St George Illawarra Dragons to rely on balance of youth and experience in 2022 NRL season

In the big book of rugby league clichés, it’s up there with “training the house down” and “giving full credit to the boys”.

But the old adage “they’ve got a good mix of youth and experience” will be put to the ultimate test in 2022 by St George Illawarra.

The Dragons boast five players with 200 or more NRL appearances to their name, the most of any team in the competition, but it’s the club’s crop of outstanding youngsters that have the fans dreaming of a better tomorrow.

Mixing the old world with the new and ensuring each can get the best out of the other will be the key for the success of coach Anthony Griffin’s ongoing rebuild.

Take the Dragons’ spine, for example.

There is still a lot of preseason left but there is a fair chance the Red V will play Ben Hunt and Andrew McCullough — the most experienced halfback and hooker in the competition with a combined 556 NRL matches — alongside Tyrell Sloan at fullback and Talatau Amone at five-eighth.

Sloan and Amone have played a total of 17 matches in the big league.

Go too far in one direction and a team is liable to tip right over, but the scales are even at the Dragons — or at least as even as they can be.

“That’s something we need to improve on from last year — the balance is there this time in terms of depth and being able to change things in and out,” McCullough said.

“Those good teams are able to swap guys in and out. They have balance and depth through the squad, and that’s what Hook [Griffin] is trying to achieve here.

“Last year was a bit of a hard one. When we were missing a handful of players we weren’t able to replace them with players who had ‘been there and done that’ before, and that’s not a slight at anyone, it’s just what the reality was.

“They’re humble kids and they want to learn. They come to training each day and ask questions because they want to improve their football and build on their natural skills.

“If you’re able to get up each morning and do something you don’t particularly like doing, you’ll get rewarded for it in the end.

“It’s about knowing when to put your arm around a bloke and when to give him a kick up the backside.”

A St George Illawarra NRL player holds the ball with his right hand as tries to beat a South Sydney defender.
Much is expected of Dragons young gun Tyrell Sloan, right, next season.(Getty/NRL Photos)

Along with junior teammates Jayden Sullivan, and Max and Mat Feagai, Sloan and Amone’s emergence was one of the bright spots of a tumultuous season for the Dragons in 2021.

But next season brings a different kind of pressure. There will be expectations and scrutiny from the jump, and performing well in a beaten side will not cut the mustard for long if results don’t follow.

At the same time, McCullough explained they cannot let that pressure weigh them down and take away from their natural gifts, as they must feel the freedom to play to their strengths without fearing failure.

It’s a delicate dance, which is not easy to master — some players take years to find it, and others never get there at all  — and it’s the kind of thing usually only makes sense to a player when he grows up.

“It’s about learning and balance, and they got a bit of a taste last year when the pressure was off,” McCullough said.

“It’s a different goal this year, with the weekly grind of NRL football in regards to pressure and being in a team that needs to win.

“It’s different to last year when they were thrown in without any expectation. That’s the next goal, that’s the next step in their development.

a St George Illawarra NRL player stands with his hands on his hips.
Talatau Amone has come through the joint-venture’s junior ranks.(Getty: Jono Searle)

“Those guys are naturally gifted footballers. You don’t want to restrict them or limit them, or make them not back themselves because they’re worried about making an error.

“Little things, like their start-of-game mentality and knowing not to throw a crazy pass early on — those things are vital, but we want to encourage them to call plays.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m at dummy half, or if Benny (Hunt) is at halfback, demanding the ball.

“They might get things wrong sometimes but that’s OK, you’d rather a guy wanting to get his hands on the ball and try things instead of sitting back.”

Dragons look to Hunt for leadership

It’s not a one-way street between the old dogs and the young pups, and the fact a player has been around the traps for a long time is no guarantee he can lead.

Griffin’s decision to hand the captaincy to Hunt last year raised a few eyebrows, given the Queensland State of Origin playmaker was already an easy target due to his enormous contract.

But Hunt rose to the challenge, producing one of his best seasons in first grade and never wavering in his effort either on or off the field.

It showed that leadership is far more than barking orders: it’s setting a standard and living up to it, and that’s what McCullough, Hunt and fellow 200-game players Tariq Sims, Aaron Woods and Josh McGuire are there to do.

Josh Kerr and Ben Hunt pump their fists and scream in each other's direction
Anthony Griffin has placed faith in Ben Hunt, right, as Dragons captain.(AAP: Brendon Thorne)

There is nothing they are seeing now they will not have seen before.

“Hook challenged him [Hunt] with that, he’s no stranger to giving Ben a spray or a rocket over the years, but I think challenge is a better word for it,” McCullough said.

“When you’re halfback and you’re older you’re a leader of the team, that’s just the way it is, regardless if you want it or not.

“Expectations and the standards you set at training, what you expect from your players — that puts pressure on myself, and Benny and a few of those guys, because if you’re driving those standards, but not setting them yourself, that really stands out.

“You don’t want to be a dictator, you want everyone on a level playing field and driving consistency at training.

“But you have to enjoy it along the way, that can get lost sometimes. You want the kids and myself to be able to enjoy coming to their workplace rather than driving down the highway and dreading it the whole time.

“That’s still a big part of the game — enjoying it.”

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