NRL Off Season Update - 5 Takes

Dragons in No Mans Land Heading in 2017 

On the surface St George Illawarra appear a club stuck in mediocrity and with bleak prospects heading into 2017. The Dragons had a nightmare 2016, finishing in a lowly 11th position and playing a pretty dire brand of football with the 14th ranked attack in the League. Since winning the competition in 2010, the Dragons have now missed the finals in four of the last six seasons and headed into the off-season with a player revolt against CEO Peter Doust over his handling of standing down two players for off-field incidents. The  cash strapped club were also looking to sell off 50% of the WIN Corporation, and 85% of fans in an online survey were said to be in favour of dumping coach Paul McGregor. The club has formed a four person committee, including former St George great Mark Coyne,  to improve the club's high performance. Whilst McGregor was given a stay of execution, he failed to be granted an extension, suggesting that faith runs thin in the Head Coach. An early run of losses and McGregor would have to be a very short priced favourite to be the first coach sacked in 2017.

The Dragons have not managed the Salary Cap well since they won the competition back in 2010, with back ended deals and poor decisions leaving them losing big name players and unable to recruit the stars they need to rebuild what is essentially a poor roster. Whilst any signing news is probably good news for Dragons fans, I'm not sure splashing $1.6 Million over three years for Paul Vaughn is a wise move. Vaughn is a promising forward, however he does not play a key position and played off the back of a giant Raiders' pack. For me it smacks of the sort of desperate move that bad teams make. The Dragons appeared to lack total instinct and skills with the football in 2016 with their laborious set plays and stilted ball movement, and appear to need a total re-think in how they want to play football. I see this side as long odds on favourite to finish in the bottom 4 in 2017 as things stand. 

Bulldogs and Hasler Seem to be Drifting Apart 

Despite Des Hasler surviving a dramatic Friday afternoon board meeting, his future at the Bulldogs appears to be shaky at best. Leaving the meeting without a contract extension, Hasler is under pressure to deliver in 2017 after the Bulldogs limped into 7th place and a first round exit in this year's finals series. On the surface the tension at the Bulldogs appears baffling and unnecessary given Hasler has led the Club to five straight finals series as well as two Grand Final losses in his five years at Belmore. The Bulldogs also missed the finals in three of the previous four seasons before Hasler joined the club. Hasler is one of the most decorated coaches in the NRL having guided Manly to two Premierships in 2008 and 2011 before joining the Bulldogs to become one of the most highly paid coaches in the game.

The Bulldogs are one of the biggest spenders on their football operations and rightly or wrongly some believe that Hasler should be doing better given the amount they have poured into his coaching staff, training facilities and assembling a strong roster. Hasler has already had his power halved in the off-season with some of his assistant coaches and recruitment manager Noel Cleal deemed surplus to requirements at Belmore. In truth, whilst the Bulldogs made the finals this season, they played an awful brand of football for much of the campaign. Their spine in Will Hopoate, Josh Reynolds, Moses Mbye and Michael Lichaa appeared to have little combination or ownership over the team and the side's attack was very clunky and hard to watch. Whilst Hasler has to take responsibility over this, he is lacking a very good playmaker that could elevate this side. I'm sure he is working hard behind the scenes to make a play at a player who could take control of this team and get them back to competing for titles. As things stand, this side looks to be going backwards at a rate of knots.

I feel forwards like James Graham and Aiden Tolman are on the way down and the Bulldogs are in danger of dropping out of the finals next season. Like the Dragons, appear to be playing a brand of football that is out dated in the NRL. I still think Hasler is smart enough and good enough to know that and reinvent them and the Dogs would unliekly find a replacement with better credentials. However with a roster that looks similar heading into next year and other sides on the rise, I can see this getting ugly next year and, if the Dogs miss the finals, it would certainly be the end for Des at Belmore. 

