Injured St George Illawarra captain Gareth Widdop will take on a coaching role with the Dragons until he has fully recovered from his latest shoulder reconstruction and is ready to resume playing later in the season.
Widdop, who had surgery on his right shoulder at the end of last season, underwent a latarjet reconstruction after suffering another dislocation in last week’s epic 25-24 defeat of Brisbane and is hoping to return between Round 20 and 23.
The loss of the England playmaker until August is a significant blow for the Dragons but they had been preparing for his departure at the end of the season and are able to slot fullback Matt Dufty into the starting side as his replacement.
However, team-mates will miss Widdop’s voice on the field and St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor said he would be remain closely involved with the side during his rehabilitation by assuming a coaching capacity.
“I spoke to him last night and he is in good spirits,” McGregor said.
“The operation was a success as far as we know and he is due back at some stage during the year, so that is a positive for the football team.
“I think everyone knows the quality of Gareth, and Gareth won’t be too far from everything that happens this year. Even though he won’t be on the field he will be highly involved around training and around the coaching side of it.
“He will get involved in that and he will be ready when he does come back, and that will be an important boost for the team at an important time, obviously depending on how his recovery goes and how the team goes as well.”
Hooker Cameron McInness takes over the captaincy role for Sunday night’s match against Newcastle at McDonald Jones Stadium but he will share the leadership responsibilities with James Graham and Tyson Frizell, who is rated an 80-20 chance of returning after surgery from a lacerated testicle.
While there had been criticism of McGregor’s decision to play Widdop at fullback in a re-shuffled spine to accommodate Corey Norman at five-eighth, the ploy had been working as opposition defences were run off their feet, but the Dragons lack of forward depth cost them against the Cowboys and Rabbitohs.
Norman shared the fullback duties with Widdop in the Broncos clash and McGregor revealed that he eventually intended for his captain to spend more time in his preferred five-eighth position.
“We always planned that Gareth wasn’t going to play 30 games at fullback, it was all about starting the year in the most settled way and we thought that Gareth at fullback would do that because he knows the systems the best, he has a loud voice and is our captain,” McGregor said.
“Normy is a left-sided player with a kicking game but they were going to interchange at various stages and Normy would have started at No.1 at various stages as well.”
Widdop’s injury means that Norman will remain at five-eighth, with Dufty to take over the fullback role and either Zac Lomax or Jai Field to be the bench utility against the Knights.
“One thing I need to speak publicly about is how Duft really took the responsibility of being that interchange player on and how he has developed as a young player into a person who is team first,” McGregor said.
“We knew that an opportunity would come at some stage, it is earlier than we had anticipated but Duft is very excited, he is energetic and has been jumping around all week about playing this weekend.
“He is an X-factor, when he goes to the game and is highly involved he is very busy, which is what we need and he has got genuine speed, which is probably something we haven’t had in the first three rounds.”
McGregor also hopes to welcome back Frizell, who completed his first contact session on Thursday since lacerating his testicle in the Round 1 loss to North Queensland three weeks ago.
A decision will be made after Saturday’s captain’s run and if he plays, Frizell is expected to wear a protective guard.
“Tyson won’t be at any risk if he takes the football field or we won’t play him,” McGregor said.
“It is early in the year and he is our most decorated player so we don’t want to put him out there and put him at any risk that we don’t need to.”