Jason Saab grew up playing in a cardinal and myrtle South Sydney-style jersey and his father is a member of The Burrow but the 18-year-old winger hopes Friday night’s debut against the Rabbitohs will be the beginning of a long career with St George Illawarra.
Saab, who played juniors for Merrylands Rams, is considered a future star and Dragons coach Paul McGregor has been waiting patiently all season for him to finally become available for NRL selection this week.
So highly regarded is Saab at St George Illawarra that the club declined the opportunity to sign an established winger at the end of last season in the knowledge that he was coming through the ranks.
The decision enabled the Dragons to bring Corey Norman to the club a season earlier after securing him to replace Gareth Widdop and he is set to play alongside the 195cm Saab for years to come as the rookie winger has been signed until 2022.
St George Illawarra director of rugby league pathways Ian Millward said the club hoped Saab would follow in the footsteps of Jason Nightingale and enjoy a lengthy career with the Dragons.
“We’ve never signed anyone as young on such a long contract but for us it was a no-brainer,” Millward said. “Speed-wise he is really good, he jumps excellently in the air, he is low maintenance off the field and he comes from a good family.
“We knew the club would be looking for taller, bigger wingers so we decided to put him on a four-year contract.”
Halfback Ben Hunt, second-rower Tariq Sims, prop Blake Lawrie and 17-year-old SG Ball playmaker Jayden Sullivan are currently the only other players committed to the club for as long, while prop Paul Vaughan has an option for the 2022 season.
Remarkably, no other club had shown interest in Saab until he was selected for NSW Under 18s last season and he had never been identified by Parramatta for a junior representative team.
Saab came to St George as a 16-year-old and what triggered the interest of Dragons officials wasn’t his performances in games but the results of testing for his acceleration, leap and strength.
“He was right up there with some of the really good players who have come through our ranks,” Millward said. “Then, in his second year of Under 18s, he just got better and better.”
The Eels and other clubs became interested just as St George Illawarra were preparing a deal for Saab but he told officials he didn’t want to play anywhere else.
“He said, ‘The Dragons gave me an opportunity so I want to stay here’,” Millward said. “His dad is a mad Rabbitohs fan. He has come to some meetings with me with his Rabbitohs jumper on and he sits in The Burrow with his mates so it is quite ironic Jason’s first game is against Souths.”
The Dragons decision to sign Saab on a long-term contract was vindicated when he starred at last year’s Australian Secondary Schools championships on the Gold Coast, along with Cronulla centre Bronson Xerri, and was chosen for an end-of-season tour to England.
After commencing pre-season training in January, the Dragons agreed Saab should start in Under 20s for six weeks before advancing to the Mathew Head-coached Canterbury Cup team.
As one of six development players, Saab could not play NRL before June 30 and McGregor waited until after his commitments with the NSW under 20s team to select him.
“We are having an early look at an exciting talent for the future,” McGregor said. “He has been putting pressure on the players consistently throughout the year in reserve grade with some really good performances but we weren’t allowed to use him earlier.
“He was just playing too well to leave out and we want to give him a taste of first grade now. He can get nice and high, when he gets into open space he is quite quick and defensively he has a good understanding of what he needs to do.”
Meanwhile, Mikaele Ravalawa, injured winger Jordan Pereira and forward Lachlan Timms joined NSW Women’s captain Kezie Apps for a surprise appearance at training for players in the “Score Dragons” community program to announce they had received a St George Bank funding grant.
Now in its sixth season, the “Score Dragons” is a joint initiative between St George Illawarra and The Disability Trust to include players with disabilities in a local Illawarra competition and earned the club the 2015 NRL Community program of the year award.