The last time the St George-Illawarra Dragons had a plan was when Wayne Bennett arrived from Brisbane in 2009 on a million-dollar deal.
I imagine the conversation went something along the lines of, ‘You get me Darius Boyd, Jeremy Smith, Neville Costigan and Michael Weyman and I will deliver a premiership. We’ve already got Beau Scott, I need those guys to do this for you.’
True to his word Bennett delivered the long awaited Holy Grail for the club and they were strong over the three-year period that he was at the helm.
From the grand final appearance in 1999 through to Bennett’s arrival in 2009, the club’s average finishing position was 7.2 and on only one occasion did they finish in the top four.
Even the powerful squad of ’04–06, containing no less than ten representative players, failed to get the job done, despite a minor premiership in 2005.
Errors in player acquisition and retention, coaches who didn’t or haven’t lived up to expectations and a CEO in Peter Doust who often seems at odds with the sentiment of the membership, are all put forward as reasons for the Dragon’s struggles outside of the Bennett era.
Bennett’s reign seemed to unify and appease much of the past angst and even when he departed, the club must surely have been well positioned after learning from the master coach.
Surely Bennett taught them the vital positional cogs in a premiership run, undoubtedly he showed them how to develop the next generation, how to spot that young talent and get their signature secured as he has always done at the Broncos.
He would have unveiled so much of his coaching philosophy on the staff and playing group. The model for success was laid out right before St George-Illawarra from the best in the business, yet they chose to take another path.
The murmurings around a potential pursuit of Todd Carney sparked my interest as it supported a theory I have had about the Dragons ever since the Wayne Bennett era.
The Dragons have signed numerous disenfranchised, troubled and therefore, risky players in short sighted and desperate bids for success rather than actually developing a road-map that represents a clear vision and direction.
I heard a talkback caller on 2SM Talkin’ Sport a few months back who conveyed what I thought was a hilarious story about a phone call to the club.
Stunned by a two-day delay in having the call returned, the caller eventually heard from a club representative and proceeded to express the frustrations that he, and many fans of the club, were feeling.
He listed player retention and recruitment choices, board decisions and the playing style of Paul McGregor. At some point the representative suggested that despite some inconsistent on-field results and angst among fans, the club had a clear plan and vision and was pushing forward in a positive direction.
The caller requested details of ‘the plan’ yet kept receiving the nonsensical corporate speak that the official had, no doubt, been instructed to spruik. He was persistent and asked where he could read the details of the club’s vision online.
The club member finally heard the words he had probably expected from the outset when the official told him that there was indeed a plan, he didn’t know what it was, but trust him, there was one.
On the contrary, there isn’t one.
The signing of Josh Dugan after significant indiscretions at the Raiders was the first in a string of risky signings involving players who became available on the open market for various reasons.
The Dragons’ stocks in speed and power in the backline were so low that the club took a huge risk in the signing of Dugan.
In defence of Dugan, he has played well, yet when signed in 2013, he filled a hole for which the Dragons had failed to plan for with astute recruitment or development.
They were fortunate to snap up such a quality player and one can’t help but wonder how poor their already bland attack would be without him.
The following season the signing of Benji Marshall was further evidence of a lack of succession planning and vision. When Ben Hornby left the club at the end of 2012 after many great years of service it was clear the club had no plan for his successor, instead, hoping for miracles from a somewhat kick-centric Jamie Soward.
Bennett had used Soward’s boot as a key ingredient in the Premiership success yet the lack of creativity was obvious after Hornby’s departure and remains unsolved to this very day.
After Benji’s failed dalliance in New Zealand Rugby he returned to the NRL, tail between his legs, looking for a gig. The Dragons welcomed Marshall with open arms in the search for a quick fix to the point scoring issue they had.
In comparison, Mitchell Moses and Luke Brooks were both groomed to succeed Marshall after his departure and the Tigers’ halves stocks are starting to look promising, particularly Moses; potentially rewarding the club for patience and persistence.
Marshall has since chewed up 54 games without producing much at all; fifty-four games that a young talented junior could have used to develop as an NRL player. This rebuild could have taken place while the club attended to the other significant issue of a lack of size and power in the forwards.
The signing of Russel Packer was controversial talk in rugby league and despite the criminality of his actions, we must always believe in redemption and the chance to reform.
However it was another example of the red and white seeking a magic elixir, hitching their wagon to a man coming out of prison, unaware of his commitment, physical condition and state of mind and the impact he would have after nine hundred and twelve days between NRL games.
Surely the need for some size in the pack would have been a constant on the club’s agenda, can we really believe that this was the most logical way to solve the issue? Where is the development, the investment in youth and evidence of shrewd list management?
The recent talk around Carney reminded me of this trend in the Dragons recruitment. The fans know it and they have the added frustration of the moving on of quality players such as Brett Morris, Trent Merrin and reportedly Luciano Leilua, who appears to be Belmore bound if rumours are to be believed.
A rugby league club needs smart people to look at the immediate day to day operations as well as sage like individuals to peer more long term and provide a vision of succession and planning.
Until the Dragons achieve this, their fans will remain frustrated and mystified by board decisions and the seeming absence of a plan to move forward. Whether Carney ends up at Kogarah is somewhat irrelevant as the problem runs far deeper.
The issue is larger than just Doust, recruitment and retention decisions must be questioned and McGregor must take some responsibility as his direct impact on the squad is starting to show.
A collegiate approach is required in order to deliver a clear and consistent message that all stakeholders in the club can understand and share in.
They need to get it right pretty quickly as an average ladder position of 10.6 over the last five years will not be acceptable for much longer in one of league’s most famous clubs.