St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor has opted to play it safe with injured skipper Gareth Widdop, leaving the five-eighth out of his extended squad for this weekend’s crucial clash with Newcastle.
While initially expected to miss three to six weeks, Widdop was an outside chance of returning to the team for round 25, however coaching staff have determined his shoulder isn’t yet ready for the rigours of an NRL match.
The Dragons have had mixed results without their captain, defeating the Tigers a fortnight ago before capitulating against the Bulldogs on Sunday afternoon.
St George Illawarra forward Jack de Belin acknowledged Widdop’s absence has hurt the team, however he backed replacement Kurt Mann to deliver another consistent performance.
“He’s our skipper, he’s the heart and soul of our side, he’s a massive influence off and on the field,” de Belin said. “To lose him at this crucial time of the year has been difficult.
“But at the same time, it’s next man up, whoever has got to fill that position has got to do a job. I feel like Kurt Mann has been one of our best the past month or so, so no excuses there.”
The halves haven’t been the only area the Dragons have struggled lately, with the forward pack a shadow of the one that was blowing rivals off the park earlier in the season.
With Widdop still sitting on the sidelines, Tariq Sims concedes the forward pack has an added responsibility to lay a platform for Mann and halfback Ben Hunt.
“There’s no doubt that he [Gareth] does add a bit of direction in the game management area, but, it comes down to us forwards laying the platform for Ben and Kurt,” Sims said.
“I think Kurt’s running game is outstanding, so we really need to play to our strengths and that’s, first of all catching the ball and getting out of our own end, and then laying a better platform for Ben and Kurt to play on the back of.”
While the halves remain unchanged, McGregor has been forced to make a number of other changes after centre Euan Aitken and winger Jason Nightingale were injured on Sunday.
Zac Lomax has been named at centre, while Jordan Pereira returns to the number five jersey. Matt Dufty has been listed at fullback, with Jai Field moving on to the bench.
McGregor may have opted against gambling with his injured five-eighth, but he has made one fairly major gamble with his team’s preparation for Saturday’s match.
Rather than flogging the side on the training paddock until they iron out the many kinks exposed by the Bulldogs, McGregor has taken the opposite approach, with the Dragons to complete just one field session this week, a captain’s run on Friday.
The move comes in a bid to freshen up a side that has looked lethargic and tired since the Origin period.
With the benefit of hindsight, de Belin concedes a post-Origin rest may have been wise, however he doesn’t regret the decision to play through the period.
“Looking back at it, maybe I could’ve done with a rest,” de Belin said. “But at the time, you want to play, you always want to back up and do your best for your club. Maybe the lesson’s learnt there, it’s probably better to freshen your players up, but at the same time, if he had asked me, I would have said ‘No, I’ll play.”