By Tony Webeck (NRL.com)
St George Illawarra fullback Gerard Beale has praised the influence of Benji Marshall throughout the second half of the season, claiming the Dragons can be a top four team in 2015 with Marshall and Gareth Widdop at the helm.
A poor period at the back-end of the first half against the Broncos on Friday night effectively ended the Dragons' push for a finals berth a week too early but the signs have been there over the past three months that this is very much a team on the rise.
Certainty over the coaching position has been reached with interim coach Paul McGregor handed the job on a permanent basis over the next three years while Beale believes the burgeoning partnership between Marshall and Widdop will only get better over a full pre-season in Wollongong.
The Dragons boast one of the more settled rosters for 2015 and Beale is setting his sights high on what a team who have won seven of their past 12 games can achieve.
"We believe we can be a top four side," Beale told NRL.com.
"Obviously the way the year went there were a lot of cold patches at the start of the year and I guess that really hurt us now.
"The last three months or so has been pretty positive, there have been a lot of good things that we've improved on and 'Mary' (McGregor) tells us that and where we need to improve.
"There's still a lot of room for improvement heading into next year which is good.
"We want to finish the season on a high note so go in to Newcastle and make sure we win there.
"Benji coming in late has done an awesome job helping the team and I think the more time everyone can have together gelling together it's only going to be a positive thing.
"He's a real character around the boys and he's a real professional as well.
"He's got that great mix and all the boys look up to him.
"He's certainly a leader out there on the field and he's doing an awesome job.
"Him personally, I think he had a mixed year coming halfway through the year but I think he's done an awesome job."
Marshall's eagerness to reassert himself following his return from rugby seemed to negatively impact the outstanding start to the season that Widdop had made but Beale has no doubt they have struck upon the right mix to deliver what's best for the team.
In 14 games Marshall has laid on 13 try assists, 12 line-break assists, made seven line breaks himself and scored three tries while Widdop's 20 try assists place him equal fifth in the competition for that statistic this season.
"They both know when they want the ball and when to send it the other way," said Beale.
"They're still improving, obviously they're doing quite well at the moment but always looking to improve.
"[Gareth] has had a terrific year. I think he's right up there in the Dally M points and that just shows how good he has been going.
"He's really taken on a leadership role in the team and he's done an awesome job, especially with Benji there, they're only going to get better together."
Beale's other hope for the pre-season is that he will once again be given a chance to secure the fullback position on a permanent basis.
Enticed from the Broncos to St George Illawarra by the opportunity to wear the No.1 jersey last season, Beale played the first five games of the year at fullback before rupturing his ACL against the Knights at Jubilee Oval, Kogarah.
It took until Round 23 before he was handed the jersey back by McGregor and he says it is a position he hopes to make his own again next season.
"It's just frustrating being out injured and off the field," Beale said when asked of the arrival of Josh Dugan to the club early last season.
"Playing fullback the last three weeks now I've really enjoyed it; it's a position I like and obviously still looking to improve there.
"The more time I can stay there the better I can get and I guess time will tell."