Sufferball: How the Dragons are turning pain into pleasure under Shane Flanagan


What is the point of rugby league? To win, or to not lose? It’s philosophical question as good as any in the game.

Since 1895, one could argue, the point has been to entertain the punters and the development of the rules since has almost always favoured more attack, higher scoring and greater space to play in.

Better entertainment meant fans came back, which kept the cash flowing into the pockets of the players, clubs and everyone else. That’s why we went pro, right?

But since 1896, when the Challenge Cup began as the first cup competition in either code, there’s been a pot to play for, and fans who will pay to see a winning team, not to mention players who get bonuses for victories and clubs that profit from runs deep into the season.

We’d all love to win and to entertain, but it’s not always possible.

Entertainment, too, is a woolly concept: Manly and the Titans put on 64 points’ worth of dross in the opening hour of their meeting at the weekend, while the Tigers and Panthers managed just 16 points of nip and tuck in the first 60 minutes of their clash, but anyone who watched both knows which was the superior match.

The push and pull between victory and style is currently being played out across the NRL, especially in the teams that are in the newer stages of their coaching cycle.

We see the Wests Tigers, who are very much in the camp of performances over results, looking to embed Benji Marshall’s playstyle in advance of bigger and, they hope, better things to come next year.

We’re already seeing that happen at the Bulldogs, who went through a year of pain under Cameron Ciraldo last year but are now seeing his style come together.

Perhaps most of all, we’re seeing it at the Dragons under Shane Flanagan.

No team goes in not trying to win, but Flanagan said the unsayable prior to the season, admitting that his side weren’t that bothered about results to start with.

“Our focus is 2025,” he told media after his side had been thumped by Manly in a pre-season scrimmage.

“We’ve made some changes in 2024 and we’re still looking for some players, but our real focus will be for 2025 and 2026.

“We’re going to be a side that’s hard to beat and we’re going to try not to beat ourselves.

“If you look at the sides I’ve coached before, like the Sharks, we’re going to scrap and fight and kick right to the end, and we’ll win games on the back of that.”

“We won’t be beating ourselves, we’ll be working really hard and if we add a few classy players in recruitment you’ll start to see us climb the table.”

Jaydn Su’A celebrates after scoring. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The comments made a ripple at the time, more because coaches so rarely say the quiet part out loud, but with a few months’ hindsight, they seem almost aimed at his own players more than anyone else.

He was telling them that, as far as he was concerned, it was more important not to lose than to win.

Flanagan’s central gambit as a coach has been to make his side the most difficult team in the comp to play against, a unit more willing to plumb the depths than anyone else.

That was the trademark of his Cronulla side, who were modelled in the image of their captain, Paul Gallen.

There was craft there from Ben Barba and James Maloney, but they were entrusted with providing enough moments to win a game while the other blokes were concerned primarily with not losing it.

That was the style at the time, of course, and they defeated a Melbourne side in that Grand Final that remain the flagship exponents of that type of play.

There’s a phrase in soccer, suffer, which encapsulates this perfectly.

Antonio Conte. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

It’s a janky translation from the Italian soffire, which has a slightly different context to what we use in English.

What is generally implied by suffering is the off-ball work that is required to win it back, the endless sprints to close down opponents, track runners and force the other team into a mistake.

Antonio Conte, the Italian former Chelsea and Tottenham manager, is most associated with the term, though current England boss Gareth Southgate is often pejoratively accused of it too.

Conte’s sides were known for doing everything the hard way: chasing, fouling and a little of the dark arts along the way in pursuit of victory. The individual is subjugated to the collective and the collective suffering trumps any individual.

It isn’t universally loved. “Football is not about suffering. It’s about enjoyment” was the view of Johan Cruyff, a high priest of attacking football, but he wasn’t in charge of a struggling side and tasked with making them better.

The concept is one that rugby league fans will be well aware of, and it is being seen writ large across the Red V.

Every side knows that they will go through periods where they are forced to suffer, and the worse a side is the more they are likely to have to do it.

The Dragons are becoming masters of suffering. They’re now excellent on their goalline, and that is almost entirely down to greater effort than anything structural.

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In their three most recent wins, against Manly, the Tigers and the Warriors, they withstood huge pressure for periods, with 100 tackles inside 20m across the three games for just six tries conceded.

They’ve won the possession split just twice all year and sit third last for that metric, but are able to devote their energies to tackling far better than previous iterations of this team.

Flanagan was intent on fixing the defence, both on a systematic level and on a buy-in level.

At this point we’d usually to a compare and contrast stylistically on what the Dragons are doing now that is different to what Griffin was running in defence, but it’s hard because his system was so hard to work out.

Just ask Flanno: he claimed that he couldn’t actually work out what the defensive system was under Griffin and given that he was a professional coach and analyst on Fox League, that’s pretty damning indictment.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Instead, we can talk about the buy-in, because that appears to have been immediate.

The stats bear this out: though they are still weak through the middle and concede the fourth most metres in the comp, they are conceding the fourth fewest line breaks.

Essentially, St George Illawarra remain poor at stopping their opponents getting to their goalline, but once they get there, they are markedly better than they used to be.

They’re third top for try saves and have the second-fewest missed and ineffective tackles, combining for an effective tackle percentage that is the highest overall.

This is a side that is competing very, very hard.

Flanagan can’t embed defensive systems overnight, but he has immediately raised the levels of commitment and effort.

He’s getting the Dragons to suffer, in the best possible way.

Flanagan’s football has always been about that and while it’s unlikely to win any Premierships in the six again era, it will certainly help turn a bad team into a decent one.

The attack is still a variant on the ‘give it to Dozer’ tactics of Hook’s era, but if you go from conceding 28 points a game to 22, that’s one fewer try you have to score.

Flanno will be well aware of the correct ordering of cart and horse. Stopping tries against keeps you in the contest longer, which increases the chance of Ben Hunt doing something to win you the game.

This is already a team that is showing that, at the very least, it will not beat itself. They’ve learned how to suffer.

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