De Belin a chance for refreshed Dragons
Refreshed St George Illawarra players have hit the ground running after last week's bye, getting through an intense session at WIN Stadium in Wollongong, with key man Jack De Belin an outside chance of being a late inclusion.
De Belin got through the full contact session unscathed after also training with contact on Monday, having originally not been expected to come back from a shoulder injury until Round 16.
NRL.com watched on for the full session as coach Paul McGregor put the entire squad through a gruelling session on a crisp sunny day at WIN, with De Belin looking completely untroubled and halfback Benji Marshall looking sharp despite his recent hamstring woes, though fullback Josh Dugan (elbow surgery) was a no more active participant in the drills than the handful of journalists present.
Speaking to Dragons TV after the session, St George Illawarra Dragons Head of Medical and Performance Tony Ayoub was encouraged by De Belin's progress but indicated the club would most likely play it safe and reintroduce him in Round 15's match against Melbourne.
"We started to do some more contact on Monday with him, he got through that no repercussions then today did a whole lot more with Jason Demetriou, one of our assistant coaches, and a couple of the other players," Ayoub said.
"He's looking really good at the moment. He's probably going to play next week which is ahead of schedule. We've still got a couple more sessions to get through this week before we make a decision.
"Friday's going to be a big test with him because we'll put him under the blow torch there on Friday with all his contact. If he gets through that we'll make a decision but I think at the moment we might just hold him back a week."
Dragons skipper Gareth Widdop remained hopeful De Belin may be a late inclusion but also welcomed the return of key man Marshall to full fitness.
"After a few days off we've had a few tough sessions. It's great to see Benji back in full training again and obviously 'Bomber' [De Belin] is close," Widdop said.
"I think they're just assessing him throughout the week and we'll see how he goes but he's coming along nicely."
Wednesday's morning session had started with the dreaded beep test; energetic hooker Mitch Rein was the club's best which was not unexpected, though super-fit centre Euan Aitken pushed him all the way.
With the squad nice and fatigued McGregor then launched into a field session, practising opposed plays up and down the field.
Stand-in fullback Jason Nightingale was vocal at the back organising the defence and got the chance to display his high-quality left-to-right passing game, including one two-man cut-out to Kiti Glymin during one of the attacking drills that caught the eye.
He's good, he's been playing for a number of years and he's played in that position before," Widdop said of Nightingale.
"I thought he was great against the Cowboys. It's great to have some experience back there and he'll do another good job."
Marshall had plenty of zip and didn't look at all troubled by his recent hamstring woes; he slotted well into some nice right-side attacking moves where he ran direct at the line and held up some nice short balls for his centres and edge back rowers in what could be an indication of a more direct and less lateral attacking style from the former New Zealand international.
Of his stuttering combination with Marshall, which has seen reserve half Josh McCrone shuffled in and out of first grade pending Marshall's hamstring fitness, Widdop said it helped being able to get some consistency in the key roles.
"It certainly helps when you're playing week in week out. It's been a slow start to the season with himself and a few injuries but hopefully we can string a few games together," Widdop said.
Pressed about the team's attack, which is currently the worst in the NRL with just 143 points scored in 12 games, Widdop added: "From Round 1 to where we are now we've certainly improved a lot and it's about building on that week in week out. Once Benji gets back and we can build those combinations again we'll be fine.
"It's the second half of the season now, we had a few days off to refresh the bodies and now it's a really important part of the season, second half of the season coming into finals so we need to make sure we're doing everything right and putting in some good performances.
"I think [our attack] is improving week in week out. Our defence is still letting in a few points. You're not going to win games if your defence isn't up to scratch so we certainly need to keep working hard on that."