An unguarded chat was enough for Jason Nightingale to believe Josh Dugan’s heart is still in it.
Destined for Cronulla next year after prolonged contract dispute with the Dragons, fans and teammates alike began to question Dugan’s commitment when he was stood down for missing the team bus to Penrith. After the controversy about drinking session with Blake Ferguson in State of Origin camp and the accusation he also missed the team flight back from Brisbane earlier this month, had Dugan had enough?
But Nightingale revealed Dugan spoke candidly with him and NSW representative Tyson Frizell about how much it meant to him to be part of the Dragons finals bid.
“He grew up being a Dragons fan,” Nightingale said.
“Only the other day, he was talking to myself and Tyson about how much the club means to him.
“If it was to end prematurely, meaning us not making the finals, then that would be devastating for him.”
As well as the Origin drama, Dugan was also shifted to the centres to allow for Matt Dufty’s arrival in the NRL. A teary Dugan addressed the playing group and club staff after watching on from the sidelines as the Dragons edged out Penrith 16-14 to stay on track for playoffs.
The show of contrition is enough for coach Paul McGregor and captain Gareth Widdop to clear the way for Dugan’s return for the must-win battle with Canterbury on Sunday.
“He’s an emotional guy, he doesn’t take these things lightly,” he said. “And he’s disappointed as we all are.”
The pair drove to Wollongong for training on Tuesday, knowing Nightingale was up for media duties and Dugan would be a central topic.
Declaring the victory over the Panthers as “gutsy” and a revival of their early-season form which took them to the top of the NRL ladder, Nightingale said the team had set a benchmark for their finals push.
“As far as club and culture, it sets a really good example for us going forward,” Nightingale said.
Round 26 (final round)
DRAGONS v BULLDOGS
TV: Live on Nine Illawarra and Fox Sports League