Pressure Points: Ben Hunt has stuck by the Dragons – now, everyone else has to help him out
It’s tough being the main guy. It’s even tougher when you’re asked to be the main guy and you don’t even want to be there anymore.
When Ben Hunt announced his desire to depart the Dragons midway through last year, it was a shock, but it was also quite understandable.
He’d been carrying the team for years and was close to the coach who had just been hung out to dry by the higher-ups, with Anthony Griffin forced to reapply for his own job before eventually departing anyway midseason.
The captain had only extended his deal because he thought his coach would be around, and from the opening weeks, it was clear that Hook would leave and that it would happen sooner rather than later.
A raft of defeats ensued and, suddenly, Ryan Carr was in as an interim and Shane Flanagan was named to take over from 2024 onwards.
Hunt, aged 33 and looking to finally win a Premiership to round out your career, the Dragons would have been the last place he wanted to be.
He publicly stated his desire to move back to Queensland – the Titans always looked more likely than the Broncos – but ultimately decided to stay put and is now committed to at least 2024 in the Red V.
Whether that is his true desire or a rare example of rugby league clubs actually holding a player to a contract is for the birds: Hunt is staying and that’s what matters.
Bad as the Dragons have been in the last few years, without a finals appearance since 2018, it would be hard-pushed to blame the halfback.
He’s been their leader, captain and best player, not to mention the centrepiece of a pioneering tactical plan from Griffin that seemed not to go much further than chucking the ball at his halfback and hoping for the best.
Flanagan will certainly bring more structure than that, but what form that takes remains to be seen.
The current state of affairs in the Dragons’ spine brings to mind the Graham Gooch quote about facing New Zealand’s bowling attacking with Richard Hadlee and three other blokes – World XI at one end, Ilford Second XI at the other – because while Hunt is one of the elite playmakers in the comp, the other three are nowhere near.
The jury is still out on Tyrell Sloan at fullback after another year of excellent mixed with innocuous, Jacob Liddle is the same without the excellent and Junior Amone has flattered to deceive.
Kyle Flanagan also now in the mix, though where he fits in remains to be seen. Anyone who has seen Flanno junior in NSW Cup knows that he is too good for that level, but he’s never consistently done in the NRL either, and this might be his last chance.
The Dragons ended 2023 second last for run metres and dead last for total sets per game and metres per run, meaning that they didn’t get enough ball, and when they did get it, they weren’t very good at using it.
It’s not pretty reading for anyone involved in their attack, but it is changeable. Notably, their completions and possession splits were about league average, suggesting that the problem was more that they got through their work slowly and conservatively, which can be changed along with the coach without major roster surgery.
Of course, there were a lot of stats above but you wouldn’t have needed them if you’d simply watched the Dragons play. They were ponderous to say the least.
Flanagan can simply encourage his team to play faster, then, which should help, and to chance their arm a little more.
In doing so, he might be able to spark some of the latent talent in the team.
Zac Lomax, for example, has the potential to be absolutely anything but has underwhelmed for a long time, and it’s entirely possible that his lacklustre showings are as a result of what he was being told to do – or not to do – rather than his own performance.
At his best, Lomax is a flamboyant player with a killer offload, two traits that went strongly against the grain of what Hook Griffin wanted to do.
In a side that generally lacks flamboyance, empowering Lomax to actually show his skills – and to learn when best to use them in a more tolerant environment – could go a long way towards shifting the dial on their attack.
Sloan, too, is potentially devastating in attack, but was all-too-often hamstrung by an over-structured, risk averse style of footy. When allowed to play more heads up, he showed plenty of ability.
There was a great stat from 2022, the last full year of Griffin, that bears repeating. Hunt was among the most creative players in the NRL on a volume basis – aka he did the most stuff – but bang average when counted per possession, a result of the Dragons’ plan to just constantly give him the ball.
Conversely, Sloan was one of the most creative players in the league per possession, suggesting that if given more footy, he could have done a lot more with it. In 2023, that never happened.
None of that includes Amone, who failed to crack the top 20 in any meaningful stat for players who featured as a five eighth last season – not to mention scoring just one try all year in 19 appearances.
He had a bit of drama off the field, of course, and will hope to put that behind him going into 2024.
Flanagan has to decide where he wants everyone to play and then stick to his call for a fair few games to let it play out.
While he is regarded as a defensive specialist as a coach, it will be the attack on which he is judged, because that is the area that the Dragons can most readily improve.
Expectations are pretty low, but with Hunt only confirmed to be staying for this year, St George Illawarra would do well to make something happen sooner rather than later.
Hunt is consistently one of the best players in the comp, but the success of the side will live or die based on the amount of support they can get around him.
They’ve tried letting him do it all on his own. It didn’t work. Now everyone else has to pull their weight.