The Dragons enter the 2018 season with a rejuvenated sense of hope and optimism both within the club and the fan base. The famous Red V have been largely irrelevant since their drought-breaking premiership in 2010, but the marquee signing of representative halfback Ben Hunt, the addition of veteran James Graham and an influx of hugely talented youth has coach Paul McGregor labelling the squad the best of his tenure in the top job. Given that sentiment, the team should be aiming for a top 4 position, likely landing somewhere between 4-6. Finishing outside the finals would be considered a monumental failure. Potential is there, talent is there, but a checkered recent history means Dragons fans will be cautious before going all in.
Gains: Ben Hunt (Broncos), James Graham (Bulldogs), Jeremy Latimore (Sharks), Mitch Allgood (Wakefield), Darren Nicholls (Panthers).
Losses: Josh Dugan (Sharks), Russell Packer, Taane Milne (Tigers), Silivia Havili (Raiders), Josh McCrone (Toronto), Will Matthews (Widnes), Tyrone McCarthy (Salford), Drew Hutchison (Leigh), Mose Masoe (Hull).
Likely Starting 17:
1) Matt Dufty
2) Jason Nightingale
3) Euan Aitken
4) Tim Lafai
5) Nene Macdonald
6) Gareth Widdop
7) Ben Hunt
8) James Graham
9) Cameron McInnes
10) Paul Vaughan
11) Tariq Sims
12) Tyson Frizell
13) Jack De Belin
14) Leeson Ah Mau
15) Luciano Leilua
16) Hame Sele
17) Kurt Mann
Ben Hunt won’t have any time to settle in to his new surroundings as the Dragons host his former side in round 1 before heading north to Cronulla for a week 2 local derby. In fact, they will face the Sharks twice in the first six rounds, before playing the new-look Roosters on Anzac Day in round 8 and the Storm the following week. Hardly the most favourable of early draws, but it will give fans an early indicator of how good this team really is.
Gareth Widdop ($647,900, 5/8)
The Dragons captain had his best ever season last year, increasing his 2016 average from 50 to an astonishing 73, the best of any half and good for 7th overall. The general rule of thumb is not to pick a player after a career year as their initial price will be inflated, and the consensus going around is that he will have his influence lessened due to the arrival of Ben Hunt. However, the team’s scoring is more likely to increase than decrease, meaning plenty of chances for attacking stats and conversions, and Widdop has been given a free role to roam the field, so he could be running off his new halves partner rather than having to create everything himself. Currently owned by just 5%, could be a great POD. Don’t believe the fear-mongering, pick him with confidence, if you have the cash.
Jack De Belin ($590,800, 2RF)
Jack De Belin will be looking to build on another impressive season that saw him named 18th man for NSW and, more importantly, 11th overall in SuperCoach. De Belin increased his average from 64 in 2016 to 67 in 2017 and there’s no reason why he can’t improve again. Owners would like to see the former junior halfback rack up a few more attacking stats, with only two tries and one try assist last year. He was also stripped of his dual-position status, which dents his appeal. De Belin is reliable as they come, a lock to play 80 minutes and should he develop his passing game he could easily be a top 5 scorer. He’s also lost the man bun.
Paul Vaughan ($602,000, FRF)
Paul Vaughan’s stunning first season with the Dragons saw him increase his average from 51 in 2016 to 68 (including an injury-affected low score of 3) – winning a lot of SuperCoach leagues for his faithful owners as a result. However, this means he starts the 2018 season as the most expensive prop and, to make matters worse, he’s lost his dual-position status. His total was inflated by 8 tries and 10 line breaks, the most of any forward, and even with the arrival of the game’s best passing prop, James Graham, it’s unlikely he gets close to matching that again. Very expensive, Origin potential, no longer a dual and sharing the front row with a proven workaholic. Set your nostalgia aside and look elsewhere.
Matt Dufty ($490,700, FLB)
Matt Dufty played the final 7 games of 2017 after the club made the decision to shift the departing Josh Dugan to centre full-time. The local junior was electric, scoring 124 SuperCoach points against Manly on debut and immediately making Dragons fans forget their tattooed star was joining their arch rivals. He isn’t cheap, he isn’t dual-position, he’s got a new halfback to gel with and selecting him means you can’t have both Tom Trbojevic and James Tedesco, but despite this, I am all in on Dufty this year. The 22-year-old will be the fulcrum for the Dragons attack and a more reliable scorer than either Widdop or Hunt because he will be involved on both sides. He averaged 61 as a rookie joining a team at the end of a season that was fast going downhill and being carted around by Josh McCrone. Of his 7 games, three scores were between 30 and 41, which may worry some, but an ability to break tackles and make dummy half runs means his base stats should be solid even without attacking stats. I believe he could have a Cameron Munster-esque breakout year. Ownership has doubled from 2% last week to 4% this week, but still a real POD. Zig while others zag. I may regret writing this.
Tyson Frizell ($446,600, 2RF)
Dragons fans have known they have something special for awhile, but the rest of the world discovered Tyson Frizell after his starring performances for NSW in 2016 that included the long-legged back rower chasing down a streaking Dane Gagai. His club performances however have not lived up to those standards, and Frizell was arguably the team’s most disappointing player last season. His average dropped from 55 in 2016 to just 50 in 2017, not at all SuperCoach relevant. The things Josh McCrone will do to you. Now Frizell is playing outside Hunt, and could become his new Matt Gillett. Frizell is a fantastic edge runner, and will thrive alongside the diminutive no.7 and his short passing game. With Joel Thompson and his 80 minutes departing to Manly, there should also be an increase in playing time for Frizell, which last year was at 60. The next step in his game is to become an 80 minute player and this could be the year. He could easily average 60ppg this year and is currently owned by just 6%.
Euan Aitken ($470,400, CTW)
Injury destroyed Euan Aitken’s 2017, but SuperCoaches could be the beneficiaries with the ever-reliable centre reasonably priced and currently owned by just 4%. Another victim of Josh McCrone’s right side black hole, Aitken, like Frizell, will benefit from playing outside a proper first grade footballer. His base stats are great, meaning he’s a low risk selection. Attacking stats have been underwhelming through the early stages of his career, but a full preseason and the presence of Hunt could push Aitken into the top 5 for CTWs in 2018. For me, he’s a much better pick than the reckless offloader Tim Lafai, who costs almost $100k more.
Luciano Leilua ($177, 300, 2RF)
Luciano Leilua has been a revelation coming through the grades for the Dragons and is set to have a big role to play for the NRL team in 2018, particularly with the departure of the aforementioned Thompson. A tackle-busting, offloading freak, the young brother of the enigmatic BJ is one of very few top line cheapies and should finish with more than his current ownership of 30%. His preseason work rate has been a very pleasant surprise, but perhaps the best sign so far was Leilua starting over Tariq Sims in the Charity Shield. McGregor loves Sims’ energy off the bench, and should Leilua get Thompson’s vacant left edge role, his ownership should be 100%.
Zac Lomax ($164,600, FLB, CTW)
The under 18’s player of the year for NSW has created such a buzz on the south coast people were talking about the possibility of Zac Lomax starting at fullback ahead of Matt Dufty. That will not be the case, nor will Lomax play round 1, but the immensely blessed fullback will feature at some stage in 2018. CTW is the most frustrating position to fill with a real shortage of guns and cheapies, so the dual-positioned Lomax is worth picking and holding on to.