St George Illawarra's 2016 season was the smack in the mouth I needed: Paul McGregor

Staying on: St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor at the announcement of his contract extension on Thursday morning. Picture: Adam McLean
Staying on: St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor at the announcement of his contract extension on Thursday morning. Picture: Adam McLean

Paul McGregor says last season was the “smack in the mouth” he needed.

St George Illawarra formally announced on Thursday morning they had re-signed McGregor for a further two seasons.

The Dragons have surprised many with their start to the 2017 campaign, sitting in third place after 13 rounds despite missing stars Gareth Widdop, Josh Dugan and Euan Aitken for chunks of the season through injury.

St George Illawarra have dominated most teams they’ve played so far with an exciting, physical brand of football. A far cry from their mostly poor 2016 season.

It was that campaign, where McGregor missed the finals for the first time in his career as a coach, that caused him to start again.

An honest assessment of his coaching methods and the standards set by his players over the off-season, as well as McGregor shifting his focus to solely on football matters, have seen a massive change in the club. The Dragons are breathing fire again.

“It was something I took personally. It hurt because I knew I needed to obviously commit to some change. And the players were strong enough and honest enough to have some open discussion about where we needed to go,” he said.

“We put a lot of work in around our leadership. For me it was just about conserving my major energy into coaching and not worrying about salary caps or the future. [Staying] more in the present, the processes than the results and the future. 

“I think that’s something I really learnt because the game changes. You’ve really got to live in the now. And that’s what I’ll continue to do as a coach.”

McGregor, 49, played 158 games for Illawarra and St George Illawarra in a glittering playing career that saw him represent Australia, play 14 State of Origin matches for NSW and make five appearances for NSW Country.

He has since coached the Dragons 76 times, qualifying for the finals in his first full season in charge in 2015.

Dragons chairman Brian Johnston (left) with coach Paul McGregor and captain Gareth Widdop at St George Leagues Club on Thursday morning. Picture: Adam McLean

Dragons chairman Brian Johnston (left) with coach Paul McGregor and captain Gareth Widdop at St George Leagues Club on Thursday morning. Picture: Adam McLean

Now he has his eye on the future. While he has lost star fullback Josh Dugan for next season, McGregor is keen to push on with a strong squad capable of competing near the top of the table.

Captain Widdop, representative stars Tyson Frizell, Joel Thompson and Aitken, star signing Paul Vaughan and new recruit Ben Hunt will lead the Dragons into next season. Factor in the potential emergence of the exciting Jai Field and the club’s future looks bright.

“I think the foundations are pretty solid,” McGregor said. 

“When you’ve got three teams out of three [at the club] in the top four [of their respective competitions]. We’ve got some really good kids coming through. We’ve got some really good leaders in the club and we’ve got to continue the learning around that, creating that environment where players can reach their potential.

“If you look at how hard we worked in the pre-season. People talk about it now but looking back it was something that was needed and something we’ll continue to improve upon now that solid base is there.”

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