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Dragons fullback Gareth Widdop.

James Graham admits he will miss fellow Englishman Gareth Widdop when the Dragons captain returns home to play for Warrington next season but it is unclear who will take his place in the St George Illawarra back line.

With Corey Norman set to return to five-eighth to partner Ben Hunt in the halves after being signed this season as Widdop’s long-term replacement, the Dragons No.1 jersey will be up for grabs in 2020.

At this stage it appears to be a three-way battle between Zac Lomax, Tristan Sailor and Matt Dufty. But the latter’s future at the club is not certain after falling from favour five weeks ago following Widdop’s return from a shoulder injury suffered in the round three defeat of Brisbane.

Despite signing a two-year contract extension before the start of this season, Dufty and the Dragons are understood to have mutually agreed that he can explore interest from rival clubs for 2020. There is still the possibility he will stay.

The development indicates that Lomax may be considered at fullback as regular centres Euan Aitken and Tim Lafai are under contract for next season and Dragons officials insist both are part of the club's 2020 plans.

However, Lomax can also play on the wing, while Sailor is equally comfortable at fullback or five-eighth.  

Dragons v Roosters - Round 23

Dufty was not selected in St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor’s initial 21-man squad to play the Roosters on Saturday night at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium and has been named to play on the wing in the earlier Canterbury Cup fixture.

McGregor is monitoring Hunt and second-rower Tyson Frizell after they suffered concussions in last Sunday’s controversial 18-12 loss to Cronulla and Sailor is on standby to make his NRL debut if either or both join Patrick Kaufusi on the sideline.

It is unclear whether Sailor would be elevated to the starting side if Hunt is ruled out or whether Lomax would shift to his preferred fullback role, with Norman playing alongside Widdop in the halves and Mikaele Ravalawa re-instated on the wing.

Jacob Host is set to come into the 17-man squad in place of Kaufusi, who was the worst effected of the three Dragons concussed in the clash with the Sharks, and McGregor will carry a back on the interchange if both Hunt and Frizell are ruled out.

The match will be the last at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium for Widdop and veteran forward Jeremey Latimore, who will retire after St George Illawarra’s round 25 trip to the Gold Coast and team-mates are determined to send them out on the best possible note.

"Gareth has done a lot for this club and he is obviously our captain so it would be nice to leave the Dragons home ground with a win," Graham said. "Hopefully the fans can send him off with a lot of respect and pay their appreciation to Gareth and Jeremy. I think that would be nice."

Dragons and England teammates Widdop and Graham
Dragons and England teammates Widdop and Graham ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

Widdop joined the Dragons from Melbourne in 2014 and has established himself as one of the best play makers in the game during his 122 appearances for the club.

However, the England five-eighth wants to play in Super League while he is still near the top of his game and gave Dragons management 12-months notice that he was going to take up an offer with Warrington for 2020.

"I am going to miss him a lot," Graham said. "We have been close friends for a very long time, since he came into the England set up in 2009 so we have had a bond since then that has only grown over time.

"I'd had that experience of being with him for six or eight week camps and I thought I’d like the opportunity to be with him for the full season so he was a big reason for why I wanted to come here.

"That's the nature of our sport. Gareth will be a friend for life, I hope, and he is someone I have thoroughly enjoyed riding the roller-coaster of week-to-week rugby league with."

A number of Dragons players trained in different positions on Friday to prepare for the possibility of Hunt or Frizell being out and Lomax said he was happy to play wherever he was needed after recent thumb and hamstring injuries.

"I guess we probably haven't had the season we wanted but the next three games are going to be a real big task for us and we want to build momentum and get some confidence and belief back in the team leading into next season," Lomax said.

"I have played no footy lately so I just want to be back on the field and I want to be playing. I am trying to get my fitness right as much as I can and I am happy to play wherever."

Acknowledgement of Country

St George Illawarra Dragons respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples, where our games are played, our programs are conducted and in the communities we support.

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