IT’S been labeled a “backflip” in some quarters but St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor insists Josh Dugan’s shift to the centres this week is simply the best fit for his side in absence of the injured Euan Aitken.
Dugan was absent from the Dragons win over Manly last week with a minor hamstring complaint, opening the door for young-gun Matt Dufty to star on debut.
It was expected to be a one-off before Aitken injured his shoulder scoring the second of two tries against the Sea Eagles.
It’s expected to sideline the 22-year-old for two to four weeks and McGregor said moving Dugan, the incumbent Australia and NSW right centre, was the logical replacement for Saturday’s clash with Newcastle.
“For this week it was purely team motivated rather than self-motivated for anyone,” McGregor said.
“Josh missed last week and Duft got his opportunity at fullback. Now we’ve lost Euan who’s a right centre and a big part of our team.
“Duft's was a solid performance last week, we can all agree on that, but with Euan out it makes sense Josh going there with his experience.
“Josh is a world class player, he’s the current NSW and Australian right centre so he was a likely replacement for such an important player that Euan is.”
Dugan will leave the Dragons at season’s end to take up a four-year deal with arch-rivals Cronulla. His objection to being pigeon-holed as a centre, despite playing most of his club career at fullback, played no small role in his departure.
McGregor has strenuously backed Dugan as the club’s best No. 1, but said he’s not looking to the future in selecting him and Dufty in the same 17.
“Next year’s next year, at the moment it’s really about what we need to win a game of footy and the best fit this week,” McGregor said.
“Euan’s going to get back on the field, he’s working hard with his injury. He’ll probably need surgery at the end of year but, as we know in the NRL, everyone’s busted at this stage of the year.
“It’s just about working hard on the rehab and giving yourself every opportunity and it looks like he’ll be back in a couple of weeks. When he does get back on the field we’ll make a decision then and it’ll be on form.”
Dugan and Dufty will be key men in a backline that re-found it’s groove to the tune of 52 points against the Sea Eagles last week.
It was a return to good attacking form but it was an early second-half defensive lapse, in which his side conceded 22 points, that grabbed most of McGregor’s attention.
A similar lapse saw the Dragons trail Newcastle 28-10 at halftime when they last met in round 16 and McGregor said his side will be looking for a more complete effort this week.
“It was nice to break 50 against a quality side in Manly last week but now we’re looking for an 80-minute complete performance,” he said.
“You play against teams in the NRL you relax for a short term and you can get points put on you.
“We had 15-minute window there where Manly came back at us pretty hard and we leaked a few points so its about improving that period and playing for 80 minutes.
“It was really a 15-minute period against the Knights last time and the same against Manly last week but, the good thing about it is, we came out the other end in both games.”
The Dragons can strengthen their hold on a top eight spot with a win over Newcastle after ninth-placed Penrith drew level with them on 24 competition points with Thursday’s win over Canterbury.
It makes the Dragons part of a five-team logjam for the bottom four play-off spots, but McGregor says his side won’t fall into the trap of ladder-gazing.
“It’d be nice if a couple of teams do knock off Penrith along the way, and some of the other teams thereabouts with us, but for us it’s just about making sure we improve on what we did last week,” McGregor said.
“If you start worrying how other results are going to go you get away from the focus you need which is for us to go out there play good footy and get a result.
“We are in the eight and we know where we are sitting in the eight. We hold the key there, no one else. It’s about what we need to do to go out there and get the results we know we can, after that everything else will look after itself.”