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McGregor floats Nines idea to keep fringe players NRL ready

Paul Vaughan needed stitches for a head wound as the intensity ramped up at WIN Stadium and with up to 15 players missing out on a jersey each round, Paul McGregor believes Nines games could be a way to keep them engaged and ready to play.

With the NSW and Queensland second-tier competitions cancelled, there is nowhere for those players not selected in the game-day 17-man squad to play and their only chance to impress is at training.

After five weeks of training on their own or in pairs, players were keen to return to full training this week and Vaughan became the first St George Illawarra casualty when he split his head while defending in an opposed session.

Yet while coaches welcome the return of physical contact at training, the prospect of pitting fresh and possibly frustrated fringe players against their battle weary teammates midway through the season won’t be as appealing.

There are also concerns about how those players who aren’t getting game time will remain motivated through a season that will comprise 16 uninterrupted weeks of matches after State of Origin was moved to November.

Paul Vaughan receives treatment for his head wound at training.
Paul Vaughan receives treatment for his head wound at training. ©dragons.com.au

For coaches, it may become a juggling act as injuries and suspensions will force changes but how will a rookie or journeyman who hasn’t played for several weeks perform when suddenly called upon to fill the breach.

McGregor said some form of competition would need to be organised for those players after the Telstra Premiership resumes on May 28 and suggested a Nines format would accommodate the number of players involved without clubs needing to combine to form teams.

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"I think that’s got to happen," McGregor said.

"Even if it is a game of Nines to get some game time into the players who aren’t picked in that initial 19-man squad so you can get a look at them and they get some enjoyment out of playing.

"That’s why we play the sport. I know it is professional but the enjoyment comes from when you go out to play.

"Certainly the main focus right now is the NRL getting up and running and as smooth as possible, but after that will then come the real questions around what can we do for the rest of the team so they can get some game time."

Cronulla coach John Morris backed the idea, saying: "We may struggle to get 13 v 13 at some point so I guess that is one option that is worth considering.

"We need to be open to change and any idea to get the boys out there in a game, whether it is a Nines format, I think it would be supported by all the coaches."

Another idea that has been floated is clubs supplying players who missed out on game time to play in a combined team and McGregor and Morris said despite being traditional rivals, the Dragons and Sharks would be willing to join forces, if neccesary.

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The matches could even provide some additional broadcast content, given the calibre of players likely to be involved.

"It is different times and I think we need to be real innovative and come up with ways that we can help one another out through this and get our players ready for NRL standard without just training and keep their enthusiasm up," McGregor said.

"You would like to see some sort of competition formed, whether a couple of teams combine to make up a group of 17 players or 19 players who play on a Monday night or us versus Cronulla in a Nines played before our game.

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"It would be good to watch some combined teams play and it might bring another night of footy on the box."

With captain Cameron McInnes, forwards Tariq and Korbin Sims and winger Mikaele Ravalawa available for St George Illawarra’s round-three match against the Warriors, McGregor faces a number of selection headaches, including whether to choose former New Zealand hooker Issac Luke on the interchange.

In the backs, McGregor must decide whether to play Zac Lomax at fullback, centre or wing and he will wait until another week of training before settling on his side.