Kent: McGregor delay will leave Dragons on their knees
The situation was hopeless everywhere but where the fire burns its brightest.
Who knows why James Graham plays the way he does. Why the fire is the last thing to go out.
It was 78 minutes into Monday's game and the Dragons were trailing 22-2, this shocking result decided for everyone as they waited for the final siren, and James Graham hit the ball up and turned to urge his players on again.
He barked and jerked his hand, calling his teammates on.
What was inside the man that made him, when all was lost, still demand effort?
The Canterbury players could have sat in a circle for the rest of the game and the Dragons would still not have had the time left to run in four tries to steal the result.
Yet Graham was obeying something else, a code inside.
It was the performance of a professional, which is a person that performs to the very best of their ability regardless of situation or circumstance because that is what they are paid to do.
That is why coach Paul McGregor originally pursued him when salary cap pressures squeezed him out of Canterbury.
Graham brought qualities beyond his talent, which was formidable.
A great shift in the balance of power looks to have happened at St George Illawarra on Tuesday.
It began less than 20 hours earlier when, within minutes of the Dragons' defeat to the Bulldogs, NRL360 asked McGregor if he was afraid he might now be sacked after this team's 0-4 start to the season.
"I'm not afraid," he said. "But I'm understanding if the decision is made."
McGregor clearly knew the time had come, one way or another. There was no more room for denials or attributing blame to media speculation.
Yet he would not quit.
"Not a chance," he said. "You don't quit on people."
For weeks the Dragons have played like they are waiting for McGregor to be sacked.
Dull and passive.
Ignore the statistics that say, in all four games, the Dragons have been unable to win time in possession or complete more sets, and so have done more tackles than their opponents which has a terrible compounding effect.
No, this was still with the coach.
A coach on death row is almost always a peaceful time for players. There is almost an innate recognition throughout this period that they are not accountable for their own failings for as long as speculation about the coach persists.
Any lack of performance or result is attributed to the coach. Sack the coach, we win games, is the unspoken narrative.
Any positive result and it is the players defying the pressure. That window closed Tuesday, though.
After Monday's loss the Dragons' board called an extraordinary meeting to quell the hysteria around the coach and many believed all there was left to work out in the case of Paul McGregor was severance pay.
McGregor would be gone and the next step would be to determine who would succeed him, whether the club would immediately go for a high profile coach or an interim coach while they waited for Wayne Bennett to hand in his resignation papers at Souths or even see if they could get Shane Flanagan re-registered at NRL headquarters.
But the Dragons have never been a club for folding.
"We are a club that stands by our people when under pressure," the club statement said.
The board's support for McGregor and the strength of its statement, which leaned on solid nouns like "loyalty, strength and commitment" immediately put the test to the players.
It left the only question there was for the playing group: if the coach is not changing his ways, and they are not changing the coach, then what needs to change?
McGregor was, by default, being given the opportunity to work through his roster and to challenge the overpaid and underperforming and find a way out of their poor start to the season.
Yet it could not last.
Within hours of the board's concrete support for the coach word leaked that his position would be considered again in a month.
The Dragons play Cronulla, Gold Coast, Sydney Roosters and Canberra.
What are they looking for in the next month that has not already been seen?
If the players have been waiting out his sacking, what's another month?
And what kind of team does that leave?
Originally published as Kent: McGregor delay will leave Dragons on their knees