Paul McGregor has assembled what he describes as the best squad he has ever coached. And he is ready for the pressure and expectation that comes with it.
In fact, he is ready to revel in it.
McGregor is preparing to enter his fourth full season as an NRL head coach with St George Illawarra looking to return to the finals after a disastrous second half of last season saw them miss the finals in 2017, becoming just the third team since the top-eight system was introduced to miss the finals after leading at the end of round seven.
While they have lost Josh Dugan, Joel Thompson and Russell Packer to Cronulla, Manly and the Wests Tigers respectively, the signings of Ben Hunt from Brisbane and James Graham from Canterbury has McGregor believing this Dragons team is the best squad he has assembled.
“What I feel is that it’s the best squad I’ve coached. And that’s no disrespect to anyone in the last three years. But we’ve waited a long time and been very patient in our recruitment. Ben Hunt we felt was the best halfback on the market, we went and bought the best halfback. James Graham was the best front-rower on the market,” McGregor told the Leader.
With that comes pressure and expectation from one of the NRL’s most demanding fan bases, something McGregor is comfortable with.
“I’m happy with that [pressure and expectation]. Every coach wants to play finals footy. That doesn’t change with me. Having these players just gives me more excitement around it. And gives the guys a lot more confidence,” he said.
McGregor believes he has evolved greatly as a coach since taking the reigns from Steve Price in 2014. Just shy of his 50th birthday, McGregor wants to continue his journey – starting with the Dragons’ season opener against Brisbane at Kogarah on March 8.
“They always say it takes three to five years to become a head coach in the NRL. And I just feel I’m in a really good space,” he said.
“Obviously in ‘15 we led the comp until round 12. So that was my first [full] year. That came pretty quick to us. And then again we were inconsistent, we didn’t hold that position throughout the year although we played finals footy.
“I’d be the first to put my hand up and take ownership of a poor ‘16. And I went back to what we did in ‘15, the x’s and o’s instead of managing salary caps and a whole list of things. I went back to what I do best which is work with the coaches and come up with the right strategy and go out and coach.
“And I felt 2017 was a really good step forward on our journey. Going into my fourth year I’ve learnt a lot from the three years prior. I’ve got a thirst for learning, that’s just me as a person.
“I want to be better. I’m not happy where I am, I want to continue to improve.”