Fight for Dragons backline spots heats up
St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor will have plenty of soul searching to do over the next few months before choosing his desired backline for the commencement of the 2015 NRL season.
Gareth Widdop and Benji Marshall are locked in to play in the halves and Jason Nightingale is a certainty for the right flank, but elsewhere there are still plenty of spots up for grabs in McGregor's side.
Of course the availability of positions is dependent on where Josh Dugan lines up in the side.
A certainty to be named in the team, Dugan will either play fullback or centre for Mary's men, which adds another twist to the tail that is the makeup of the Dragons' backline.
Brett Morris and Gerard Beale have departed the club, leaving two previously unproblematic positional dilemmas for McGregor to deal with.
If Dugan plays in the centres then Dane Nielsen, Charly Runciman, Peter Mata'utia, Dylan Farrell, Yaw Kiti Glymin, Eto Nabuli, Euan Aitken and Nathan Green will all contend for a wing and centre spot, with Adam Quinlan or Mata'utia likely to play fullback.
However, if Dugan chooses to return to his usual fullback spot then both centre spots and Morris's left wing vacancy will be available, heating up pre-season proceedings dramatically.
Queensland Origin centre Nielsen and experienced campaigner Farrell appear to be frontrunners for centre spots but after finishing the past season strongly in the centres Mata'utia is another option, with the 24-year-old noting he'd be happy to play anywhere if it meant a consistent NRL berth.
"I'll grab any position I can just as long as I'm playing NRL," Mata'utia told NRL.com.
"I've been training full time since 2008 and I guess I'm at the point where I want to be in first grade consistently."
Mata'utia, who made his NRL debut way back in 2011 for Newcastle, is nonetheless excited for the opportunities the pre-season is sure to bring to the table.
"I know we have lost B-Moz but I reckon with the players we still have and the players we have bought, one of us will do a job on the wing for us. The fans should be excited by the squad we have at the moment," Mata'utia said.
"We have a lot of young kids coming through like Euan [Aitken] and Yaw Kiti [Glymin], who had a fantastic year on the wing [in NSW Cup] so there will be plenty of competition for all the backline spots."
A positive for Mata'utia lies in the fact that neither Nielsen or Farrell finished off their 2014 seasons in the NRL, with Nielsen playing in the NSW Cup and Farrell in the casualty ward.
Runciman, a usual centre who replaced Morris on the wing when he went down injured in Origin I, is another who could potentially fit into Mary's Round 1 plans.
The 21-year-old St John's Dubbo junior has played 10 NRL games already and is keen to make the most of his opportunities if and when he is given them.
"It's just important for me to get involved with the ball and just concentrate on the role I know in defence," Runciman told NRL.com.
"I guess [competition in the squad] is just the nature of the beast. At the end of the day, Peter [Mata'utia] and I could be fighting for a spot or at the same time we could be playing beside one another."
More bolters for a backline spot include former Panthers NSW Cup winger Eto Nabuli and local product Yaw Kiti Glymin, at either end of the rookie spectrum.
Glymin, a 21-year-old Arncliffe Scots product, isn't atop of the pecking order but has set himself on improving in all facets to help him secure an NRL debut.
"I need to get faster, stronger and everything you look for in pre-season pretty much so hopefully it will come together. Mary has told me to keep my head down and keep training hard," Glymin told NRL.com.
"Obviously Morris is a world class player and filling his shoes would be very hard but if I'm put up for the task then I'm sure I'll perform and do my best to replace him.
"It would mean a lot [to play in the NRL]. Considering I'm a St George junior my number one dream has always been to play for the Dragons when I was older so that would be great."
Glymin speaks most highly of fellow debutant Nabuli, who has come to the Dragons looking for an opportunity to play in the NRL.
"Eto is definitely one that I have to look out for," Glymin said.
"He is way over six feet tall. He is a giant. He is fast, strong and everything you need in a winger."
Upon being discovered in Fiji by rugby league legends Brad Fittler and Andrew Johns, Nabuli has been lighting up the NSW Cup for the past two seasons.
"It's always my goal to play in the NRL so that's what I'm hoping for next year," Nabuli told NRL.com.
"There is a spot there, sure, but I have to train hard to take that spot. I have to earn it.
"It is all about competing and training hard. That's the only thing I can do."
Coming from a rugby union background, Nabuli realises he has plenty of improvement to come if he is to become a regular first grader. At 26, time is of the essence for the Fijian who has two years to prove his worth to McGregor.
"The big thing is defence but there are plenty more things too, like my ball carries and being able to get quick for play the balls," Nabuli said.
"Mary spoke to me a little bit about playing the ball quick which I'm a little bit slow with and I'm still learning."
No matter which way the cookie crumbles, the makeup of the Dragons' backline is sure to be a talking point as the 2015 season approaches.