The St George Illawarra Dragons appear to be the 2018 Parramatta Eels all over again. A very talented team, completely underperforming, with players seemingly disinterested in their own plight or the career prospects of their current coach. Interestingly the two teams have a common denominator, and I'm not referring to Corey Norman.
In 2017 the Eels finished fourth on the ladder on the back of some exciting young players, led by new signing Mitchell Moses. They bombed out of the finals in straight sets to the eventual grand finalists: the Storm and Cowboys. It was a disappointing finish, but a season which promised good things to come.
During the offseason, the club decided to welcome back prodigal son Jarryd Hayne. Hayne, whose dream of a Super Bowl had come to an end in 2015, had spent two highly paid years on the Gold Coast, arguably some of the worst spent money in the history of the struggling expansion club. A blow-up between himself and coach Neil Henry ultimately led to Henry's sacking from the club.
The Eels somehow saw enough in Hayne to believe he could be the final ingredient needed to bring that elusive premiership to the club. He was handsomely paid to once again don the blue and gold jersey in which he had forged an impressive NRL career.
Unfortunately for the Eels, Hayne was not the same player the fans lauded in 2009, he was not even the player who departed the club chasing his NFL dream. The players who did so well in 2017 suddenly looked disinterested on the field. The effort just wasn't there; the team spirit was obviously broken beyond the repair of a Brad Arthur rant. They had a shocking 2018 season, winning just six games on the way to collecting the wooden spoon and Eels fans called for their coach's head.
Hayne departed at the end of the season to fight other battles and the Eels bounced back to make the finals in 2019, smashing the Broncos first up before losing to the Storm. Was it coincidence or did the players stage their own silent on-field protest over Hayne's presence in 2018 and the perceived lack of value for money he represented?
Have you ever worked with someone being paid a whole lot more than you and in your opinion earning very little of it? It can be morale sapping.
You have to wonder whether the Dragons players are looking at Ben Hunt in the same way. The very-well-paid halfback has started his third year at the club and the fans are still waiting for him to deliver value for money. Has the team spirit been broken by a halfback who looked to be the answer but has done little but raise questions?
The effort is definitely not there; players are playing like they'd rather be somewhere else completely, playing like they have never met the bloke standing next to them. Coach Paul McGregor said as much after their disappointing effort against the Warriors last week.
"The intensity we trained at is not transferring onto the field on game day," McGregor said after the loss.
"They [Warriors] ran harder, tackled harder and found their front."
There have been renewed calls for McGregor to be sacked, but veteran prop forward James Graham has defended his coach.
"No one's looking for the door within the group, we're determined to turn things around and that's all we can focus on," Graham told NRL.com.
"I don't think the coach reads too much into what happens externally. We know we need to fix some things up and he's part of the solution.
"He's working extremely hard looking at things that happen at training and in the game to solve the problem that we're in."
But Graham himself has not been the Graham of old. At his very best his inspirational charges could shift a city block. The Bulldogs and Dragons built many a victory on the back of the metres made by the English international up the middle of the park, but this year he has averaged just 58.4 metres per game.
"I'm just going to try my best for the team and looking to improve on my performance this week," Graham said of the criticism he has faced recently.
McGregor has made some big changes for this weekend's clash with the Bulldogs. Matt Dufty has been dropped with Corey Norman moved to fullback, while Ben Hunt has been moved to five-eighth with young gun Adam Clune to make his NRL debut at halfback. Korbin Sims and Tyrell Fuimaono have also been dropped from the team, as they prepare to take on a Bulldogs side which has a whole world of problems of their own.
Another loss could prove fatal to McGregor's tenure, even if he is, as he reminded everyone last week "three games into a two-year contract renewal".
Eels coach Brad Arthur survived the wooden spoon in 2018 and is once again being hailed as one of the NRL's best coaches. Is the solution similar for McGregor? Is Ben Hunt the real reason the Dragons have spiralled into complete ineptitude? The performance of debutante Adam Clune this Monday could well point the Dragons towards their future.
But it's hard to imagine that same future includes both McGregor and Hunt.