‘Our focus is 2025’: Flanno dampens Dragons hopes as he admits pre-season fitness struggles

Shane Flanagan has asked Dragons fans to back him for the long haul with the new coach admitting that it won’t be until next year or the year after that he has a side that can challenge.

The ex-Sharks boss has endured a horror start to his reign on the recruitment front with multiple options turning him down, as well as watching his starting five eighth, Junior Amone, have his contract de-registered due to an off-field assault conviction.

Speaking after a scrimmage with Manly, Flanagan said that he understood fan frustrations at the lack of success, but asked for time to get a competitive team on the field.

“I can’t blame them for being impatient, they want their team to win and I love that passion,” he said.

“But there’s not too many players out there on the market who can slot in. It’s a tough market in recruitment.

“Our focus is 2025. We’ve made some changes in 2024 and we’re still looking for some players, but our real focus will be for 2025 and 2026.”

Nevertheless, Flanagan insisted that his team were aiming to be in with a shout for the post-season despite a 16th place finish in 2023.

“(The goal is) to compete right to the end and be in the semifinal race right to the end,” he said.

“We’re going to be a side that’s hard to beat and we’re going to try not to beat ourselves.

“If you look at the sides I’ve coached before, like the Sharks, we’re going to scrap and fight and kick right to the end, and we’ll win games on the back of that.

“We won’t be beating ourselves, we’ll be working really hard and if we add a few classy players in recruitment you’ll start to see us climb the table.”

The coach also revealed that his side had focused on physicality and fitness ahead of footy as they prepared for 2024, with serious work needed on the training paddock to be ready for the rigours of the NRL.

“We’ve had a really good November, December and January,” said Flanagan.

(Photo by Jeremy Ng/Getty Images)

“We had to change the way we trained and the playing group has worked really hard to change their body composition and the way they move.

“It’s been a big process and a lot of hard work. I have to congratulate the playing group on what they’ve done.

“We haven’t done a lot of team work, we’ve backed off and done the physical work, but we’ve got a month before we start and coming back after Christmas, we put a real focus on getting our team work right.

“I thought with the way that we wanted to play and defend, we needed to move quicker and be a little fitter and stronger.

“With our new high performance staff coming on who I had with me at Cronulla, they understand what type of athlete and middle forward we need.

“It wasn’t a criticism of the players, it was just the way they trained – and we’ve trained differently for three months now and we’re starting to see the results of that now.

“You’ll see during the year that we’re a faster moving, fitter side and hopefully stronger as well.”

The Dragons still have several spots up for grabs in their starting 13, with the coach confirming that Jack Bird will revert to playing centre in 2024.

It creates a logjam in the role, with Moses Suli and Zac Lomax the incumbents from last year. Flanagan insisted that he hadn’t made any decisions yet on who would get first crack.

“Zac could play in the centres as well on the other side,” he explained.

“I’ve got three – four including a young kid, Savelio Tamale, who I think will play a lot of first grade this – who can play in the centres.

“I haven’t pencilled anyone in for that position and they’ll have to fight really hard for it. For me, Birdy’s best position is centre. He’s not the biggest if he has to play in the backrow so it’s either centre or halves for me.

“Jack’s got to go and fight for that jersey for Round 1, I’m not giving it to anyone on reputation or what they’ve done prior. They’ve all got to fight for it.”

(Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

One position that does appear to be sewn up is in the halves – largely because the club has very few options – where Ben Hunt will be partnered by Kyle Flanagan.

Shane said that the addition of his son, a more natural organising playmaker, would bring the best out of captain Hunt at halfback.

“Ben’s enjoyed his time with Kyle because it’s taken a lot of pressure off him,” said the coach.

“The young halves that Ben’s played  with before have only played 20 games between them – Kyle’s ticked a few off now, I think he’s up around 80.

“Kyle’s strength is his organisation and that’s taken a lot of pressure off Ben. On big plays, last tackles, the ball isn’t always going to go to Ben all the time.

“There’s someone else organising it for him and that’s freed Ben up to run a little bit more. Ben’s enjoying that.”

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