Asked if he could guarantee McGregor would see out this year and next, new Dragons chief executive Ryan Webb said: “There was essentially no time frame put on it. Mary is struggling, he’s four games into the season, let’s get around him and support him. No time frames.”
For now, he has the ‘full support of the board’, a proclamation that often precedes the axing of a contracted coach. However, Webb hopes this time the public endorsement will release rather than raise pressure.
“They are hoping that by putting out this support now, it will actually relieve a bit of pressure off ‘Mary’,” Webb said. “He has put enough on himself already and he may have felt additional in not hearing that support from the club and the board.
“He’s only human, all of the speculation would have to weigh you down. They are hoping that by relieving that pressure, it may free him up to coach in a way that will be more successful.”
Other reasons will be given for not pulling the trigger. A dearth of quality replacements is perhaps the most legitimate one. To hand over to Dean Young, Trent Barrett, Jason Ryles, Nathan Brown, Steve Price or Craig Fitzgibbon would be viewed as ‘jobs for the boys’ at a club trying to distance itself from being an old boy’s club.
With respect to the other names mentioned – including Anthony Griffin, Shaun Wane, Cameron Ciraldo and Neil Henry – no one stands above the pack to demand selection. Even Wayne Bennett, who was secretly sounded out some months ago about a potential return to the Red V, is committed to seeing out the year with South Sydney.
History also weighed heavily on the Dragons directors. This is not a club with a tendency to axe coaches. For it to do so now, four games into a two-year contract, would be to concede the directors got it spectacularly wrong.
But the real reason McGregor will hold the clipboard in the derby against the Sharks on Sunday boils down to cold, hard cash. Once Gordon, the club’s money man, decided he didn’t want to put his hand in his pocket again, the board’s decision was made.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. During the off-season, Phil Gould was tasked with carrying out a review of the football department. Some of the key recommendations – such as employing an “advisor” as a sounding board to McGregor – were not implemented due to cost.
Once again, the Dragons are making changes but not the biggest change of all. The directors made it clear that assistants Young and Shane Flanagan must be given more say in how the team is run. Executive manager of football Ben Haran will be tasked with ensuring the power is more evenly distributed among the St George Illawarra brains trust as the club treads the fine line between introducing fresh ideas and sidelining McGregor.
There will also be a renewed focus on promoting young players into the NRL side. The directors felt it was time to shake up selections, that too many underperforming stalwarts were blocking the path of rising talent.
Boom rookie Jason Saab has already requested a release while Matt Dufty is considering his options given the Titans are keen to accommodate him immediately. Tristan Sailor was a standout during the Nines but can’t get a look in. McGregor has been told things need to change.
“Although the board acknowledges the club’s performances so far throughout 2020 have been unacceptable, we will continue to support Paul, his staff and the team through these tough times,” said Dragons chairman Andrew Gordon, Bruce’s son.
“We are committed to Paul as coach of the St George Illawarra Dragons and look forward to seeing him right the wrongs of the opening month of the current campaign.”
When things go wrong, it’s easier to sack a coach than disassemble a playing group. The Dragons have big-name stars Ben Hunt, Corey Norman, Tyson Frizell, Paul Vaughan and James Graham on the books but sit in last place. Webb said the players also need to take responsibility for their predicament.
“The conversations I have heard, and the messages that have been passed on, the players are definitely understanding that some of this is theirs to be accountable for as well. I think they are,” Webb said.
By sticking with McGregor, the club has saved money. However, if things don’t improve, the decision could still prove costly.
Adrian Proszenko is the Chief Rugby League Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.