Ben Hunt needs a big season.
Ben Hunt needs a big season.

Axe hanging over ‘disappointing’ Dragons

RUGBY league legend Peter Sterling believes the axe will fall on the underperforming St George Illawarra Dragons if the side don't play finals football in 2020.

The St George Dragons are the second most winning team in NRL history with 15 premierships, while the joint venture added another in 2010 under the tenure of Wayne Bennett.

Since then, the team have made the finals just three times, finishing fifth in 2011, scraping in eighth in 2015 and seventh in 2018.

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Under coach Paul McGregor, since he took over from Steve Price midway through the 2014 season, the Dragons have missed the finals four times.

After a joint venture worst result in 2019 when the side finished 15th with just eight wins for the season, Sterling has turned the spotlight on McGregor and million dollar halfback Ben Hunt.

Despite having three seasons left on his deal, Sterling said Hunt hadn't proven that he's worth the hefty price tag.

"I like him as a footballer but being a halfback, if the side's not going well, you do cop a lot of the brunt," Sterling said on the Wide World of Sports' St George Illawarra Dragons 2020 season preview.

This could be a make or break season for Hunt.
This could be a make or break season for Hunt.

"You're the playmaker and you tend to be one of the leading profile players, and certainly Ben Hunt is. We know he signed for big money.

"Has he been disappointing? Absolutely. Has he been let down by people around him? I think also absolutely. The forward pack … as a former No.7, I know things are much easier when you're going forward and you've got time to play. I don't know if Ben Hunt has been afforded that.

"But he needs to find something, but so do the people around him. There are no excuses for the Dragons this year … they're a better side than what we've seen and they need to show that, for the fans' sake and also for Paul McGregor's."

Sterling also took aim at McGregor and his record.

"Paul took over in 2014. They haven't played much finals football in that period of time," Sterling said.

"Like probably half the coaches in the competition this season, this year is going to determine his future in regards to the club he's at at the moment.

"If they don't have success this year, I doubt that we would see Paul McGregor in charge going into 2021. But a lot of players as well need to rise to the occasion, because he's been let down by plenty of his high-profile players, who are better than what we've seen of late."

Dragons coach Paul McGregor could be under pressure.
Dragons coach Paul McGregor could be under pressure.

Sterling has also said that the side can't keep making excuses after the Jack De Belin was largely blamed for the side's 2019 season.

Considering a team that includes representative stars Tyson Frizell, Paul Vaughan and James Graham Sterling said "there are no excuses any more for the Dragons".

"A big resurgence for them this year in regards to coming into the season; they've had Phil Gould come in and have a look to see what he feels needs to improve," he said. "A change in personnel, Shane Flanagan comes in to help out Paul McGregor; a premiership-winning coach there, so a lot of knowledge that Flanno will bring to the joint.

"It's pretty much shaken the whole place up, and it needed a shake-up."

NFL BROUGHT HOLMES BACK TO EARTH

Valentine Holmes has been shooting for the stars from the moment he first stepped onto an NRL field back in 2014, but the 24-year-old says the leap in competitiveness he experienced in the NFL brought him back down to earth.

Holmes spent 2019 in the United States as part of the NFL's international program and says the ruthlessness on display was a shock to the system and made him realise the areas of his game he could improve when he returned to rugby league.

"My first few months there, in the first three weeks I had three different roomies because they kept getting cut. It's sad but it's the way it is," he said.

"Everyone carries on like it's a normal day the next day and you get to training and their locker is empty.

Val Holmes is back — and he’s angry.
Val Holmes is back — and he’s angry.

"Every Monday they have tryouts, so your position is always up for grabs. I liked the challenge of it. It brought me back down a bit and it's good because the guys over there didn't know who I was so I could just walk around and be myself and do whatever I want, go to a normal cafe and not get looked at or stared at."

Holmes was picked up by the New York Jets and played four pre-season games but did not get the chance to run out for a regular-season NFL game.

Although the physicality of the training was different, Holmes said he learnt the most about himself in classroom meetings that lasted up to four hours each day.

He said the first few weeks was a "mental blur" and the entire experience forced him to grow up.

"I learnt a lot mentally and as a person," he said. "I feel more mature as a person. Those guys are on a bigger scale. We're on a decent scale here but they are worldwide.

"To be able to mix it with those guys was pretty cool. How they prepare and how they train, it's something that I've brought back with me.

"Mentally I don't know how they do it, because it's very cutthroat. They know they have to pay attention, they have to know what they're doing on the field or otherwise they will get rid of you and get someone else in."

REFEREES INDEPENDENT COMMISSION

Referees boss Bernard Sutton will no longer be responsible for appointing match officials with the NRL creating an independent referees appointment panel.

A recommendation of last year's McCurry Review into the referees department, the panel is responsible for overseeing all first grade and representative refereeing appointments.

The new seven-man panel will be chaired former Manly prop and NRL general manager of elite competitions Jason King and includes ex-Norths forward David Fairleigh and former Rabbitohs player David Boyle.

Belinda Sharpe was the big new refereeing star in the NRL last year.
Belinda Sharpe was the big new refereeing star in the NRL last year.

The other panel members include former international referee Russell Smith, ex touch judge Steve Chiddy and former referees Jared Maxwell and Gavin Reynolds.

Sutton will continue to oversee all administrative aspects, which includes coaching, and remain the key point of contact for all NRL coaches.

NRL Head of Football Graham Annesley said the new panel would free up more time for Sutton to focus on high performance and remove any perceived issues surrounding the transparency of refereeing appointments.



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