A Sweet and Soward Relationship

Soward looking.... well sour.  source: Daily Telegraph
On any given Sunday a successful St George-Illawarra side is met with a slew of witty and cheeky slogans held aloft on the hills of Jubilee and Win Stadiums.

One of the most prominent, simple and eloquently constructed reads ‘Sweet and Soward’.
Right now that sign drips with a sweet and sour irony.

The banner, held up as support for the soon to be former Dragons five-eighth’s sweet play, could also represent the soured relationship the premiership winning half must now have with a club he only recently vowed to never play against.

Penrith fans will now want written confirmation of Jamie’s availability before every Dragons v Panthers game, because Soward is now a chocolate soldier, liquorice all sort, a Panther.

I must admit, Soward’s exit from the Dragons took me by surprise; seldom do clubs let go of premiership players without putting up a fight.

The apparent lack of enthusiasm shown by club chiefs in negotiating Soward’s contract is a sad way for what was a beautiful and fruitful relationship to end.

To be wanted by a club you love and offered the money you know you deserve must be a fulfilling and proud experience; so to be obviously unwanted by a club you love must be heartbreaking.

Soward was a player maligned by opposition fans but taken under the wing of the Dragon faithful through his obvious passion for a team that allowed him that most Australian of tropes; a fair go.

He was a huge factor in the Dragons run to the 2010 title under the guidance of Wayne Bennett. Soward’s style of play was masterfully worked into a Bennett system that saw his considerable strengths in kicking and organising come glowingly to the fore.

During those heady Bennett days Soward’s confidence grew on the back of a coach’s belief and a playing style tailor-made for his abilities.

In that brief, Bennett-run era success seemed omnipresent.

Soward, as the team’s number six, could rightfully lay claim to a significant slice of the winners’ pie. An influential player in a team feeding success to two merged clubs that had been starved of the ultimate prize.

But now the affair is over, and a new suitor from the southern climes is about to ride into Dragon town to assume the role as saviour of the big red V.

The tone of Dragons fans’ reactions to Soward’s departure is one of the strangest aspects to this episode of an unfortunately-timed annual horse-trading season the NRL refuses to fix.

(Surely a rule should be brought in to stop mid-season signings [not trades] for the following year, an absurd and ridiculous situation embarrassingly unique to the NRL.)

Fan forums are hot bed of hyperbole, hope and more than occasionally vitriol, but the signing of Gareth Widdop from the Storm seemed to have left Dragons fans largely unmoved by the departure of Soward.

It is as if the whole exchange was viewed as a fortunate step forward; Soward representing the adequate economy class ticket, Widdop the more desirable, business class upgrade.

But is Widdop’s signing the answer or just another question in the club’s seemingly obsessive search for a long-term playmaker?

To anoint Widdop as the saviour of the Dragons much maligned and often-benign attack is at best unfair and at worst bloody minded; a potential sacrifice to the god of instant results.

Widdop may be a harder head and more willing to place it in positions of dubious safety, but he is untested as a marquee player, having spent all of his time in the NRL playing alongside Melbourne’s big three and flourishing under Craig Bellamy’s tutelage.

Widdop’s well earned and significant reputation has largely been built around his running game and a sound defence, not the sleight of hand or high class kicking game the Dragons seem to want out of skilled pivot.

The Storm five-eighth is a class player with plenty of big game experience and if any number six has a chance of making a positive impact in a new, more responsible and high-pressure role it would be the Northern Englishman/Melbournian.

But there is no doubting the challenges Widdop faces in coming to a club that seems desperate for a creative, take control kind of five-eighth.

Foremost among these challenges is the knowledge that Widdop is replacing a passionate premiership-winning player who was effectively shown the door by a club with which he felt a close affinity through the opportunities they had afforded.

Dragons’ fans obviously hope the man to slip into Soward’s vacated number six jersey will enjoy the same sweet success the head-geared pivot had wearing the red V.

If he doesn’t, the fans may see yet another great red and white hope become the victim of a soured relationship.

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