St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor rates Jack de Belin, Tyson Frizell and Tariq Sims as the best back row in the NRL but the loss of captain Gareth Widdop may restrict how long he can play the trio in their preferred positions in Saturday night’s semi-final against South Sydney at ANZ Stadium.
De Belin, Frizell and Sims were at their destructive best as the Dragons rediscovered the form which took them to the top of the Telstra Premiership until round 16 to stun Brisbane 48-18 on Sunday but they lost Widdop after the English five-eighth again dislocated his shoulder.
Kurt Mann will partner Ben Hunt in the halves against the Rabbitohs and while he did an impressive job deputising for Widdop during the three games he missed after initially injuring his shoulder against Parramatta, Mann’s promotion leaves McGregor with one less middle forward on the bench.
After losing NSW prop Paul Vaughan in round 21, Frizell has been playing longer minutes as a middle forward and he started in the front row against Wests Tigers and Canterbury, with Sims switching from the left edge to the right to accommodate Luciano Leilua.
A series of niggling injuries which left de Belin requiring painkilling needles for more than half the season also restricted the playing time for the NSW lock.
However, in the past two matches McGregor has started with Leeson Ah Mau in the front row so he could revert to the backrow combination which had been so effective for St George Illawarra, and Sims scored a first hat-trick in a devastating performance against the Broncos last Sunday.
De Bellin racing clock
“Mary is a coach who a lot of players love playing for and want to play for so if he says ‘jump’, we say ‘how high’, and he spoke to us about what was best for the team,” Sims said.
“We had a few personnel changes and what was needed for the team was for us to change those positions and fill that gap so we could get some blokes through whatever niggles they had to be able to get back to that original roster.”
The loss of Widdop, who is expected to undergo season-ending surgery, and an ankle injury sustained by de Belin in the round 25 win over Newcastle is likely to mean Frizell will again play a lengthy spell in the middle against Souths.
Leilua was one of four forwards named on the interchange, along with Jeremey Latimore, Blake Lawrie and Hame Sele but McGregor is likely to include Jason Nightingale (elbow) if he is fit as the veteran winger has spent time in the middle this season.
If not, McGregor would be expected to want some cover for an injury in the backline, particularly if he decides to start with Euan Aitken (hamstring) or Nightingale after lay-offs with injury.
De Belin and prop James Graham (concussion) also have to prove their fitness after failing to finish the match against the Broncos.
“The way that Blake Lawrie stepped up at Suncorp Stadium against a very fearsome Broncos pack, for a young bloke to know that we are down to one player on the bench and to perform the way that he did that gives him a lot of confidence.
“Blocker hasn’t played big minutes before in NRL so for him to come out and knock out close to 40 minutes and play the way he did, with no fear at all, as an older bloke in the team that really made me proud.”
Sims also praised Latimore, who played 46 minutes against Brisbane last Sunday, for his influence on the young forwards.
“He is a bit of a journeyman and statistics-wise he is not going to break any records but it is the things that man does for the team that aren’t recorded on the stats that impresses our team and our team-mates,” Sims said.
“In the 75th minute, they made a break and Jeremy Latimore was there and that shows what sort of attitude he has, and young blokes look up to that and see what is expected of a team-mate.”
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