St George Illawarra fullback Josh Dugan’s switch into the centres has proved very timely for both himself and NSW coach Laurie Daley, and while the move wasn’t made to cover for the loss of injured NSW centre Josh Morris, it did arise in the Origin environment.
Dugan has played just two games in the position since new Dragons coach Paul McGregor – who was Laurie Daley’s assistant in the NSW set-up until the club opted to move Steve Price along – moved him there ahead of the Round 12 match against the Rabbitohs.
He was solid but unspectacular in that loss but tore apart the understrength Sharks with a hat-trick a week on, and was rewarded with a return to the NSW side three days later.
Discussing the team selections and in particular the thinking behind opting for Dugan and Eels centre Will Hopoate to replace the injured Morris twins on the right edge, Daley revealed the idea to move Dugan to the centres had come six weeks earlier, well before the twins were injured in Origin I.
“I spoke to Paul McGregor probably about six weeks ago when he was [NSW] assistant and we were discussing whether Josh Dugan would make a centre, and I said I think he'd make a really good centre,” Daley said.
“Mary [McGregor] agreed and then he got the job [as Dragons head coach] and one of the first things he did was put Dugan there [in the centres].
“I thought he was our best option, he's a big strong runner of the ball, hasn't played a lot of centre but he's a guy that's pretty intelligent, he's a guy that understands what his role will be. He's a big game player. He'll be faced with some challenges but we're expecting him to be more than positive.”
He described Dugan simply as “a footballer”.
“He was close to our best player last year in the  series, albeit in a different position. We're confident that he can handle it.”
Dugan himself said he was confident he could handle the step up to playing centre in Origin and potentially marking Greg Inglis.
“I was excited and honoured to be back in the Blues side… I had full confidence in my ability to take the criticism and go back and work on the things that Loz wanted to,” Dugan said.
“[McGregor] sort of made a joke to me about that before the Melbourne game [in Round 6] saying he thinks I’d make a good centre. First day in charge he pulled me aside and said ‘how would you feel about playing centre’ and I threw my hands up and said ‘put me in there’ and I’m excited about the challenge.”
The other thing potentially counting against Dugan’s return was a history of off-field indiscretions, including an infamous night out in Cronulla with Blake Ferguson that resulted in Ferguson being charged with sexual assault and throwing the Blues’ Game II preparation into chaos – but both player and coach are confident he has moved on from that.
“I’d like to think that I’ve matured, I’ve learned a lot over the last 18 months, getting sacked from Canberra, then being back in Origin [in 2013], then this year missing out on Origin I – it’s a learning curve and I’d like to think I’ve matured on and off the field,” Dugan said.
“That [Cronulla incident] was a massive wake-up call as well, I was lucky to stay in the team and I don’t want anything like that to happen again or hamper anyone’s preparation… I’ve had a few stuff-ups, there’s no denying that. I’ve just got to live with it and move on.”
Daley said everyone involved in the squad was buying in to the new culture and not worrying so much about what happened in the past. “I've given [Dugan] a few things to do and he's done it really well,” he said.
On Hopoate’s selection outside Dugan, Daley said he had shown in his 12 games back for Parramatta from two years away on a Mormon mission that he was getting back to close to his best.
“While he's been out of the game for two years, the games he's played this year he hasn't looked out of place. He played well in City-Country. He's a kid that the more you give him, the more he wants. He'll handle it well.
“There's areas that he still needs to improve on but he's a guy that's willing to learn and absorbs information very well.”
He added with players such as forwards Beau Scott and Luke Lewis able to fill in in the centres the side had plenty of options on the right edge.
“If we decide to play [Dugan] on the wing and Will in the centres, if we want we can start with Beau Scott or Luke Lewis in the centres and bring one of those guys off the bench – we've got a number of options so we'll keep it open but we're confident the players will do the job,” he said.
He added he never seriously considered shifting in-form fullback Jarryd Hayne away from his preferred position to cover for the loss of Josh Morris.
“I probably thought about it for half an hour and realised it was in the best interests of the team to keep him at fullback,” Daley said.