Paul McGregor is set to become the next St George Illawarra coach in a move that will help prevent divisions from widening within the joint venture.
With Wayne Bennett rejecting overtures from the Dragons to return to Brisbane next season, the four Illawarra-based board members will push strongly for McGregor, and he is expected to be formally appointed to the job on a permanent basis some time next month after Dragons chief executive Peter Doust was unable to secure his target.
Even before Roy Masters revealed in stunning detail in Fairfax Media publications and websites on Monday how Bennett had done a deal to coach the Broncos, Illawarra directors believed McGregor was a better option for the Dragons.
Now they are unlikely to accept anyone else after the former Test centre's impressive effort to turn around the fortunes of the team since taking over eight weeks ago following the sacking of close mate Steve Price.
Doust had pursued Bennett after being instructed by the board to look closely at all potential candidates, including Neil Henry and Tim Sheens, and Fairfax Media has been told the seven-times premiership winning mentor travelled to Wollongong last Friday to sign a deal but did not do so.
With Bennett no longer in the frame, Henry's name is understood to be on a final shortlist of contenders for the job, but Illawarra Cutters chairman Sean O'Connor - a Dragons director - laid out the case for McGregor in interviews with local media late last week.
Fairfax Media was told a decision may not be made for about a month, but it is almost certain the full St George Illawarra board will now back McGregor over Henry, or any other candidate, as the best man for the job.
However, it is unusual for any St George Illawarra director to speak publicly about such a sensitive issue as O'Connor did last week and his decision to do so may also reflect the frustration felt in Wollongong about the joint venture's commitment to the area following the decision to reduce the number of games at WIN Stadium to just four this season.
The Dragons made the decision for financial reasons after severe cuts to funding from St George Leagues Club in recent years and have also shifted two games away from Kogarah to bigger venues. But it was a condition of Illawarra's $A6.5 million (NZ$7.02 million) loan from WIN Corporation in 2006 that six premiership matches plus a trial be played in Wollongong each season and, by not doing so, an interest clause has been triggered that is impacting further on the club's finances.
"With the Dragons only playing four games this year in Wollongong, this condition has now been breached," WIN chief executive Andrew Lancaster said in a statement on Monday confirming the network would continue to support and sponsor St George Illawarra. "As a result of that breach, WIN Corporation is entitled to call the loan but has not done so."
McGregor's backers believe his profile as a Steelers junior, who went on to captain the club as well as represent NSW and Australia, and captain the Dragons to the 1999 grand final in the inaugaral season of the joint venture, will boost support in Wollongong where 1000 corporate seats were sold at WIN Stadium for the last home match against Melbourne on a Monday night.
Since McGregor took over the coaching reins, there is a vibe at the Dragons that hasn't existed since before Bennett's arrival in 2009, and McGregor has strong support from the playing group, who respect him and enjoy the more enterprising playing style he has introduced.
Before Monday night's match against Manly, St George Illawarra had won four of their previous five matches under McGregor and only lost 18-14 to Penrith due to goalkicking.
The 46-year-old hasn't publicly said he wants the job, but that is because he is humble enough to know that it was Bennett's to refuse and if the seven-times premiership mentor had wanted a second stint at St George Illawarra there would be no room for him - as there wasn't during Bennett's previous three-year stint at the club.
However, rather than holding any grudge against Bennett for sacking him as part of a clean out of staff when he arrived from Brisbane six years ago, McGregor recently told this columnist the decision had ensured he served a long coaching apprenticeship in the Illawarra Coal League and with the Cutters, which has prepared him for the NRL.
"He probably did me a favour in a way," said McGregor, who worked in a coal mine while overseeing just five losses in three premiership-winning years with Wests Devils before taking on the Cutters role.
"I was doing the role of performance co-ordinator at the Dragons, which I think helped give me a real good insight into player management. Then when I did leave I went back and coached in the local league.
"Your role there is a bit of everything: strength and conditioning, you are the coach, your roster changes weekly because people can't play because of work or something, so you have got to manage with what you have got."
- Sydney Morning Herald
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