Manly Signing of Uate and Releasing of Buhrer A Head Scratcher 

Manly Sea Eagles appear to be a club in a state of flux heading into the pre-season for 2017 with fan favourite Jamie Buhrer shown the door. Buhrer after a couple of injury interrupted off-seasons, returned to decent form in 2016 and was a candidate to take over the captaincy from Jamie Lyon. Buhrer instead took up an option to go to Newcastle on a 2-year deal with out of favour winger Akuila Uate heading the other way. For me it is a really strange signing for Manly. Uate has been in poor form for the last three or four seasons and, at 28 as a winger, his best days are probably behind him. Trent Barrett and his side were hyped up coming into 2016, however big name signings Nate Myles, Martin Tapau and Dylan Walker all had disappointing campaigns. There will be plenty of pressure on the trio to lift their performances in 2017 as Barrett can ill afford another season out of the finals at a club used to success.

With Brett Stewart in limbo with a knee injury and with contract offers from England, Jamie Lyon retiring and Steve Matai in the twilight, it is a tough time of transition for Manly. Daly Cherry-Evans was only average last season and for the money he commands the Sea Eagles need far more commanding performances from their halfback. Whilst Jamie Buhrer was no star, sometimes when you let go of a good clubman, their impact is felt greater then what was to be anticipated. I saw it happen with the Tigers when Chris Heighington and Beau Ryan were shown the door. Whilst they were far from superstars on the field, they were among the most respected players at the club and the hardest trainers and the wheels quickly came off the Tigers in 2013. It's very early days, but I don't get a great vibe around Manly heading into 2017. 

Sharks Needs to Avoid Similar Pitfalls of Previous Premiers 

Sharks fans, players and staff will be in Dreamland all summer and for a long time to come. The Club's first Premiership in their 50 year existence was achieved in a dramatic and memorable 14-12 Grand Final win over a gallant Melbourne Storm. The Sharks' veterans in Paul Gallen, Michael Ennis, Luke Lewis and Chris Heighington, threw everything into winning this title knowing they were right at the end of their storied careers. For Gallen, the win represented the fulfilment of his career and undoubtedly the highlight of his career after riding the highs and numerous lows at Cronulla. No doubt this premiership is currently being celebrated with a tenacity that it deserves in the Shire, where the players will party hard and rightly so. Sharks fans might not care if their team does not win a premiership for another 20 years such is the high they will be on, however I think it will prove a near impossible task to get this team anywhere near going back-to-back.

I have seen previous Premiers like the Tigers, Roosters, Dragons and Bunnies fall right off the cliff in the years after their Premiership win. It's such a big achievement and so much goes into it that teams invariably lose the edge that was driving them. For a team like Cronulla, it's such a relief to win one and, as Souths have found, if you don't plan sufficiently for afterwards, the fall can be quite severe. The Sharks have plenty of young talent, and on paper look to be a pretty sure bet to make the finals next year and a good chance to make the Top 4. However it will be interesting to see without Ennis, and without that extra drive, how this team fares in 2017. As an early gut feeling I would have them in the 8, but not among the favourites to win the competiition. 

Australia Beat New Zealand 26-6 But Does Anyone Care?

I've got to admit I didn't even know the Rugby League was on last night until about 15 minutes before kick-off. I just can't get into the International competition and Rugby League at this time of year, particularly a Test Match in Perth in the middle of October. Rugby League is a long and draining season and, with the 9's and World Club Challenge in early February, a 26-round regular season and 4-week finals series, I'm ready for a spell from the game at this time of year. With a month-long Four Nation's Tour in England to come, I can't see those excitement levels rising again.

What might be interesting to see is how England come together under Wayne Bennett. Bennett has a powerful squad with the likes of the Burgess brothers, James Graham and Joh Hodgson from the NRL and at home England will be aiming to knock off their more faniced rivals in Australia and New Zealand. With the Kiwis under a new and unproven coach in David Kidwell and some of Australia's veterans like Cronk, Smith, Thurston, Thaiday, Scott and Boyd coming off the back of long seasons, the Poms might fancy their chances. What ever the case I'm not sure I will be watching.