Captain Gareth Widdop is handling the ball as often at fullback as he used to at five-eighth as the Dragons adapt to a new attacking style with three leading playmakers.
While there have been questions raised about Widdop’s move to fullback after back-to-back losses, he has still been heavily involved and received the ball 20 times in the first half against Souths on Thursday night compared to 21 receipts by five-eighth Corey Norman.
Halfback Ben Hunt handled the ball 27 times in the first half and has increased his involvement this season after averaging 49 receipts of possession per game in 2018, while Widdop averaged 38.9 receipts per game last year.
The three playmakers worked together in the first half and Widdop set up Jordan Pereira's first try in the ninth minute, while Norman was responsible for the winger's second in the 20th minute.
Widdop received the ball 25 times in the second half after moving to five-eighth in the 61st minute when Paul McGregor injected Matt Dufty into the game at fullback in a re-shuffle which saw Norman shift to halfback, Hunt to hooker and Cameron McInnes to lock.
It is understood McGregor would be willing to allow Widdop to revert to five-eighth if the skipper was uncomfortable with the switch but the Dragons intend to persevere and believe the move offers them more creativity in attack.
This view is supported by St George Illawarra’s domination of the match at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium until props James Graham (29 min) and Paul Vaughan (32 min) were interchanged.
Souths coach Wayne Bennett already had his four interchange players – Liam Knight, Mark Nicholls, Ethan Lowe and Kyle Turner – on the field before Graham completed his first spell as the Rabbitohs were run off their feet and sapped of energy.
In contrast, McGregor’s only change had been Jeremy Latimore replacing rookie lock Blake Lawrie in the 21st minute.
The match was only the second time Lawrie had started at NRL level and he played 55 minutes in three stints, while prop Josh Kerr made his top-grade debut and received 17 minutes after replacing Vaughan just before halftime.
Luciano Leilua shared game time with fellow second-rower Jacob Host, who played two stints of 36 and 25 minutes, while Dufty was thrust into action for the final 19 minutes after the Dragons had conceded four consecutive tries.
McGregor will welcome the availability of Korbin Sims for next Thursday night’s trip to Brisbane after serving a two-match suspension, while Test forward Tyson Frizell is expected to return two weeks later following surgery for a ruptured testicle.
The NRL has asked the Dragons to provide details of a proposal seeking salary cap relief to replace de Belin, who has been stood down under the NRL’s “no-fault stand down” policy while he defends a sexual assault charge.
Widdop and McInnes blamed the second-half collapse on a drop off in completion rates from 83 per cent in the first half to 65 per cent in the second half as the home side was forced to make 150 tackles to 114 by the Rabbitohs.
Match Highlights: Dragons v Rabbitohs
“The spine is as good as the intent from the team,” McInnes said. “The best halfback, hookers and five-eighths in the game play great when their forwards are getting a roll on and winning possession.
“In the first half we did that so our spine was pretty good. In the second half we didn’t and our spine probably didn’t look that good.
“It’s only round two so If anyone out there is panicking you wouldn’t want to have them in your corner because we will get better, we will learn and that first half against a quality side, I think they would agree that we dominated them."
Widdop has not shied away from the fact that five-eighth is his preferred position but he starred for England at fullback in the 2017 World Cup and has already shown he will put the interests of the Dragons first by giving the club 12 months notice of his desire to play Super League in 2019.
“I am committed to the Dragons, I’m here for the rest of the year and I’m not going anywhere,” Widdop said.
“I will do what’s best for the team. I have played in the NRL for a long while now and I’ve played five-eighth. That’s my No.1 position but if Mary believes I am the best fit at fullback for this team I will go out there and do a job."