State of Origin has been blamed for St George Illawarra’s end-of-season slump but Dragons players believe the experience their forwards gained during the series will hold them in good stead for Sunday’s elimination semi-final against Brisbane.
With lock Jack de Belin named to play after suffering an ankle injury in last weekend’s win over Newcastle, the Dragons will boast three members of the series winning NSW team in their forward pack, along with Test props James Graham and Leeson Ah Mau.
The return of captain Gareth Widdop from a dislocated shoulder alongside Queensland playmaker Ben Hunt in the halves also adds to the big game experience in a St George Illawarra side with few players who have tasted finals success.
Widdop, de Belin, Ah Mau and Tyson Frizell are the only survivors in the 17-man squad named by Dragons coach Paul McGregor from the club’s last finals match in 2015 – an 11-10 loss to Canterbury.
Of the four, only Widdop (Melbourne) has played finals elsewhere, as have Hunt (Broncos), Graham (Bulldogs), second-rower Tariq Sims (Broncos), hooker Cameron McInnes (South Sydney) and centre Tim Lafai (Bulldogs).
However, Dragons players are confident they have enough representative experience in the side through Hunt, Blues forwards Frizell, Sims and de Belin, England’s Widdop and Graham, and Ah Mau, who played for New Zealand in the Denver Test.
“Gaz is a big-game player, he has played a lot of big games with England, and all of the boys who have had exposure with NSW this year are going to be better for that, and there are obviously a few boys who have played in grand finals,” interchange forward Jeremy Latimore said.
Fatigue from Origin is a reason identified for the Dragons dropping from the top of the NRL ladder in round 16 to finish seventh but Latimore was confident the team’s representative stars were ready to fire in the finals.
“It was a challenge mentally for those boys to come back from Origin and play week in, week out NRL but finals football gets you excited,” he said.
“I dare say those boys who might have been experiencing a bit of tiredness will be bouncing on Sunday.”
Frizell admitted the Broncos had the edge in finals experience as well as home ground advantage but he was unfazed by St George Illawarra’s record of not having beaten Brisbane in their last 10 matches at Suncorp Stadium.
Widdop to give Dragons confidence
“It's awesome to be playing footy at this time of the year,” Frizell said. “I guess you could say I'm not familiar with it. I've only played one and we all know how that panned out.
“It's what we play footy for and it’s why we train so hard in the off season. We don't train hard and perform the way we do to get knocked out early. We want to play as well as we can this week and hopefully go the whole way.
“You can ask anyone that question and they'll all saying the same thing, everyone has that belief in their team,” Frizell said.
“We've got a strong group of players here that want to play for each other and play well. I know for myself, and on behalf of the players, we have a strong belief in what we can do with this side.
“If you don't have that belief then you're not here this time of year. Our form of late probably hasn't shown that but the footy we've played throughout the year, if you take that into account … we've been a top-four team all year bar a couple of weeks.”
De Belin was on crutches at training on Tuesday but is expected to play with the aid of a painkilling injection.
McGregor named centre Euan Aitken (hamstring) and winger Jason Nightingale (dislocated elbow) in an extended 21-man team but it is unlikely they will be cleared to play after suffering their injuries in the round 24 loss to Canterbury at Kogarah.
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