This article was first written and published for The Roar.
In the last couple of seasons, the St George Illawarra Dragons have often ended the opening month of the NRL competition with the dreaded ‘March premiers’ tag.
That’s almost like the kiss of death for a footy team.
In season 2019 the Dragons have managed to avoid this kiss and that’s because they have started their season with two straight losses.
It has come as no surprise to me that the Dragons have started the year slowly, or poorly.
I wonder what impact the off season has had on the psyche of the players.
I’m told constantly that the off-field incidents don’t impact the players, but I’m not sure whether I believe that.
The team also hasn’t been helped by players that are unavailable whether it be through being stood down like Jack de Belin or through injury like Tyson Frizell.
But what has been most puzzling for me about this Dragons squad has been the decision by coach Paul McGregor to play musical chairs with his spine combination each week.
In rugby league, consistency is everything.
It’s no coincidence that teams that stay the same and suffer the fewest injuries tend to do well during the season, if they have the talent.
McGregor is trying to buck this trend by changing around his spine combination during games.
When the team takes the field at the start of a game, Gareth Widdop begins at fullback. Corey Norman is five-eighth and is partnered in the halves with Ben Hunt. Cameron McInnes plays hooker.
In the Dragons’ first two games, McGregor has changed this formula midway through the first half.
Hunt moves to Hooker. Norman moves to half and is partnered with Widdop. Matt Dufty comes onto the field as No.1 and McInnes comes off the field.
This doesn’t make sense to me for so many reasons.
Firstly, for the last two seasons, McInnes has played 80 minutes of footy at hooker. He has proved he is more than capable of playing 80 minutes so it is unclear to me why they are wasting an interchange and taking him off so early.
This musical chairs approach also ignores the fact that Widdop is not a fullback.
He is one of the best five-eighths in the game so it does not make sense to play him at fullback.
There are whispers that Widdop’s confidence has suffered since his shoulder injury last year, but that still doesn’t explain why McGregor is playing him out of position.
But I think I can guess McGregor’s reasoning.
He wants the team to be prepared for when Widdop returns to the United Kingdom at the end of the season.
Perhaps the better solution for the Dragons would have been to sign Norman from 2020 and start fresh.
Many players see out the final season of a contract with their club knowing for they will be playing with a different team the coming year.
Angus Crichton is a good example of this. He announced his switch from the South Sydney Rabbitohs to the Sydney Roosters at the start of 2019.
But this plan potentially didn’t fit in with the Parramatta Eels, who wanted Norman shopped around.
Another option would be to try and release Widdop early from his contract or to play Dufty in reserve grade for the year based on the understanding that he will be the fullback for the Dragons from next year going forward, especially given that Dufty cannot play another position and you cannot drop Euan Aitken or Tim Lafai based on form.
Is this simply a case of McGregor having too many players in key positions and wanting to keep all those players happy at the detriment of the rest of the squad because key players are not playing in the positions most suited to them?
If none of those options are suitable, why not play Hunt and Widdop in the halves, McInnes at hooker and Norman at fullback?
Then McGregor has the option to take Norman off and bring Dufty on, which is far less disruptive to the team.
Another option is to use Norman as your No.14.
I don’t think these wholesale changes are working.
The players look confused and keep getting in each other’s way and that becomes evident once the first switch happens.
When I look at this Dragons team, they stand out to me as one of the few teams in the competition that could finish at the top or the bottom of the ladder and I wouldn’t be surprised.
They have the talent in the squad and in both games they have played so far this year they have been in the contest for the first 40 minutes.
But then things start to collapse.
If this musical chairs continues, I don’t see the Dragons making the top eight.
The confusion caused by this tactic, added to the off-field distractions added to injuries already suffered does not bode well.
And even though the March premiers tag is often a curse, what’s worse is beginning your season with three straight losses.
The Dragons face the Brisbane Broncos at Suncorp Stadium on Thursday night, so that outcome is a very real possibility.