By Jack Brady (NRL.com)
The Dragons were the first team in the NRL to start their pre-season back in October last year and were widely written off for season 2015 before a ball had been kicked – but the criticism has become a motivational factor for fullback Josh Dugan ahead of his team's elimination final with the Bulldogs on Saturday afternoon.
With coach Paul McGregor putting his stamp on St George-Illawarra and bringing in a host of fringe veterans on one-year contracts, many thought the Dragons weren't a shot at getting any higher than their 2014 11th-placed finish.
But after starting their season with two defeats they went on a six-game winning run including victories over Brisbane, eventual minor premiers Roosters and this week's opponents the Bulldogs to sit atop the NRL Telstra Premiership ladder midway through the season.
While it hasn't all been rainbows and lollipops for the Dragons since then, slumping to eighth place by the end of the regular season, Dugan said his side is ready to make the most of their underdog status this week.
"I think a lot of people were surprised when we were sitting on top of the ladder after 12 rounds and even now nobody expected us to be here so we can quietly be proud of where we are. We feel we can beat any team inside the eight now," Dugan told NRL.com.
"We have been confident in our ability all year. Sure there has been a few times where we have lacked concentration or not playing the full 80. But we have played some good footy this year and we have proved a lot of people wrong even making the eight.
"There's no pressure on us now. We're already the underdogs, we have been all year. We just have to go out there and play the best we can and go as far as we can."
Even after leading the competition people still questioned the Dragons' credentials, and while their seven-game losing streak between Rounds 13 and 20 didn't help that cause, Dugan maintained there were still positives to be taken from that poor run.
"If you look at some of the games we were in front leading with 15, 20 minutes left and it all came back to, as I've said, our lack of concentration letting us down," Dugan said.
"We lost to the Bulldogs and Souths among those seven games and led both games at one stage but in saying that we aren't worried about the past."
Primarily a ball-runner from fullback, Dugan said he has become more mindful of helping his halves in the absence of injured five-eighth Gareth Widdop.
"After last week I think I did everything I could to help the team and I'll just keep looking to do that again," he said.
"Whatever it takes to help the team I think I've done that for most of the year and I've been pretty happy with my input so I'm sure Mary will give me a few tips and goals for the week that I can focus on come Saturday."