The NSWRL has cast its eye over the 12 teams who will take part in The Knock-On Effect NSW Cup in 2022, with the opening round to kick off on Saturday 12 March. The state’s premier competition remains a valuable pathway for higher honours with 52 players going on last season to play in the NRL. Today, the St George Illawarra Dragons.
The Dragons struggled last year in The Knock-On Effect NSW Cup to reach the heights they achieved in the competition in 2019, which was the last time a full season was played before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Back in 2019 the Dragons finished as minor premiers with 13 wins and reached the Preliminary Finals, falling by just two points (22-20) to the Newton Jets.
Only one game was played in 2020 but in 2021 St George Illawarra could only manage four wins, alongside nine losses to finish 9th on The Knock-On Effect NSW Cup ladder.
Travelling seemed to be a bugbear for the Dragons with a 2-7 win-loss on the road, compared with a 2-2 at home.
Still, the famous Red-V club did produce four players - Mathew Feagai, Talatau Amone, Jaiyden Hunt and Tyrell Sloan – who graduated into the NRL. Amone and Sloan were also named in the NSW “Future Blues” squad in December, and look set to be regular features of the NRL in 2022.
Coach Russ Aitken is getting ready for his second season in charge and will be after a stronger start than last year’s one win (over the Sea Eagles) in the first seven games.
The Dragons did manage three wins (Mounties, Rabbitohs, Raiders) from their last six matches before the NSW Cup season was cancelled in mid-July.
“Like everyone else, you want to start fast, and last year we didn’t have much depth across the whole club,” Aitken said.
“So there’s a fair bit of depth now up-top, which always helps the NSW Cup. And we’ve extended our part-time squad to 16. We’ve probably had a 30-40 per cent turnover there.
“I think our pack is more powerful this year to help get our games and our season off to a better start.”
The NRL side under coach Anthony Griffin has bolstered personnel in his second year at the helm with the football department looking far healthier than last season.
“We’ve got greater stability in the club and that’s going to filter through,” Aitken said.
“Last year I probably debuted six or seven players from Jersey Flegg, with the lack of depth, injuries and suspensions up in the NRL team at different times.
“And with COVID still around, it’s definitely why I recruited more depth because with the first month of NRL, if you’re travelling, you’re taking 24 players. So that’s six or seven blokes off our team, who would normally drift back to us.
“So we know about that disruption – we know it’s coming and we’ve planned accordingly.”
Players to watch
The promotion of fullback Sloan and half Amone into the NRL squad, and the loss of Adam Clune (Knights) means Aitken has had to re-jig his attacking spine.
“We recruited Brad Dietz from the Bulldogs – he played a number of first grade games (seven) last year and he’s now in our part-time squad. He’ll be a regular,” he said.
“We’ve also got Connor Muhleisen, who’s come up through our grades and he’s still with the NRL squad, so they’ll be our two No. 9s.
“Jayden Sullivan will be looking for a big year I’d say, if he’s not playing NRL.”
The Short Side with Jamie Soward & Jayden Sullivan
Sullivan, 20, played five NRL games last year, scoring two tries. He also scored two tries in his three games in The Knock-On Effect NSW Cup, alongside two try assists and a line break.
“It’s a good opportunity for a lot of the young boys who haven’t played a lot of footy over the past two years. For blokes like Jayden – if he’s with us – it’ll be good to get those minutes in him, to learn his craft so he can start to master things as a young half,” Aitken said.
“Treigh Stewart is a local boy who has really impressed me at the back so I’m looking to start him there at fullback.”
Dean Blore, the former Panther who was a Junior Kiwis players in 2018, is now back in Rugby League after a year in rugby and has signed with St George Illawarra.
“I’m looking at Blorey and Brad Detiz, Josh Coric and Treigh – those guys to be the ongoing strength of the team. It does depend week-in, week-out who’s coming back to us (from NRL) but they’d be the core of our part-time boys,” Aitken said.