Heat on Dragons coach with hard road ahead
Paul McGregor has done his best to stay out of the spotlight this summer.
But as of this week the embattled St George Illawarra coach is well and truly back in the thick of it.
Jack de Belin is due to face court today for the start of a two-week trial after pleading not guilty to aggravated sexual assault charges.
Meanwhile, McGregor is under more pressure than any other coach heading into the season. He must steer the club through a busy pre-season and not let the elephant in the room distract his players.
After the Dragons' 15th-place finish in 2019, many believe McGregor was lucky to survive last year's end-of-season review. That decision was made because there were a lot of things out of McGregor's control that led to the team's poor performances.
But there can be no room for any excuses this year.
Make no mistake, McGregor had plenty of legitimate excuses last year. Losing de Belin to the NRL's no-fault stand-down policy cost the Dragons one of the game's best middle forwards. You just can't fix that on a short turnaround.
On top of that McGregor also had to contend with the long-term injury to skipper Gareth Widdop, while there were a stack of other key injuries throughout the season.
But Dragons fans could argue Des Hasler also had plenty of legitimate excuses at Manly, yet still found a way to get the best out of his squad.
At South Sydney, Wayne Bennett lost Greg Inglis after the opening rounds and basically had Sam Burgess playing busted for the entire season. Yet the Rabbitohs still made it to one game short of the grand final.
This year Widdop is gone for good, and that is only going to increase the pressure on Ben Hunt and Corey Norman.
McGregor has stuck up for Hunt in the past but this year it just has to work, or it will be the coach who cops it.
The Dragons also simply have to make it work in the forwards, regardless of de Belin's fate. While Trent Merrin is a handy pick-up, there remains serious concerns about their middle-forward depth.
James Graham has been one of the great warriors but he copped a few more worrying head knocks while playing for Great Britain at the end of last year. His wellbeing is crucially important.
There are also some serious questions hanging over several positions in the outside backs. McGregor has stated that Zac Lomax would get first crack at fullback ahead of Matt Dufty, while they really lack a top-notch winger and Euan Aitken's place was also under review at the end of last year.
While McGregor doesn't have overall authority of the roster - that belongs to recruitment chief Ian Millward - ultimately it is a head coach's job to get what he wants and make it work. This will be McGregor's seventh season in charge after taking over from Steve Price in 2014.
He has to make a statement in 2020 and it has to start with a bang.
Looking at the Dragons' draw, McGregor will be under the pump almost immediately.
They kick off against Wests Tigers followed by Penrith and then comes Canberra, Parramatta, the Warriors, South Sydney, Sydney Roosters and Melbourne. That's five of last year's top-eight teams including both grand finalists.
In recent seasons McGregor has been able to get his team firing best in the early rounds.
It was the reason he won himself a two-year contract extension last year.
But this year it will be imperative that he does it again, or else that contract could be up for an early review.