While there were some positives to take out of 2021 — like winning four of their first five games and the emergence of some future stars — overall it was a season to forget for many of the Red V faithful.
Remember barbecue-gate? The Dragons claimed the throne for arguably the biggest and perhaps most bizarre story of the season when Paul Vaughan hosted 12 teammates at his house in a serious breach of not only NRL Covid-19 protocols but also New South Wales government restrictions.
The fallout was a disaster. The NRL handed out $305,000 worth of fines and every player at the barbecue was suspended for one match, while Vaughan’s $800,000-a-year contract was torn up and he was banned for the rest of the season.
Some will argue the club had a small win by gaining $800,000 for their 2022 salary cap, but there’s no denying the disruption the saga caused was extremely costly.
The Dragons didn’t win a game after that now infamous BBQ on a Saturday afternoon in July.
But that is now just a mere memory as a new-look Dragons side eyes a redemption in 2022.
Coach Anthony Griffin has been busy buying, re-signing and showing the door to some players to put together the squad that will see the Dragons return to finals footy for the first time since 2018.
Now it’s about ensuring that squad can go the distance and to do that a big focus will need to be consistency, according to former Dragons forward and English international James Graham.
“I know everyone in the group has really high aspirations but it’s going about their business week-to-week and learning from the lessons last year,” he told foxsports.com.au.
“I think consistency is the area that needs most improving and the moves coach Griffin made in the off-season will certainly help.
“For me, looking at how they went last year, a lot of the focus goes on the end of the season and how it finished. There was positive signs there at the beginning, it’s just whether or not they can maintain.
“What I’d like to see is learning from last year and applying themselves consistently.”
THE NEXT GEN
Griffin cleared the decks last season farewelling the likes of Corey Norman, Matt Dufty and Adam Clune to make way for the Dragons’ next generation of talent.
The No.6 and No.1 jerseys are up for grabs in what you could call a new era for the club.
“There’s some really exciting young prospects coming through — Tyrell Sloan, Cody Ramsey, the Feagai twins — there’s a lot to like,” Graham said.
“When you throw that in with some of the experience, if they can marry that together it should be good.”
Jayden Sullivan vs Talatau Amone
Two local juniors are vying for the No.6 jersey in Jayden Sullivan and Talatau Amone, while it’d be silly to rule new recruit Moses Mbye out of contention.
Sullivan made his NRL debut in 2020 and then added five more games to his name last season — two of those were impressive performances at hooker.
Amone ticked off his debut in Round 9 last season and went on to play a total of 11 NRL games either at five-eighth, centre or off the bench.
Graham thinks Amone might just get the jump on Sullivan but can see it going either way.
“If Ben (Hunt) is going to play No.7 I think the natural No.6 would be Amone. He seems more suited to six where I think Jayden is more of a seven,” he said.
“But you never know, they both train really well and they’ve got some pressure as well from Moses Mbye too.”
Cody Ramsey vs Tyrell Sloan
Another selection headache looming for Griffin with two young, speedy players eyeing the No.1 jersey now available after Dufty’s departure.
Who can forget Cody Ramsey’s thrilling performances during the 2020 Perth Nines? The 21-year-old made his debut later that year on the wing and has added a further 20 NRL games to his name — two of those at fullback.
But 19-year-old Tyrell Sloan stepped into the No.1 jersey for five games last season and showed in the final game of the year that he is a star of the future with two tries, six tackle busts, two linebreaks and 141 running metres.
Graham believes the decision will come down to the Dragons’ trial games — but stressed the importance of not rushing either of them.
“Sloan and Ramsey have both shown a lot of potential and they’re still learning their trade in the No.1 jersey,” he said.
“I think fullback is such an important position in the modern game — the last 10 to 15 years has really shown how integral it is.
“I think we’ve just got to exercise a little bit of patience, especially with those two. We’ve had glimpses of what they can do, there’s already plenty of highlight reel stuff, but it’s more about learning the trade and the one per centres — the stuff that most people wouldn’t pick up on that they’re doing to benefit the team.
“So I think we’ve just got to be patient with those two.
“But again, Moses Mbye is probably another option. His versatility will serve the Dragons well, he can play anywhere in that backline.
