Matt Dufty, Corey Norman, Ben Hunt and Gareth Widdop.
Matt Dufty, Corey Norman, Ben Hunt and Gareth Widdop.

Norman gamble a balancing act for Dragons

In signing Corey Norman, St George Illawarra are trying to play both sides of the coin.

They are attempting to keep their premiership window open - and make no mistake, it is wide open for 2019 - while planning for the seemingly very real possibility that Gareth Widdop will leave at the end of next season.

It is a precarious balancing act with a high degree of difficulty which relies on several players swallowing their pride or adapting to diminished roles.

Any discussion of the Dragons must begin and end with Widdop, their best and most influential player.

The English international is the man who takes the Dragons from a top eight team to a premiership contender - he has as well-rounded a skillset as any half in the competition and had he remained injury free in this year's finals the Red V could have gone even further.

Widdop was second among all five-eighths in the league for try assists with 19, third in line break assists (19) and led the Dragons in just about every creative attacking stat.

He is incredibly important to the way they play and in getting the best out of Ben Hunt and Matt Dufty, who both complement him well and enjoyed strong 2018 seasons on the whole.

But as talented as Widdop is, moving him to fullback to accommodate Norman is a gamble.

 

Gareth Widdop is the man for the Dragons. Picture: AAP
Gareth Widdop is the man for the Dragons. Picture: AAP

 

He played fullback as a junior but since his first grade debut in 2009, Widdop has played six NRL matches in the No. 1 jersey and five Test matches. That's 11 games at the back in 10 years.

Widdop has the skill set to be effective at fullback and may still act as the team's dominant playmaker, but asking him to adapt full-time to a totally different and more physically demanding position at this stage of his career is no easy task.

That's to say nothing of Dufty, who is the odd man out in this scenario. From the outside looking in, St George Illawarra's handling of the Dufty situation has been strange to say the least. While the club has maintained they want to keep Dufty long term they went perilously close to signing Jarryd Hayne and will be shifting the Penhurst junior to a utility role once Norman arrives.

Dufty is still very much a work in progress, but he's allowed to be given he's only 22 and just 32 games into his NRL career. His main asset is his speed, which is a unique weapon and the Dragons have found all sorts of creative ways to use it to their advantage.

 

Matt Dufty is still a work in progress for the Dragons. Picture: AAP
Matt Dufty is still a work in progress for the Dragons. Picture: AAP

 

The knock on Dufty is his size and his lack of ball-playing nous, but these are far from fatal - give him two hardworking wingers and the former issue is mitigated, while the latter has been overblown.

Given he is far from the finished product, Dufty managing to finish with 10 try assists in his first full season of first grade - that's as many as Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and more than Valentine Holmes - is a fine place to begin.

It's erroneous to claim the Dragons spluttered in attack last season anyway, they scored the fourth most points in the competition in 2018.

Dufty is off contract in 2019 and even if this season was his absolute baseline he has proven he can be a capable and dangerous fullback in the NRL.

Taking a step back, even for a year, to a utility/backup role would surely be difficult for him to take. The Dragons may want to keep him for 2020, assuming Widdop does leave and free up the fullback job, but will he stick around to take it?

Finally, it's important to consider Norman, who the Dragons are depending on not just for this upcoming season but for seasons to come.

It has been claimed in some quarters that a Norman-Ben Hunt halves combination already has a robust starting point given they played together at Brisbane. That's true, but rarely did the two play together - they lined up alongside each other in the halves just twice - so it appears there is little we can take from it.

 

Corey Norman and Ben Hunt played limited time together at the Broncos. Picture: Peter Wallis
Corey Norman and Ben Hunt played limited time together at the Broncos. Picture: Peter Wallis

 

On paper, Norman is a strong halves partner for Hunt, as Widdop has been. Norman's kicking game is excellent, especially in the attacking 20, and given he's a left-footer (both Widdop and Hunt are right-footed) it opens all sorts of interesting possibilities.

But ability has never been the problem for Norman. His nine-year NRL career has been filled with fits and starts, occasional stretches where he has looked to be breaking into the top tier of NRL playmakers only to be undone by injury, off-field turmoil or his own digressions.

Norman's career is best summed up his 2016 season. It was a dreadful year for Parramatta as their promising squad was relegated to also-ran status due to salary cap sanctions. Norman wasn't just their best player that year, he was a flag the rest of the team could rally around.

As players fell around him, be it due to injury, suspension or exodus, Norman was stellar.

There were matches where he was Parramatta's sole creative force and through his own guile and skill he managed to get the job done. He put together 21 try assists in 16 games, finishing the year with a virtuoso display against the Roosters where he set up all four Parramatta tries in a 22-18 comeback win.

 

Corey Norman after a Cowboys try. Picture: Zak Simmonds
Corey Norman after a Cowboys try. Picture: Zak Simmonds

 

After that match he was suspended for eight weeks and fined $20,000 for various breaches of conduct.

Another strong season in 2017 - where Norman played a major role in ending Parramatta's long finals drought - precipitated another downslide this year, when he was once again shuffled all over the park and unable to find his best football as the Eels crashed to the wooden spoon.

Norman can be a valuable piece for St George Illawarra and adding his playmaking to the mix could take them to another level, but he's a risk and there's no way of disguising that.

Each of St George Illawarra's three moves are radical changes to their spine, which was one of their greatest strengths last season, and none of the three are assured of success.

It is the ultimate high risk/high reward scenario and will either open the Red V's premiership window even further or bring it slamming shut.

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