Some St George Illawarra players may be playing for their positions in Sunday’s match against Newcastle, with forward Korbin Sims set to lead the return of the club’s sidelined stars after being named in an extended 21-man squad for the trip to Mudgee.
Sims has played just two matches in the Red V after breaking his arm in the round four defeat of the Knights, while Gareth Widdop and Corey Norman are also on the injured list and Jack de Belin has been stood down since the start of the season under the NRL’s “no fault stand down” policy.
After winning four consecutive matches, the Dragons have lost their last three to slump to 10th place on the NRL ladder but the return of the big names will provide a significant boost to the team’s Telstra Premiership ambitions.
St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor will have a clearer idea of Sims' availability on Wednesday.
If Sims doesn’t play against Newcastle on Sunday, he would be expected to make his comeback in the May 26 clash with Cronulla at WIN Stadium and Norman is considered a chance of returning in the same match or the following one after fracturing his cheekbone two weeks ago against Parramatta.
Widdop is not due back until August after undergoing shoulder surgery six weeks ago but he was a welcome sight for team-mates at training on Tuesday as he practised goal-kicking while they completed an extended ball work session.
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De Belin also trained and the NSW State of Origin lock appears ready to return to the playing field if he is successful in his legal challenge to the NRL’s “no-fault stand down” policy, with Federal Court judge Melissa Perry expected to hand down her decision this week.
The unavailability of the star quartet has severely tested the Dragons forward depth, as Test second-rower Tyson Frizell has also spent time on the sideline after suffering a ruptured testicle in the opening round loss to North Queensland.
Blake Lawrie, Jacob Host and Luciano Leilua effectively shared an interchange position last season but all three have been regular members of the Dragons' 17-man squad this season.
Lawrie has been starting in place of de Belin, with Host and Leilua on the interchange bench along with veteran forward Jeremy Latimore and centre Euan Aitken.
Latimore has been playing less in recent weeks than earlier in the season and was restricted to just 12 minutes against the Warriors, while Aitken replaced Zac Lomax at right centre in the 51st minute.
Sims was signed as a direct replacement for Leeson Ah Mau, whose performances off the interchange bench helped St George Illawarra to maintain momentum during the middle period of matches but after being suspended for the opening two matches he has missed the past five games with a broken arm.
The injuries and unavailability of de Belin has meant representative props James Graham and Paul Vaughan are playing longer.
The pair averaged 48 minutes each in matches for the Dragons last year but Graham is averaging 56 minutes and Vaughan is averaging 53 minutes this season.
Graham played 66 minutes in last Saturday’s 26-18 loss to the Warriors and 53 minutes the previous weekend against the Eels, while Vaughan played 51 minutes and 58 minutes in the corresponding matches.
In both games, the Dragons held a strong first-half lead – being ahead 14-0 against Parramatta and 18-6 against the Warriors – but fell away in the second half.
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“It’s disappointing, our two halves have been like two totally differently teams the past two weeks,” Frizell said.
“It’s hard to say what it was exactly – a lack of concentration, I guess. It’s pretty difficult to put your finger on and not let it happen but it’s something we need to change. It’s happened two weeks in a row now and only us players can fix that.
“We are doing everything we can preparation wise to get ourselves in the right mindset, we know the structures and the things we have in place within the team are perfect, we don’t need to change anything. It’s just our mindset and the way we start our halves is letting us down.”