“I imagine Griffin and the rest of the staff have got a starting No.1 in mind but I think with Sloan and Ramsey — they’ve both been training really well up to now — but then with the trials we might get a bit more of an indication of who is really going to seize that opportunity.
“But it’s exciting, having competition for spaces, it’s a great position for the club to be in.
“They’ve got two really exciting young players vying for that jersey. They’re both blessed with blistering speed, which is something you’ve got to have genetics for.”
THE SIGNING SPREE
As a former leader of the Red V’s forward pack, Graham has given the five new additions a big tick and called them “excellent signings.”
Jaydn Su’A, Francis Molo, George Burgess, Aaron Woods, Jack Gosiewski will give Griffin a lot of options up front, while Moses Suli, Tautau Moga and Mbye have plenty to offer the backline.
Graham noted that Molo and Su’A are “coming into the prime of their careers,” while Gosiewski has “experienced what success looks like at Manly.”
He also believes Mbye is one of the most important signings for the Dragons because of his versatility, experience and team-first attitude.
Mbye gained an early release from a lucrative Tigers contract to join St George Illawarra. He has previously opened up on how he didn’t feel like the Tigers were getting their money’s worth and parting ways could be mutually beneficial.
Since joining the Dragons, the 28-year-old has publicly said he’s happy to play anywhere for the team.
“Mbye’s experience is key,” Graham said.
“His experience from really good times at Canterbury when he came through and then by his own admission his time at the Tigers didn’t go great. He knows how things feel when they go good and he knows how things feel when they don’t so he’s got that experience within him.
“That versatility too can be so vital, if he’s playing that role off the bench, he covers the whole backline, hooker, potentially No.13 and maybe even a bit of backrow as well.
“I remember reading that he’s happy to take on that (bench utility) role because he’s about the team, he’s not looking to be the superstar, he’s looking to come in and do a job for the team.
“That sort of attitude is going to be key for the success of the Dragons, people doing selfless actions and stuff like that for season 2022.”
THE REDEMPTION STORIES
Two of the more controversial signings the Dragons made were Woods and Burgess. Woods was looking for a lifeline after not being offered a new deal at the Sharks, while Burgess is coming off a serious hip injury that’s prevented him from playing since 2020.
“There’s a couple of players on a bit of a redemption story in Woods and Burgess,” Graham said on the Dragons’ recruitment.
“Woods is very decorated having played for his state and country and Burgess we all know what he’s like at his devastating best.”
Graham agreed that having a point to prove “certainly can” be a motivating factor but aside from all of the outside noise he knows that Woods and Burgess have their own reasons motivating them.
“A lot of stuff has been said and written about both those guys, but it’s up to them whether or not they’re going to prove people wrong, whether they take it personally or use it as motivation,” he said.
“There’s plenty of things motivating players, sometimes (criticism) can but other times players may not read into it — I’m not too sure where they stand but whatever the case I know they’re both motivated to play for a number of reasons.”
Graham is particularly excited to see Burgess back in the NRL. The 29-year-old spent eight seasons with the Rabbitohs — including the premiership-winning season in 2014 — before heading back to England to play in the Super League.
Burgess quit his Wigan deal last year due to a painful hip injury. He underwent hip resurfacing surgery last April to save his rugby league career. It’s a surgery that no player has ever come back from, which is why his signing, at the time, was rather baffling.
But Graham has revealed Burgess is looking “considerably better” than when we last saw him in action and is relishing the opportunity to get an uninterrupted pre-season under his belt.
“I know that face far too well so I’m excited to see how George comes through,” he said.
“He’s saying all the right things and having seen him at training he’s looking considerably better than what he was a couple of years ago. He’s made comments about just how beneficial this pre-season has been to him.
“No doubt the first couple of hit outs will be pretty hard on him, it’s been a long time since he’s played but I know he’s got it in him.
“This next stage is just about George being fit again, being comfortable, being able to participate in training and work on his game without constantly thinking ‘my hip’s sore’ or spending time on the treatment table, or worrying about sitting in the car for too long — those sort of things that anyone that’s had lower back, hip or hamstring issues has to deal with.
“I think George probably managed for a number of years and that’s not exclusive to George, but I think he was wrapped in a bit of cotton wool and it was all about the performance on the weekend.
“The reality of it was that he needed this big hip operation. So I’m really looking forward to seeing him back firing in all cylinders because at his best I think there’s no one better.”