St George Illawarra five-eighth Jamie Soward has pinpointed the next month as make or break for the Dragons as they continue to battle the rigours of the representative season.
Injuries and fatigue have taken a heavy toll on the reigning premiers, who sat four points clear at the top of the NRL ladder just three weeks ago but slipped to third behind Manly and Melbourne last night following the Sea Eagles’ narrow victory over Parramatta.
The absence of back-rowers Ben Creagh and Beau Scott – both injured in State of Origin II – was telling as the Dragons fell to their second consecutive loss against Brisbane on Friday night while Brett Morris, Dean Young and Matt Cooper were also notable absentees.
Frustrated by the impact the representative season has had on the club, Soward admitted life wouldn’t get any easier when St George Illawarra face a red-hot Manly outfit next Monday but insisted they couldn’t afford to let another game slip away.
“It’s very important for us,” he told NRL.com. “If you look at the ladder and how congested it is near the top, we need to make sure we get back, get a victory and just cement a couple of wins around this third Origin period.
“Hopefully by then we can start to get a few blokes back. I mean, the thing for us at the moment is we’ve had a terrible run with injury so we’re trying to get those blokes back on the paddock and hopefully we can do that in the next few weeks.”
The Dragons picked up this season where they left off in last year’s grand final win over the Roosters with 10 wins from their first 11 games but have since hit a brick wall with a draw against Parramatta and losses to the Gold Coast and Brisbane over the past three weeks.
The next month isn’t easy either as they host Manly at WIN Stadium on Monday night and face Newcastle the following week minus their plethora of Origin stars before finally enjoying a much-needed bye weekend.
Asked how the players felt about the impact the rep season has had on the Telstra Premiership, Soward said the Dragons had been frustrated that their good work during the early rounds was being ground away.
“It really has a big impact and I guess it’s Catch-22,” he said. “We had been playing some pretty good footy up until the Origin period and we’ve really worked hard on establishing our position at the top of the ladder there – then we lost it in a couple of weeks.
“It’s unfortunate but I guess that’s the price you pay for success.
“I think the guys that have filled in have done a great job but we do need a couple of wins to cement our spot and get us through this Origin period so we can look to the back end of the season.”
Soward himself has been heavily involved in the representative season in 2011, impressing for Country Origin in May and earning a State of Origin debut for NSW where he played a key role in last week’s stunning 18-8 win that levelled the series.
But he admitted to being surprised by just how exhausting the whole experience has been.
“A little bit tired – it’s very tiring,” he said when asked how he was holding up. “I’ve even asked a few of the guys like Gaz (Mark Gasnier) how they’ve done it for so long over the years and they just laugh and say, ‘Well, we just do it because we have to’.
“So yeah, I’m a bit tired at the moment but at the same time I’m loving the opportunity and wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The NRL this week announced a revamped schedule for 2012 with the traditional May Test match and City v Country games to be held on a stand-alone weekend – the first time rep games have been granted their own weekend since State of Origin was played on a Sunday night in 2001.
There are also plans to switch Origin to Monday nights from 2012 to allow players further recovery time, with Soward giving the proposals the thumbs up.
“It (State of Origin) is the pinnacle of our season, apart from a grand final, so we need to be on a stand-alone weekend,” he said. “That way you get a chance for everyone from the bush to come in, from Queensland or from NSW, and experience everything that is Origin.
“I think you’d find that if it was on a [stand-alone] weekend, the players would be backing up [the following weekend] and you’d get the best team out there every week instead of what we’ve got now.
“I mean, it’s great to give those young blokes an opportunity, and we realise that at the Dragons, but in saying that I’m sure you can see how it has affected us the last couple of weeks. And we’re not through it yet…”
Soward kept his cards close to his chest when asked about NSW coach Ricky Stuart’s request for his Dragons and Sea Eagles players to stand down from club duties next weekend although it is expected that he will be named to take the field on Monday night when Wayne Bennett announces his team later today.
“I haven’t even really thought about it, to tell you the truth,” Soward said. “I’ve just been relaxing for a few days and have left it at that.”