St George Illawarra captain Gareth Widdop has dispelled any doubts about his injured right shoulder after setting a new mark in the gym before his return in Sunday’s elimination final against Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium.
Widdop is expected to be targeted in defence by Broncos forward Tevita Pangai jnr but the Dragons five-eighth is confident the shoulder he dislocated three weeks ago will survive any test after bench-pressing a personal best weight.
The return of Widdop is a major boost to St George Illawarra’s hopes of winning their first playoff since the 2010 grand final and in another positive sign, lock Jack de Belin was off his crutches and shooting hoops at WIN Stadium on Thursday.
De Belin did not train with the team but he appeared to be moving freely while playing basketball and looked confident after a discussion with coach Paul McGregor about his injured ankle.
McGregor will wait until Sunday to make a final decision on de Belin but the NSW Origin star is a key member of the pack and he is expected to play with the aid of pain-killing injections if necessary.
The inclusion of de Belin would enable St George Illawarra to field the familiar left-edge combination of Widdop, second-rower Tariq Sims, centre Tim Lafai and winger Nene Macdonald against Pangai, James Roberts and Jamayne Isaako.
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However, if de Belin doesn’t play, McGregor would have little option other than to move Test forward Tyson Frizell into the middle and switch Sims to the right edge to accommodate Luciano Leilua as left second-rower.
"They definitely have that dangerous right edge so we have got to do our homework," Lafai said. "Jimmy the Jet is really quick, I am pretty sure that one stage he almost went to the Olympic Games to represent Australia so I will have to do my best.
"They have also got Tevita, a big back-rower who is mobile and strong, so we have definitely got to expect a lot of traffic coming our way."
Widdop is a top-line organiser, who possesses one of the best tactical kicking games in the Telstra Premiership and can play the role of ball runner or as a creative half, but he is not renowned for his strength in the gym.
However, in his bid to recover from the shoulder injury which forced him from the field in the round-22 loss to Parramatta he has had little choice.
"He is not real fit at the best of times, he is a bit of a slug in conditioning drills so nothing has changed there. He actually said his shoulder is stronger that it was," fellow Englishman James Graham said.
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"He is benching more than he was before so maybe three weeks of training hard has done him the world of good."
The return of Widdop is expected to ease the pressure of halfback Ben Hunt, whose kicking game improved on recent efforts in last weekend’s 20-12 defeat of Newcastle.
"He’s a class act, he is one of the best sixes in this competition. you see how silky he can be," Graham said. "He is such a highly influential player in this group."