St George Illawarra centre Josh Dugan may have only played six games at centre for the Red V, but he’s well aware some pretty big names have worn the jersey before him. Luckily for Dugan, two of the best are on hand to give him some personal tips.
Paul ‘Mary’ McGregor was in the centres for St George Illawarra when they made their inaugural Grand Final appearance in 1999 in just their second year as a merged entity. When McGregor, a club trainer then on duty with the NSW Origin side, got the call-up to replace Steve Price as coach a little over two months ago, one of the first changes he made was to shift tackle-busting fullback Josh Dugan into the centres.
The move raised a few eyebrows, not least because of the additional defensive workload required in the centres compared to fullback, but McGregor wanted to find a spot in first grade for promising fullback Adam Quinlan. Plus with first choice centre Dylan Farrell then off injured on what was to be the first of two long-term pectoral injuries, he needed another strike centre.
Remarkably, with a major injury crisis striking the NSW three-quarter line through the 2014 Origin series, Dugan found himself back wearing sky blue as a centre with just two first grade games in that spot.
One of the other changes McGregor made was to bring in club legend Matt Cooper – another great in the centres – to help with the first grade squad.
Aside from Cooper’s former teammate Mark Gasnier, and Gasnier’s uncle Reg – the Prince of Centres and the greatest of them all – McGregor and Cooper have claims to being two of the best centres to wear the Red V, certainly in the past two decades.
“We've got two ex right centres that are greats of the club, and two of the best centres of their time so it's definitely a big help for me,” Dugan told NRL.com of his short time so far working under McGregor and Cooper.
“It has helped [having a coach who played centre] and having Matt Cooper has helped out as well. And through Origin J-Moz [Bulldogs centre Josh Morris] was there so I've had some great centres helping me out over the last two months and I'm just trying to improve every week and just keep doing my best.”
Dugan averaged six tackles per game across six games at fullback in 2014 before the move, and has averaged 21 per game since the shift. His average missed tackles however have only climbed from around 2.5 to three per game. If you could take out a tough day at the office against the Storm in Round 16, where he missed eight, and his average misses at centre would actually be lower than when he was at fullback.
His running game doesn’t look to have suffered too badly either, despite concerns McGregor was weakening one of his most potent strike weapons.
Although his average metres have understandably dropped without so many kick returns – from 150 per game to 108 – they are still high for a centre, he still breaks just over four tackles per game, down from around 6.5. Notably, after just one line break in six games at fullback he has five from six games at centre, and after one try at fullback he has since scored five at centre.
Dugan said from the time McGregor first floated the idea of switching, he had been determined to see out the year at centre – something that seems even more likely with the recent and desperately unlucky season-ending pectoral injury to Farrell.
“Adam Quinlan's playing some great footy for us at the back and I don't think my form's been too bad or warrants being changed,” Dugan said.
“I was always expecting, as long as my form was OK and the team was going alright, to finish off the year at centre.
“I'm always going to keep trying to improve, I've been working with Coops and Mary just to try to get a few tips and pointers every week for things I can improve on but I'm definitely looking forward to sticking out the year there and coming in to pre-season for next year and seeing what the plan is.”
Like Gasnier and Cooper before him, Dugan has been defending two-in, rather than next to the winger, and he said that has actually been an easier adjustment positionally despite the higher number of tackles.
“I think when you first get in and know a position, especially at centre, it's easier to defend at three-man because you know you've got the lead runner and you can double-d and push out. I think that was the main reason for me starting at three-man but it seems to be working so I don't think it will change.”
Dugan said there were no specific personal goals he could elaborate on other than a continual focus on learning and improvement.
“Mainly week-in week-out I try and get a few touches, get involved and make sure my D [defence] is OK.
“There were a few hiccups [in the 21-12 loss to Manly in Round 19] as a whole on the right edge, but we've fixed that up and again, we've been defending pretty well since I made the shift so I don't think we're going to get too down on ourselves after one bad game but we'll just keep trying to improve every game.”
He said the team overall has been playing with plenty of confidence since McGregor took over.
“We've been playing some pretty good footy over the last few weeks. As long as we keep improving, which is what we've been trying to do, I think we could be a good chance of getting a win [against the Roosters].
“The two points this weekend would put us right up in the mix for the top eight. A lot of the boys are confident we'll be there in September but we've got to win those tight, tough games and this weekend is one of them.
“The boys are real tight at the moment and real confident as well, so as long as we keep putting good performances on the board we'll definitely be a shot of being there in the back end of the year.
“Mary's brought in a lot of confidence, everyone's loving playing under his structures and his philosophy. His game plans seem to be working as well. The last few weeks our combinations have been right on point and we've been putting some tries on and getting away with the wins.”
He describes McGregor as a perfectionist, and a straight shooter.
“Since he's taken over he says it how it is and that's what everyone expects from him. If you're playing well and doing the right things he'll let you know, but if you're not doing the right things, or have a stuff up he'll let you know as well. He puts it on you to improve and if you don't you know you're not going to be there week in week out.”