From a club that regards nothing less than a Premiership as a successful year, St George has remained without a Premiership for over 25 years. In that time, since its success in 1979, St George has come close with Grand Final losses in 1985, 1992, 1993, 1996 and 1999. It is now six years since the merger of St George and Illawarra, and despite making the Grand Final in 1999, they have not made a real impact in the semi-finals for five years.
The Dragons failed to make the semi-finals in 2000 and 2003. In 2001 and 2002 the Dragons finished 7th in the regular season and then won their opening matches of the finals series over the 2nd placed teams, the Bulldogs and Newcastle, before being comprehensively beaten the following week by Brisbane and Cronulla. In 2004 the Dragons recorded their most successful regular season since 1993, finishing 5th. However, the Dragons lost in the first week of the finals to reigning Premiers Penrith, and with lower placed teams Melbourne and North Queensland also winning, the Dragons were eliminated therefore finishing in 7th place.
When analysing season 2004 and looking ahead at the prospects for 2005, the signs are good for another improved season. The Dragons improved under Nathan Brown, from finishing 10th in 2003 to 5th in 2004, and being only one win away from hosting a home semi-final and a top 4 finish. While St George Illawarra were so close to being one game away from a Grand Final (and a full strength line-up), a poor opening 20 minutes against Penrith ultimately ended their season and their best shot at the title since 1999. It will go down as another one that got away in the club�s proud 83-year history.
St George Illawarra finally found consistency in 2004, having its best regular season finish since 1993 and recording four wins in a row for the first time since 2000. The Dragons also seemed to play a much more structured style of football in both attack and defence in 2004, and this is a pointer to the style of play in 2005. The once inconsistent side that was renowned for losing to sides they should beat, only lost to one team, Manly, that was outside the top eight. However, on the flip side, St George only managed three wins over top 8 sides, beating Penrith twice and Melbourne.
The structure worked well defensively, usually the side�s downfall, with St George Illawarra being the second best defensive side in the League. They were ranked second in the vital statistics of points conceded (17.84 per game), tries conceded (3.08 per game) and missed tackles (28.4 per game). St George was also ranked second in completion rates (74% per game). They were the fifth ranked attacking team, and also ranked fifth in points scored (26.16 per game), tries scored (4.8 per game), line breaks (5.4 per game), tackles broken (35.12 per game) and metres gained (1421.12m per game). This offensive structure worked well, comprehensively disposing of lower ranked teams, though with less predictability and facing sterner defensive lines, St George Illawarra struggled to score against the top ranked sides.
Having used 34 players in 2004, there is no doubt a more stable line-up will improve the side�s cohesion therefore lifting the side�s chance of success in 2005. Continued improvement in the area of defence will put the side in good shape. However, there needs to be an overhaul of offence, in which a fine line must be tread, to combine last year�s newfound structure and excellent completion rates with the previous flair and unpredictable brilliance of the St George of the past. If St George Illawarra continues to improve as it did last season under Nathan Brown, the pointers are there for a successful season in 2005 and that elusive Premiership could well find its way back to Kogarah for the first time since 1979.
By Ben Howard