France in 2005), Creagh has come to the notice of NSW selectors and has been tipped for a possible bench spot in the Origin III dead rubber on the 4th of July.
Most disappointing player - Mathew Head
It has been another frustrating year for half back Mathew Head. Injuries and mixed performances have finally caught up with the former star playmaker. In trying recapture his illustrious form of 2004, when he won the club's 'Intergral Energy Dragons Medal' (best player award), Head's last tackle options and kicking game have been questionable at best. With the jury still out on his replacement Jamie Soward, Head finds himself in the unenviable postion of trying regain his fitness from the sideline or fighting for recognition in the NSWRL Premier League. Overall, the halves in general are perhaps the greatest disappointment for the Dragons. Injuries and other factors proving to be an ongoing disruption as Saints try and find some sort of consistency just wide of the ruck.
Best win - Round 12 (1st June 2007) v Broncos
With a team largely made up of reserve graders, an enthusiastic outfit Dragons were able to roll a full strength Brisbane Broncos by 11-4 at Kogarah Jubilee Oval. Jamie Soward, who only signed up with Saints during the week, put together a near perfect kicking display as the young Dragons forwards were able dominate the experienced Brisbane pack. The win was all the more impressive given that the Broncos were in red hot form following their 71-6 shellacking of the Newcastle Knights the week before. Other match standouts for the Dragons included prop Jason Ryles and full back Josh Morris. The victory continues a winning streak and a dominance that Saints have held over the Broncos since 2005.
Most disappointing performance
While every loss in 2007 has been a disappointment, there are two that stick out as being particularly woeful. The round four loss to the Sharks (40-4) will perhaps get the blackest mark from fans. But for mine, the round nine loss to Wests Tigers (27-8 ) left a far more bitter taste in the mouth. After coming off a win the week before against the Panthers, it appeared that the Dragons may have turned the corner. But Saints fell in a heap against Wests Tigers, sending the red-and-whites back to the drawing board. Despite holding an 8-6 lead at half time, a disorganised Dragons outfit were unable to go with Wests Tigers in the second half and ultimately capitulated.
Best rookies - Josh Morris and Chase Stanley With so many players being blooded in 2007, its hard to single out a standout rookie. 17-year-old Chase Stanley definitely deserves a mention. After scoring on debut (round 2) Stanley has continued to find his way to the line with four tries from eight appearances. Currently position on the wing, Stanley has the hallmarks of a future back rower, his mobility and pace is matched by his ability to hit the line hard. With the youngster often having to find time for training during his high school commitments, Stanley is one to watch in 2008.
Better again are the achievements of full back Josh Morris. The twin brother of Brett Morris, and son of Steve 'Slippery' Morris, Josh debuted in round one and had an immediate impact in the outside backs. His blistering pace proved too good for the Storm's Billy Slater in round five and in round 12, Morris had no trouble in standing up Broncos and Queensland full back Karmichael Hunt.
The Dragons have a policy of developing juniors, and therefore have only few new signings to choose from. Discarded by the Roosters, Jamie Soward made an impact in round 12 when Saints outclassed the Broncos. But as mentioned, the jury is still out on Soward although he is probably the flavour of the month with many fans. Nevertheless, he still needs to work on his kicking game which was exposed as being too predictable in his second outing in round 13.
Hooker Ben Ellis has shown his worth as a tackling machine and top class organiser around the ruck. Hailing from North Sydney, Ellis broke a NSWRL/NRL tackling record for the season in 2006 and has carried that same workhorse mentality into the Dragons camp.
Former Raiders hooker Simon Woolford probably attracted the most attention as a new signing and has performed well at times. Generally speaking, Woolford hasn't disappointed, although Ellis appears to be a better long term prospect for the hooker position.
Coach to see out season? - Yes
Nathan Brown will most likely see out the season. But next year is an entirely different prospect. Should the Dragons defy all odds and snare a top four spot, head office may very well give Brown another season. But the likely scenario is the Dragons will have a new coach in 2008.
Final position prediction - 7th
The Dragons should be able string a few wins together at the back end of the season to sneak into the eight.
Most improved player - Jason Ryles
Once again, with so many debutants, it was always going to be tricky finding a player to fill this category. Ben Creagh has already received a wrap as best player. Not far behind is Jason Ryles who has improved out of sight with strong runs and impressive defensive displays. In nine appearances so far this year, Ryles has made 237 tackles and 138 hit ups and appears to be relishing his role as co-captain.