ST GEORGE Illawarra coach Paul McGregor is embracing underdog status as his side looks to pull off the upset of the finals against Brisbane on Sunday.
The Dragons will take two unconvincing wins from their last six matches into their clash with the Broncos who are arguably the form team of the competition heading into week one of the post-season.
Having struggled under the weight of expectation for a large stretch of the season, culminating in a late slide from first on the ladder to seventh, McGregor has urged his players to embrace the moment at a packed Suncorp Stadium.
“The expectation is all on the Broncs, they’re playing at home, they’ve been the form team going into the finals,” McGregor said.
“We’re the outsiders of the competition finals this weekend so it’s a good position for us to be in. It’s a time to be very excited around the opportunity and the challenge that's in front of us.
“There’s not much in the top eight, there’s one win between the minor premiers and eighth position. We were dominant for a long time of the year, we were in the top four until round 23, we led the comp for 16 rounds.
“We know what we’re about when we play our Dragons style of footy, no distractions, we just need to make sure we go out and take it to them.”
It’s a mindset that could prove a particularly beneficial for halfback Ben Hunt, who’s copped a barrage of criticism over the latter half of the season, as he returns to Suncorp Stadium for the first time against his former club.
Skipper Gareth Widdop will return from a shoulder injury for the match, and McGregor expects the skipper presence to ease the burden on his under-fire No.7
“It’s not about a comeback for Ben, it’s collectively a 17-man team and when someone’s form’s a a little bit down or he’s been challenged it seems the focus goes onto one person,” McGregor said.
“Obviously Gaz coming back will really get that combination going back in then halves that was dominant for a long part of the year.
“There’s one win between minor premiers and eighth spot but everyone will have a phase through the season when you’re playing at your best and not playing to your potential at other phases.
“We haven’t played to our potential of late and the best players come under scrutiny along with the coach. We’ve got to wear that a little bit but, I say it every week, the 80 minutes the boys get to go out and play footy, they own that.
“It’s going to be a really good game come Sunday in front of a crowd of 50,000 plus, all expectation on the opposition, and it’s a good time for Ben and the rest of the boys to go out there and be really excited about the contest.”
Jack de Belin remains no certainty to take the field on Sunday, though McGregor said the NSW Origin lock ran on Friday for the first time since injuring his ankle early his side’s win over Newcastle last week.
“He’s no certainty at the moment but Jack trained this morning and he’s traveling with us,” McGregor said.
“He’ll go into the captain’s run so it’s all systems go for Jack at the moment. He’s a pretty good healer.
“It’s an important time of the year, he’s done everything professionally to get back on the field for us and he’ll have every opportunity up until game day to play.
“He got through a whole game with the injury last week so he’s going to be in better shape, one would think, with a seven day turn.
“We’ll assess him again [on Saturday] after captain’s run, but he’ll have right up till game day to prove his fitness.”