St George Illawarra director Sean O'Connor has spoken out in support of caretaker coach Paul McGregor being appointed to the job full-time and believes he would be a better option than Wayne Bennett.
While Dragons chief executive Peter Doust is expected to meet with Bennett in coming days, O'Connor's comments demonstrate the seven-time premiership winning coach would not be the first choice of everyone at the club after McGregor's impressive feat in guiding the team to four wins in their past five matches and an 18-14 loss to competition leaders Penrith in a game decided by goalkicking.
McGregor, who played his entire career for the Steelers and Dragons, was an inaugural co-captain of the joint venture in 1999 and there is a groundswell of support from players and fans, particularly in Wollongong, for the former Test centre to remain in charge permanently..
‘‘I’d really support Paul McGregor to coach the St George Illawarra Dragons and to lead us into a new and exciting era,’’ O’Connor told The Illawarra Mercury.
‘‘Mary’s been coaching for a number of years now, he’s been involved as a coach and a trainer of the Dragons, so he’s an experienced coach who’s had a lot of success wherever he’s been.
‘‘We all know what he did as a player, he’s ticked all the boxes. He was our inaugural captain, he led us to the ‘99 grand final and he’s also played for NSW and Australia.
‘‘He’s got enormous support in the Illawarra region, he’s got the support of the current playing group and the respect of the current playing group.’’
The fact that O'Connor - one of four Illawarra directors on the eight-member St George Illawarra board - decided to publicly back McGregor in the Mercury and other Wollongong media on Thursday suggests a decision on the coaching position may be near, but Fairfax Media has been told that Doust has not met with Bennett since the 64-year-old effectively declared himself open to offers by announcing last Thursday that he was leaving Newcastle.
Brisbane and Gold Coast have also been linked to Bennett following revelations that Broncos director Tony Joseph had recently flown to Newcastle to meet with him and the Titans announcement on Wednesday of a full review of the club's operations, including the performance of coach John Cartwright.
Fairfax Media was told several weeks ago of contact between Gold Coast representatives and Bennett but there had not been any further developments after he was made aware of interest from the Broncos. Officials from both clubs denied there had been any approach to Bennett.
Cartwright has two more years to run on his contract, meaning the Titans would have to pay him up to $1 million if they were to sack him. Some believe that money and the $1 million per season cost of hiring Bennett would be offset by the boost to the club's profile he would ensure in the battle for corporate and public support with the AFL's Gold Coast Suns franchise.
There are also understood to be sponsors who would sign up with whichever club Bennett coaches, including St George Illawarra.
However, the cash-strapped Dragons have had to borrow more than $2 million from the NRL. The Steelers are unable to contribute as much to the joint venture because of interest payments to WIN Corporation owner Bruce Gordon that was triggered after St George Illawarra breached a condition of a $6.3 million loan to play six premiership games in Wollongong by moving two games to bigger venues in a bid to increase revenue.
McGregor's supporters say he would come a lot cheaper than Bennett, is a better long term option and has a strong connection with fans and the local community after coaching Wests Devils to three consecutive premierships in the Illawarra Coal League before taking charge of Illawarra Cutters NSW Cup team two years ago.
‘‘I think it’s important to look to the future and I think it’s important we do have a coach who can be long-term,’’ said O’Connor, who is also the Cutters chairman.
‘‘I think for the stability of the Dragons and the consistency of the Dragons we need a coach who can commit long-term to and nurture that production line of juniors.
‘‘As Mary has said, he’s not a career coach as such, he’s got a passion for the club here, the St George Illawarra Dragons.
‘‘We have a large talent pool of juniors and to maximise that talent pool and to have NRL players coming through you need a long-term coach.
‘‘I can easily see, having been involved with him at the [Illawarra] Cutters, that he could easily be the next supercoach.’’