After five years in non-finals purgatory, Shane Flanagan has arrived to answer Saints’ prayers.
WHILE the rest of the world eagerly awaited the arrival of Santa Claus, St George Illawarra supporters had already received an early Christmas present: a brand new coach.
Cronulla premiership winner Shane Flanagan joins the Sharks’ southern Sydney neighbours on a three-year deal, aiming to restore one of Australia’s grandest clubs to their former glory.
It’s been five years since Flanagan last coached in the NRL … coincidentally, the same amount of time since his new side has languished outside the finals.
The Dragons’ recent dip makes it easy to forget how formidable the red vee jersey used to be.
Saints have made significantly more Grand Finals since World War Two (22 as St George, plus two as a joint venture with Illawarra) than any other club.
But their path since the triumphant 2010 decider has been paved with failure.
Title-winning coach Wayne Bennett threw the keys to Steve Price, who only survived two and a half success-starved seasons.
Favourite son Paul McGregor proved an effective caretaker and steered the Red Vee back to the finals in 2015. However, McGregor’s patchy six-year tenure oversaw a decline into mediocrity.
Former Brisbane and Penrith boss Anthony Griffin made a strong start to 2021, before COVID forced the competition north to Queensland and the nomadic Dragons lost a club-record eight games on the bounce to tumble out of the top eight.
Bizarrely, the club extended Griffin’s contract that off-season. But after a 12-12 record in 2022, he was forced to re-apply for his own job weeks into the 2023 campaign. By May, Griffin had been sacked.
Ex-Featherstone Rovers boss Ryan Carr ushered the Dragons through the remainder of the season, warming the seat until Flanagan’s arrival.
Basic discipline should sit at the top of the new coach’s list of priorities.
Besides their obvious on-field struggles, off-field drama has defined the Dragons’ recent malaise. The list of scandals since their last playoff appearance is dizzying.
Aggravated sexual assault charges against Jack De Belin were eventually dropped but cost him two and a half seasons.
The NRL fined senior playmaker Corey Norman for a street brawl before 2021 kicked off, then sanctioned 13 Saints for breaching COVID protocols mid-season — the catalyst for their stunning late-season slump.
Warrington recruit Paul Vaughan had his contract torn up immediately for hosting the party, and allegations of a sexting scandal years earlier emerged in the aftermath.
In 2022, police charged George Burgess with sexually touching another person without consent, before a stint in rehab.
All bar three first-graders skipped the club’s end-of-year presentation night following 2022 — an entree to the off-season from hell.
Chairman Craig Young stepped down from his position after using a club letterhead to pen a character reference for Brett Finch, who was facing charges of sharing child abuse material.
Young guns Tyrell Sloan and Jayden Sullivan requested releases, which were denied. Junior Amone and Zac Lomax locked horns at training, as did Zane Musgrove and Mikaele Ravalawa in a drunken argument at the team hotel following a trial game in Mudgee.
Plus, before Christmas, promising standoff Amone was charged with assaulting a tradesman with a hammer, and was found guilty in October 2023.
The current-day Saints have become synonymous with scandal, rather than success.
Their passionate fan base are hoping the hard-nosed Flanagan is just the man to clean up their act in every respect.
Of course, Flanagan is no cleanskin.
He served a 12-month suspension in 2014 for his involvement in the Sharks’ supplements program three years prior, before guiding Cronulla to their first and only title in 2016.
That saga all blew up again at the end of 2018, though, when the NRL de-registered him for flouting the conditions of that 2014 ban by keeping regular contact with club figures.
The game’s governing body eventually allowed Flanagan to return as an assistant in 2020, ironically at the Dragons under McGregor. But Griffin’s arrival pushed him out of the coach’s box.
Flanagan served as an assistant at Manly last year, although his mid-season announcement as Saints’ new boss raised some eyebrows.
What can’t be questioned is Flanagan’s ability to squeeze results out of adversity.
At Cronulla, Flanagan took the clipboard off Ricky Stuart in the wake of a dismal 2009 campaign featuring just five wins — their equal worst return since their maiden season in 1967.
The rookie mentor lifted Cronulla into the playoffs in 2012 and ’13, despite the pall of the supplements saga.
Copping a raft of suspensions (including Flanagan’s), the Sharks slumped to the wooden spoon in 2014.
But Flanagan returned with a vengeance, guiding a hard and desperate Cronulla to their maiden premiership in 2016.
When he was de-registered by the NRL at the end of 2018, Flanagan had made the finals in each of the last six seasons he coached.
While the Dragons’ rebuild job looks similarly tough, Flanagan knows how to galvanise an under-siege group. And boy to these Dragons need some galvanising.
The bookies reckon the Red Vee are going to claim the first wooden spoon in the merger’s history.
However, Flanagan is not totally bereft of pieces to work with.
The back five is young, settled and potent — Tyrell Sloan (21), Mathew Feagai (22), Moses Suli (25), Zac Lomax (24) and Mikaele Ravalawa (26).
The halves, on the other hand, are not.
Halfback Ben Hunt is a star approaching his 34th birthday, and his halves partner is a massive question mark, with Jayden Sullivan heading to the Tigers and Amone in seriously hot water.
Flanagan has recruited his son Kyle to his fourth club in five years, or Lomax might shuffle to number six. Saints are also courting Cowboys youngster Tom Dearden as Hunt’s long-term successor.
The forward pack is solid if not spectacular, thanks to names like Jaydn Su’A, Jack Bird, De Belin, Jacob Liddle, Ben Murdoch-Masila and Blake Lawrie.
Kyle Flanagan, ex-Rabbitohs enforcer Hame Sele and former Storm forward Tom Eisenhuth might be their only recruits for 2024.
But clearing some space for fresh blood — farewelling Jaiyden Hunt, Josh Kerr, Zane Musgrove and Jayden Sullivan, after Moses Mbye and Aaron Woods left in the middle of last year — might be just as important.
A huge number of Dragons also come off contract this season, handing Flanagan a great chance to put his stamp on the dressing room.
St George Illawarra are one of rugby league’s most storied clubs. Their legions of fans are praying Flanagan can restore some pride in their famous jersey … and quick.
First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 492 (January 2024)