AFTER a disappointing 11th-placed finish in 2016, St George Illawarra’s summer flashed by without much to take the eye.
What was needed, according to most armchair critics, was a drastic overhaul of a popgun attack that fired blanks to the tune of just 341 points for the season.
To put that number in context, only Newcastle scored less, and not by much.
Out the door went Benji Marshall and Mitch Rein, leaving just enough salary cap space to make a bit of a splash and spice up the misfiring spine.
But the Dragons failed with their attempts to lure Luke Keary, Lachlan Coote and others. They wound up with a Rabbitohs hooker who’d failed to develop into the player they expected him to be and a front-rower languishing in reserve grade.
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Still no halfback to replace Benji and very little stardust to sprinkle onto a stale formula.
It’s with that context in mind that the Dragons’ transformation to the most lethal attacking side in the competition is something to marvel at.
The numbers show how it’s happened and some of the improvements are out of this world.
THE NO FRILLS RECRUITS
When Paul Vaughan signed to join the Red V on a contract reportedly worth $ 1.75 million over three years, it took plenty by surprise.
Not only did it seem obscene to pay that amount for a front-rower who was struggling to stay relevant as a first-grader, the forward pack didn’t seem to be the area that needed improvement.
Cameron McInnes, another player to have lost his place in first grade by the end of 2016, was the sole addition to the spine.
Since his emergence, it had been said that McInnes was a player with a high ceiling but the same had been said of Rein, who had found himself in Origin selection conversations less than 12 months before he was shown the door.
To be blunt, it was uncertain if the Dragons had even got a trade-up.
Looking at the moves in hindsight, it’s clear that coach Paul McGregor was able to formulate a specific plan for both and the execution has been perfect.
Vaughan established a reputation as a representative star of the future at Canberra primarily due to his metre-eating ability — an important plank of McGregor’s new attacking blueprint.
Averaging 156 metres per game, Vaughan is the Dragons’ running metres leader and is in the top 15 by that measure across the competition.
After battling to reach his potential at the Rabbitohs, McInnes has revelled in his move and in some key areas, he’s already surpassed Rein’s complete body of work in 2016.
From just six games, McInnes has four try assists, doubling Rein’s effort across the full season, and has already equalled his season tally for linebreak assists with three.
He’s also on track to surpass Rein for tries and linebreaks, with McInnes’ running threat coming into play on the back of some powerful performances from Vaughan and the club’s other big men.
DOING IT BY HALVES
After a sensational first season at the Dragons, Gareth Widdop’s form started to dip in 2015 and tanked badly last year, creating some serious question marks over his future in the NRL.
Coming off contract at the end of this season, Widdop has been arguably the form half in the competition over the first six weeks, orchestrating plenty of his side’s best moments and finding the finishing touches to put him among the competition’s leading try-scorers.
Widdop has crossed for five tries in six games, putting him just one four-pointer behind his total tally for last season.
He’s halfway to his 2016 try assist tally with six compared to last year’s 13 and is just three linebreak assists shy of the eight he finished with from 24 games.
Widdop came to the Dragons from the Storm because he wanted to be the main man, and was never going to be in a side that had Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater.
That exalted place in his team did him wonders in 2014 and it might explain his dip in form when Benji Marshall joined the club to partner him the following season.
The Dragons tried to go out and get a quality half to pair with Widdop after deciding not to re-sign Marshall but sticking with what they already had in the squad is starting to look like an accidental masterstroke.
Not only is the five-eighth firing on all cylinders, the unfancied No.7 next to him is too.
Josh McCrone’s best years in the NRL were largely considered to be behind him but his four try assist game against Manly showed he’s still got plenty to offer.
That performance was no flash in the pan either, with McCrone on track to match Marshall’s 16 game output last year within the same bracket of time and to well and truly surpass him in the column that matters most — wins.
Marshall was part of six wins last season and McCrone’s already won five in the No.7 jersey.
He’s racked up six try assists, almost half of Marshall’s total of 13, and scored one try to Marshall’s two — although he is a fraction behind the pace in linebreaks and linebreak assists.
Individually, both McCrone and Widdop are having excellent seasons but more importantly they seem to complement each other, with both playing to a tee their clearly-defined roles.
THE JDB EFFECT
While the new parts in the Dragons line up are the obvious ones to look at when analysing why the team has found so much improvement, Jack De Belin’s start to the season is just as valid a place to look.
For quite a few seasons now, De Belin has been considered a potential star but he’s never quite been able to put it together consistently on the field.
To be fair, that could be said about St George Illawarra’s forward pack from a broader perspective, with an impressive array of names in a pack sprinkled with representative stars that for some reason just didn’t do the job as a unit.
In the first six rounds last year, the Dragons as a collective had run for 1361 metres, putting them 13th in the competition. This year, they’re up in second spot with 1492.
The side has also gone from 11th for tackle busts to third, and from ninth for offloads to seventh.
Put all of those statistics together and you are going to have a much better attacking outfit. De Belin is an outstanding case study for the improvement.
While he’s averaging four less minutes than he did in 2016, De Belin has increased his output in every area.
He is averaging 12.3 runs per game, up from 11 last year, and 107 metres, up from 96 last year.
De Belin already has two tries, double his one from last year, and he’s busted 17 tackles, which is just eight less than he tallied in his 21 games last season.
He’s also offloading the ball more, with 10 already chalked up, compared to his 16 for the whole of last season.
— All statistics supplied by Fox Sports Lab