The 2017 NRL campaign ended in disappointment for the St George Illawarra Dragons, who despite looking an absolute certainty to finish in the top eight a few months ago, ended the season with a meek surrender to the Bulldogs, and subsequently missed out on a chance to compete for silverware with the competition’s elite.
Paul McGregor’s side (and, for that matter, their fans) will have been left frustrated by their failure to secure a place in the finals, but there are still a number of things to be positive about for the Dragons heading out of the 2017 campaign and into next year.
Key to the early success of St George in the 2017 campaign was Gareth Widdop, the English half who excelled captaining McGregor’s side throughout the campaign, finding himself named in the NRL’s Dream Team alongside some of the competition’s stars. Through the first 7 weeks of the competition, Widdop had the ball on a string, and when he left the field mid-way through the ANZAC Day clash with the Roosters, the Dragons were sitting comfortably in 1st place. He’d miss the next three matches, and by the time he returned, the collapse was well and truly on.
Widdop played on just 21 occasions for the Dragons during the 2017 campaign, but the 28-year-old still finished the season as the NRL’s second highest point scorer, with an impressive tally of 191, at an average of almost ten points per game.
The Yorkshireman’s creative spark often lit up the NRL, and his ten tries and 18 try assists were further proof that Widdop enjoyed a fine individual campaign. The five-eighth’s game management seemed to have improved significantly, too, over the course of the year, and England head coach, Wayne Bennett, is sure to be licking his lips at the thought of having an in-form Widdop at his disposal for the upcoming Rugby League World Cup.
Widdop faces stiff competition for a place in the halves for England at the World Cup, but Bennett will have been impressed with what he has seen from the St George Illawarra captain in 2017, and he will be confident he could be the man to guide the Wall of White around the field later in 2017.
England are currently priced at 9/1 in the latest odds for the tournament, but with a number of Bennett’s squad currently playing in the NRL, they will head to the Southern Hemisphere in a confident mood.
Another player England will be able to call on is James Graham, who has recently been confirmed as a St George Illawarra player for the 2018 NRL campaign, with the English prop agreeing to a three-year deal with the Dragons, having left the Canterbury Bulldogs.
Graham, like Widdop, is an Englishman who has established himself in the NRL since leaving the Super League at the end of the 2011 season. The 32-year-old has featured in two Grand Finals for Canterbury, and has gone on to make well over 100 appearances for the club, giving him a wealth of NRL experience he’ll bring to St George Illawarra next season, in addition to his 34 Test caps for England and Great Britain.
The impending arrival of Graham is one reason why the Dragons should be optimistic about the 2018 campaign and why McGregor’s side must use the disappointment of the season gone by to their advantage moving forward. If St George can build on the experience they have gained from this season and players like Widdop and Graham reach their best level again, they could build on the progress made in 2017, and crack the finals for just the second time since 2011.