Deja vu Dragons

As rampaging Canberra forward Dave Taylor sends team mate Elliott Whitehead under the posts to score in golden point on Friday night, the 2017 season had a touch of deja vu for Dragons fans around the country.

After starting the season in emphatic fashion defeating the Penrith Panthers (42-10), the reigning premiers Cronulla Sharks (16-10), New Zealand Warriors (26-12), Wests Tigers (28-6), Manly Sea Eagles (35-10) and North Queensland Cowboys (28-22) in the opening eight weeks of the competition, the Dragons have fallen in a heap of late by dropping seven of their last 10 matches (including that golden point heartbreaker against the Raiders).

2017 has almost mirrored 2015 for the Red V. A season which saw them lead the competition for a short period and also boast the best defensive record in the NRL up until the half way mark of the season. That year, the Dragons ran out of puff in the back end of the season (losing seven games on the trot) and only wins against the lowly Newcastle Knights and Wests Tigers got them to the finals where they were defeated in golden point by Canterbury in the first week.

The way that season 2017 is unfolding for the Dragons means that they may not have as much luck as 2015, but the similarities are striking. Both seasons saw them show unstoppable force in the early part of the season where at one stage during both years the Red V were at the top of the ladder. Both seasons have included long losing runs (or inconsistent winning). The Dragons of 2017 have lost seven of their last 10 matches and are in the midst of a two-game losing streak, whilst in 2015 as mentioned above, they lost seven on the trot.

Saints fans are looking for answers and at the moment, none are forthcoming. It appeared that the Dragons played their best football when the game plan was focused around the large forward pack motoring through the middle of the field.  Russell Packer (injured), Paul Vaughan (recently returned from injury),Tyson Frizzell (injured) Leeson Ah Mau, Tariq Sims and Jack DeBelin were all performing extremely well in the first two months of the competition.

As it can be seen, the injuries in the forward pack to the Red V's best performers have certainly limited their effectiveness, but it also appears that the gameplan is often altered in some matches as they try to throw the ball out wide and catch opposition defence's rushing up and in short on the edges.

The Dragons are at their best when they get their big men to power through the middle and then create quick play the balls and second phase play via offloads for their talented backline to work from. This is what saw them score so many points in the early part of the season, so why move away from that?

The hip pointer injury to Packer and with Frizzell still under an injury cloud after the effects of his ongoing rib injury and the State of Origin hangover, there may not be any immediate cure for this Dragons forward pack. Some of the younger brigade of forwards such as Hame Sele (who has been very underwhelming) and Jacob Host need to put its hands up and show why they belong in first grade with some strong performances to help out the side. 

The current side has been putting in big efforts in all of the games this season, that can't be doubted. However, with losses comes more than the L you get beside your name. Confidence starts to take a hit and you begin to doubt your own ability. Those flick passes that Tim Lafai was throwing to Jason Nightingale in the early rounds disappear, Gareth Widdop's chip and chases and early tackle kicks become conservative last tackle grubbers into the corners and the forward pack that dominated teams and promoted the football at the beginning of the season all of a sudden stop offloading the ball. 

It's worrying signs when these things happen. In last week's defeat to the Raiders, you could tell the Dragons were gone as soon as Widdop was intercepted by Aidan Sezer. The heads dropped and that structured, conservative style of play came roaring back. Even despite the leveling penalty goal it was no surprise to see hearts broken in Golden Point.

Finding a way to turn fortunes around will be tough.

One of the other theories buzzing around both Kogarah and Wollongong is the apparent lack of form from the side since head coach Paul McGregor was re-signed to a new contract.

The playing group was vocal in the off-season about wanting "Mary" to keep his job and insisted that the pressure and criticism from 2016 needed to fall on them and not the coaching staff.

The Dragons were diabolical in attack last year averaging just 14.21 points per game (second worst in the NRL only above the cellar dwelling Knights who won one game). The structured attacking plays that Dragons fans had to endure last season were endless so there was great fanfare and optimism when the Dragons got away from that and focused on playing an ab-lib style of football that entertained the Red V faithful in the early stages of the season.

Have the Dragons players become lackluster since the re-signing of McGregor? Perhaps they have fallen into the trap of thinking they have done enough this season to make it to the finals and also securing the future of their head coach. However, with seven games remaining and teams such as Manly, Brisbane, Penrith and Canterbury still to play it could be a long seven weeks for the Dragons as the chasing pack makes up ground on it.

Rugby League is a fast moving environment and if you don't keep up with it then you get left behind very quickly. The Dragons are at risk of this as their season goes on the line in the next 3-4 weeks. They have undeniable talent in the backline and its forwards are some of the toughest and most physical in the NRL. However if it can't drag itself out of this horrible slump of form it is in, then 2017 is going to be another failure for McGregor and the Dragons that has seen it make the finals just once since 2011 . 

Dragons fans won't put up with another season of disappointment. It's time for Red V to prove the doubters wrong and reward the fans.