In the early stages of pre-season there was an expectation in local footy circles that Sandhurst would drop off the pace a touch in 2022.
Key trio Nick Stagg, Lachlan Ross and Chris Down had all departed the club and the Dragons' rivals sensed their spot in the top five was up for grabs.
Less than two weeks out from round one, it's a case of writing the Dragons off at your peril.
In terms of talent, Sandhurst coach Ashley Connick said the Dragons are well-stocked, particularly through the middle of the ground.
"We lost Stagg and brought in Zach Pallprat, who is super fit at the moment,'' Connick said.
"He's probably been our best player in the practice matches.
"Jeremy Rodi comes back in and we've added some depth through our recruits Lachlan Hood and Harrison Free. Noah Walsh will play some midfield time after being good off half-back last year and James Mittell is coming off a VFL pre-season.
"We liked what we saw of (new ruckman) Hamish (Hosking) in the practice match he played. He was really physical and had great soft hands at the stoppages. He'll work well with the new guys in the middle and our established midfielders like Lee Coghlan, Blair Holmes and James Coghlan.
"Both Whartons (Joel and Alex) are as fit as they've ever been. (Former Sunraysia inter-league player) Lachlan Murdoch can play through the middle or half-back.
"It's the strongest midfield I've had in my time at Sandhurst."
After two practice match hit-outs, Connick said the Dragons were primed for their round one clash with Gisborne.
"We played two practice games and had two good hit-outs on two big grounds at Deniliquin and Rochester,'' he said.
"They were taxing games, they were good for our fitness and now we'll have this weekend off to prepare for round one.
"There were some good signs with some of the things we've been tinkering with over summer, we threw some guys around in some different spots and we got a look at our recruits.
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"We're happy with our preparation, but of course we still have plenty of work to do."
Three of Sandhurst's best young players are on VFL lists - Cooper Smith (North Melbourne), Cobi Maxted (Collingwood) and Harvey Gallagher (Carlton).
"It will be a week-to-week thing to see how many games we get out of those boys,'' Connick said.
"We're really happy that these boys are getting that opportunity at that level."
Maxted, who played for Collingwood in round one of the VFL last weekend, could fill a number of holes for the Dragons.
"He predominantly played as a key forward for us, but in our first practice match he spent time in the midfield,'' Connick said.
"He has all the attributes of a really good intercept defender as well. He's a great mark and a beautiful kick.
"It's a great strength of his that he can play in multiple positions."
The Dragons will roll out plenty of new faces in round one, but their style of play won't change much from what we saw in 2021.
"We've tried to implement a way that we want to play where if you lose a player, you bring someone else in and the fundamentals of the way you want to play stays the same,'' Connick said.
"We'll play a similar style (to last year), but hopefully a better version and you always add a couple of things in."
Coach: Tamara Gilchrist.
Placing when season ended last year: Second.
Departures: Heather Oliver.
Last A-grade flag: 2019.
Summary: It's an absolute credit to Sandhurst that it has managed so much success while remaining such an open book.
Put simply, opponents know exactly what they are going to get against the Dragons, whose line-up has remained remarkably stable - with the odd exception - throughout their period of sustained success from 2017 to 2021.
A trio of premierships from 2017 to '19 was achieved with most players playing in three or at least two of the grand final wins, with nearly all of those players again involved in the Dragons' 2021 campaign, which ended with a second-place finish at the end of the home and away season before the cancellation of the finals series due to COVID.
Unsurprisingly, but surely a testament to the close-knit bond enjoyed by the Dragons' playing group, all but one of last year's line-up will return again this season.
The exception is two-time Betty Thompson Medal winner Heather Oliver, who is pregnant and will spend the season on the sidelines.
But if any team can cover the loss of such a brilliant athlete and the last player in the league to have won a best on court medal on grand final day, as Oliver did in 2019 against Kangaroo Flat, it's Sandhurst.
The Dragons line-up continues to be packed with stars, some existing and some still on the rise.
An accomplished and still young defence will again feature three-time premiership star Imogen Sexton, last year's best and fairest Sophie Shoebridge and state under-19 representative Ruby Turner.
The midcourt will be powered by star wing attack Meg Williams, a dual best on court medal winner in two of the Dragons' recent premierships, and rising star Shae Clifford, who made a seamless transition to her career at the QEO after joining the Dragons from Castlemaine
While in attack, BFNL team of the decade (2010-19) selection Kelsey Meade and sharpshooter Bec Smith give the Dragons one of the league's most stable and formidable goaling tandems.
Together, that strength across the court spells trouble for opponents.
Shooting for a groundbreaking fourth straight A-grade premiership last season (and again this year), three-time premiership coach Tamara Gilchrist said the fact all clubs did not get to play each other twice last season and finals did not go ahead was a huge disappointment.
"We missed out on playing the second round against Kangaroo Flat - we would have loved to have had another crack at them after losing to them in the first round and then seeing what finals brought," she said.
The five-goal loss to the Roos in round four was the only blemish in another dominant season for the Dragons, which brought 10 wins from 11 games.
Following practice matches against Goulburn Valley club Tatura and Bears Lagoon-Serpentine, with one to come against Rochester, and with three players - Williams, Shoebridge and Turner - all involved in Victorian Netball League campaigns, Gilchrist said the fire was still burning for her side.
"We are super-keen. We are probably two years ready," she said in reference to a lost year in 2020 and last year's shortened season.
"We've got Gisborne first-up and they have recruited a couple of really nice players, so it's going to be a big season opener.
"And it's down there (in Gisborne), where we've had trouble winning.
"I think it's going to be a ripping season and plenty of teams are going to be a lot more competitive.
"South Bendigo looks good and Castlemaine are up and about and of course Kangaroo Flat is going to be strong."
The unique circumstance of chasing a fourth straight A-grade premiership, three years after winning the third in a row, is something the Dragons have found both motivation and light-heartedness in.
"We might be the only team ever to get four premierships in a row in six years," Gilchrist said.
"The girls, I know they keep it in the back of their minds.
"It helps keep the fun in what we are doing, but it's also something we would love to achieve."
ROUND 1 - April 9
v Gisborne (a)
ROUND 2 - April 15
v Strathfieldsaye (h)
ROUND 3 - April 23
v South Bendigo (a)
ROUND 4 - April 30
v Kangaroo Flat (h)
ROUND 5 - May 7
v Golden Square (a)
ROUND 6 - May 21
v Eaglehawk (h)
ROUND 7 - May 28
v Maryborough (a)
ROUND 8 - June 4
v Kyneton (a)
ROUND 9 - June 11
v Castlemaine (h)
ROUND 10 - June 18
v Gisborne (h)
ROUND 11 - June 25
v Strathfieldsaye (a)
ROUND 12 - July 9
v South Bendigo (h)
ROUND 13 - July 16
v Kangaroo Flat (a)
ROUND 14 - July 23
v Golden Square (h)
ROUND 15 - July 30
v Eaglehawk (a)
ROUND 16 - August 6
v Maryborough (h)
ROUND 17 - August 13
v Kyneton (h)
ROUND 18 - August 20
v Castlemaine (a)
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