THE NRL season is still two weeks away, but Friday night’s Charity Shield will reveal more than usual about what lies ahead, especially for St George Illawarra.
Coach Steve Price on Thursday declared he doesn’t feel under pressure to prove he deserves the job next year, but the ANZ Stadium clash will be the first time the revamped attack comes under full public scrutiny.
Captain Ben Creagh said there were plenty of positives out of the first trial game in tropical North Queensland which ended in a 28-22 loss to the Cowboys.
But Price’s plans will be put to the test against a genuine premiership contender in the Rabbitohs.
Here’s five reasons why Friday night’s game is more than just a trial.
1. Price attack
SINCE Craig Bellamy let the Dragons know he was staying with Melbourne before jetting off to England for the World Club Challenge, Price has had room to breathe.
At least he will have the chance to show the ‘‘maturity and confidence’’ he has as a coach this year, after missing the finals with the worst attacking team in the NRL last year.
But the statement from St George Illawarra chief executive Peter Doust was hardly encouraging reading for Price’s future prospects.
‘‘Even though we are yet to start the 2013 season, we are aware that for all parties, a firm decision for 2014 would be best made sooner rather than later, but we are not putting timeframes around such a key decision,’’ Doust said.
‘‘We will continue to work through the options and circumstances thoroughly and will communicate when appropriate, out of respect for all associated and involved.’’
Price has until Anzac Day to show the Dragons are finals material, made more difficult by a tough draw, with trips to Melbourne and Canberra, as well as games against Brisbane, Sharks, Wests Tigers and Newcastle, before the annual clash with the Roosters.
In the Charity Shield on Friday night, the players need to show they’re up for the challenge.
2. Title contenders
FOR the first time in a generation - many would argue longer - South Sydney run out for the Charity Shield as a genuine premiership chance.
Last year, there was plenty of optimism around Redfern about Michael Maguire taking them to the finals.
But after finishing just 80 minutes short of a grand final berth - they may have even qualified if boom halfback Adam Reynolds hadn’t been injured in the loss to the Dogs - there’s a feeling the Bunnies can go all the way this year.
In contrast the Dragons are coming off a slide since winning the premiership in 2010.
That’s not to say St George Illawarra should treat the Charity Shield exactly like an NRL game, because combinations still need to be tried and players need time on the field after a long hard preseason.
But South Sydney’s enhanced standing after years in the doldrums adds extra significance to this game.
3. Half measures
THE message from the Dragons throughout the summer has been Nathan Fien is an automatic choice at halfback.
Jamie Soward is expected to keep his spot at five-eighth, especially after the long-term knee injury suffered by Kyle Stanley, allowing the former NSW No 6 a chance to earn a contract extension.
Perhaps if Soward can recapture some of the form of two and three years ago, he will help himself and Price to secure long-term futures in Wollongong.
But keep an eye out tonight for young halfback Josh Drinkwater, recruited from the Manly under 20s.
Drinkwater is highly rated and an eye-catching performance could mean he could swoop on a starting place for round one against Melbourne, perhaps shifting Fien back to his utility role off the bench.
Given the opportunity, he could be the spark to set the Dragons’ attack alight.
4. Back on the Horse
AT THE top of the list of priorities for big Mick Weyman would surely be just to stay injury-free this year.
Last year, now NSW coach Laurie Daley, then an assistant to Ricky Stuart, revealed Weyman was on the cusp of State of Origin selection when he hurt his knee against Penrith in round 10.
He required a knee reconstruction and hasn’t played since.
It followed ongoing hip and groin injuries which have dogged him for the past three years, including being gingerly nursed to the 2010 grand final before undergoing surgery.
The 28-year-old will take his first tentative steps back to the NRL when he comes off the bench on Friday night.
At his best a wrecking ball for the Dragons, the leader of the pack has a chance to show he’s ready to rumble with limited minutes tonight.
5. The right edge
WHAT Price does with his right-sided combinations could prove the big X-factor for St George Illawarra this season.
For all of the Dragons other recruitment failings, Price has some great offloading forwards handy to inject into the lineup in Tyson Frizell and Bronson Harrison.
Frizell is likely to start the year in the second row ahead of Harrison, with Daniel Vidot poised to be outside him in the centres, with Chase Stanley another option as he too returns from long-term injury.
Both Frizell and Harrison are talented offloaders in tackles and traffic and it will help make the Dragons multi-dimensional, after their long-standing reliance on the left edge combination of Creagh, Matt Cooper and Brett Morris.
If any combination of Frizell, Harrison, Vidot and Stanley prove hard to handle, expect the name Jason Nightingale - one of the game’s best finishers on the right wing - to be right up there on the leading try scorers this year.