Paul McGregor and Gareth Widdop have learned lessons from St George Illawarra’s 2017 capitulation.Of all the statistics that highlight St George Illawarra’s fourth straight week at the top of the NRL ladder, one will please coach Paul McGregor.
Of eight halves of football the Dragons have played this year, they have won seven of them – including all four second periods.
It might not sound like much, but when you consider McGregor’s men won both halves a match just once between round 13 and round 26 last year as they dropped from third to ninth, it’s significant.
McGregor made no secret of the fact before the start of the season he wanted last year’s heartache to fuel part of their campaign.
There’s no doubt he’s used to motivate his.
The learnings from last year’s capitulation were vast but one fact would’ve kept him up all summer.
If rugby league was a 40-minute game, the Dragons would’ve finished 2017 as the second best team in the NRL.
But it’s not – and they missed the finals altogether.
“We needed to work hard and get a really good physical condition base and a better technical understanding,” McGregor said.
“Obviously with the experience we’ve brought in with the learnings from last year, we’re playing some good footy for 80 minutes.
“I’m a lot more comfortable in the box with how the boys are game managing around important times of field position.”
Key to that has no doubt been the recruitment of Ben Hunt.
With him in the halfback role Gareth Widdop’s running game and attacking prowess close to the line has come to the fore.
Already they have the kind of combination halves who play together for years would dream of.
The pair have combined directly in nine of the Dragons’ tries this year, while they also forced three line dropouts between them in Sunday’s win over Newcastle.
“If you watch Gareth play, the No.7 that’s come in has really freed him to be a major threat on both sides of the park,” McGregor said.
“I know that. (Hunt)’s certainly gave the side a better balanced with his kicking game.
“Expectations are a little higher when you have two world-class halfbacks and they haven’t let anyone down thus far and I’m sure they won’t go out to.”
McGregor is also complimentary of the influence of fellow recruit James Graham, adding to the fact that now in his fifth season as coach, he finally has the roster he wants.
But equally important in his eyes was the work put into fitness and efforts under fatigue following last year’s fade-outs.
“My performance staff has been with me for two years in an a row and he has built on last year,” McGregor said.
“We were fit but we weren’t at the stage we are this year. He’s got data to back that up.”