For the first time this season Dragons coach Paul McGregor has been able to select his strongest possible team but his players are refusing to consider the slim possibility that they could still sneak into the finals.
With Jeremy Latimore recovering from a knee problem just a week after Gareth Widdop and Zac Lomax returned from long-term injuries and James Graham back for the previous weekend, the Dragons are finally at full strength for Sunday’s home match against Parramatta.
However, last Friday night’s heartbreaking 20-16 loss to South Sydney was probably the final blow to St George Illawarra’s play-off hopes and players insist they are just focused on beating the Eels.
With 25 or 26 points expected to be enough for a top-eight berth, the Dragons remain a mathematical chance if they win their remaining six games but prop Paul Vaughan said the team was refusing to look further than their next game.
“I think we just need to back up that game on the weekend,” Vaughan said. “It has been really frustrating to be where we are at the moment so it was good to be able to compete with a top-four team like Souths.
“It was a little bit heartbreaking when all the boys put in like that and you have the game stolen away at the end but at the same time there were some positives.
"All you really ask when you are playing footy is for everyone to work for each other and that is what we want to do this weekend.”
The match was Widdop’s first since dislocating his shoulder in the round three defeat of Brisbane and before that McGregor was without the services of forwards Korbin Sims (suspension) and Tyson Frizell (ruptured testicle).
Graham (broken leg), Lomax (broken thumb), Sims (broken arm), five-eighth Corey Norman (fractured cheekbone) and centre Tim Lafai (ankle) have all had long stints on the sideline this season, while the Dragons had five players involved in State of Origin.
Only lock Jack de Belin, who has not played all season due to the NRL’s “no fault stand-down policy”, remains unavailable for selection.
Lomax said the last-gasp loss to the second-placed Rabbitohs was an indication of what the Dragons could have achieved had they been able to remain at full strength.
“Mary actually told us that last week was the first week he was able to pick whatever team he wanted for the whole year, so to lose in the last 15 or 20 seconds to a team who are running second is a confidence boost,” Lomax said.
St George Illawarra players won’t concede that their season is over but publicly they are no longer talking about the finals.
“It’s going to be pretty tough but if we start focusing on those games in a couple of weeks it is not going to do us any good so I think getting that tunnel vision for this week’s game against Parramatta is good for us,” second-rower Tariq Sims said.
“I thought last week was a step in the right direction I think if we play to our potential we can go a long way.”
The return of Widdop has given the squad a huge confidence boost and they want to finish the season as strongly as possible before he leaves to finish his career with Warrington in Super League.
Widdop appeared set to enjoy a fairytale return after kicking a penalty goal from the sideline to give the Dragons a 16-14 lead with less than two minutes remaining but Rabbitohs winger Campbell Graham scored as the full-time siren sounded.
“Gazza thrives under pressure and everyone knows what he can do,” Lomax said. “He plays for his country, he has won grand finals and he has played with the best players in the world.
“He is an outside back, as I am, he is a goalkicker, as I am, so he has given me heaps of tips. He has taken me under his wing since I have come into first grade."