AT the start of the season I did not think St George Illawarra would play finals football this year, and I had seen nothing through the opening 14 rounds to change my mind.
After three highly successful years under Wayne Bennett, they looked like a tired football team as they bowed out in consecutive matches in the 2011 play-offs.
It was always going to be a difficult task for new coach Steve Price to maintain their lofty position.
A structured attacking game that needed to evolve and the loss of some of the team’s more creative players only made the assignment more difficult.
Having made our way into the second half of this season, the Dragons find themselves in 11th position and with plenty of improvement needed if they are to grab a coveted top-eight spot.
At the end of 14 rounds from 2009-11 they sat on top of the competition ladder.
The reason I bring this up is a result of last Friday night’s clash in Wollongong against Canterbury in which they produced their worst opening 40 minutes in memory, followed by a second-half comeback which has the potential to help turn their fortunes around.
Statistics don’t always tell you the full story, but in relation to the Dragons’ attack this season they are hard to deny.
Going into last weekend they were the only club not to have broken 200 points in their “for” column, which equated to them scoring 14 points on average a game.
To put that in some perspective, if Melbourne are the benchmark team this year – and they are – the Storm have crossed for 70 tries this season compared to the Dragons’ 37.
Such a figure has put enormous pressure on the defensive side of the Dragons game.
While they have again shown great expertise in that department, there is just too big an imbalance between when they have the ball in hand and when they do not.
At half-time on Friday night they were in deep trouble against the high-flying Bulldogs as they trailed 24-6.
It was a result of an opening period that Price described as “not good enough” at an NRL level, and things only looked like getting worse when they conceded another try early in the second stanza.
Then came a 30-minute burst from the home side that we have rarely seen this season but was a breath of fresh air.
It was borne of necessity and resulted in a mentality and a brand of football that Price needs to identify and bottle.
Three quick and exciting tries put the Dragons into a position to snatch an unlikely victory.
They were unable to achieve that objective, yet it was surely an insight as to how the team need to attack the rest of the season.
This was only the fourth time this year that they have managed to rack up at least 20 points in a game.
In two of those other clashes it was again due to the side needing to throw caution to the wind when in desperate situations.
In round five against Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium they were down 24-0 at oranges with the Broncos in control.
A second-half surge that featured an adventurous approach built on quick play-the-balls saw them get back into the contest until a late Matt Gillette try snuffed out the resurgence.
This is still the only half of football in which they have scored four tries.
Three weeks later it was their remarkable win over the Roosters on Anzac Day that was memorable, again coming from what appeared to be an impossible position with Matt Prior and Ben Creagh scoring tries in the closing four minutes to prevail 28-24. I’m not saying that the only way the Dragons can move up the ladder is courtesy of a devil-may-care attitude and playing the brand of football that tends to surface when you are in catch-up mode.
That would lead to too many errors and make matters worse.
What I believe they need is to play with a similar sense of urgency that a player feels in such situations.
Success will always be very much based on possession and completion rates, but it’s also about the execution and energy displayed when you have the ball.
In the second half against the Dogs the Dragons went for less structure, and with quick play-the-balls were able to make decisions on what to do based on what was unfolding in front of them.
They played football.
A player like Jamie Soward is constantly under criticism for not running the ball enough.
That’s a really easy statement to make and is particularly unfair because it’s not about how often you run, but when and on the back of what.
We saw how dangerous Jamie can be when he was given quick ball against a retreating defence. He was the catalyst for the impressive comeback.
Every side has a certain structure under which they operate, and by this stage of the year everyone knows the pet plays that other teams will call on.
The Dragons are no different, but in my opinion are still too predictable.
With their season very much in the balance, I think it’s time that they relaxed and tried to put themselves in situations where an ad-lib approach is more beneficial.
That’s by playing up-tempo with big men running at holes and striving for quick play-the-balls for their play-makers to take advantage of.
Simple and effective.
If things don’t change then things don’t change. You cannot be successful trying to defend 14 points every week.
If you’re going to go down you may as well do it swinging.