Dragons centre Lafai relishing post-Dugan challenge

St George Illawarra centre Tim Lafai believes he can be the player to take over as the Dragons’ primary strike weapon following Josh Dugan’s departure to Cronulla.

Lafai played 23 NRL games this year after an indifferent first season with the Dragons in 2016 and scored seven tries, while also being responsible for nine try assists – most of which were scored by top try-scorer Jason Nightingale.

With Dugan having left the Dragons, coach Paul McGregor is looking to the Samoa international to build on his 2017 season and Lafai said that was his goal for next year.

“Dugan is a big loss for us but we have got a lot of talent and we have got a lot of good backs out there competing for positions, including myself. Last year is done so I have got to earn that spot again,” Lafai said.

“Mary [McGregor] has spoken about what he wants from me and I have got to build on last year. I can’t just be happy with last year’s results I have just got to build on that and achieve more for the new year.

Dragons centre Tim Lafai in action.
Dragons centre Tim Lafai in action. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

“You have got to have the right mindset, the consistency and just be mentally tough. That is what the great players do and it is why they are so good. My goal for next season is to be more consistent and cut out the unforced errors.”

After returning to training this week following the World Cup, Lafai said he was impressed by the depth of talent in the Dragons squad and knows there will be a battle for backline positions following the emergence of Matt Dufty, Jai Field and Zac Lomax.

Where McGregor selects utility Kurt Mann is likely to be the key to the Dragons backline as Dufty, Field and Lomax can all play fullback. Centre Euan Aitken will return from shoulder surgery and skipper Gareth Widdop and star recruit Ben Hunt are the obvious halves pairing. 

“It is a really young squad which is really good for the future,” Lafai said. “There are a lot of new faces and obviously, we still have the Australian and English boys [Hunt, Widdop, James Graham and Tyson Frizell] to get back next year.

“They have been training well and I am really looking forward to next season.”

While Canberra coach Ricky Stuart has complained about his Samoa contingent of Josh Papalii, Joey Leulua and Junior Paulo returning to training overweight after the World Cup, Lafai said McGregor had been happy with his fitness.

“Obviously in the break you tend to be a kilo or two over but I wasn’t too bad,” Lafai said. “It has been a pretty tough week since I have been so Mary has been kicking us into line for fitness anyway.

“He has let us know how tough the pre-season has been and just seeing the boys with the ice-packs in the sheds you can tell it has been very tough.”

Despite Samoa failing to win a match at the World Cup, Lafai said it had been a good experience and he called on officials to ensure players have more opportunities to represent the Pacific nations.

Tim Lafai playing for Samoa in the World Cup.
Tim Lafai playing for Samoa in the World Cup. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

He described the pre-game prayer circle involving the Samoa and Tonga players after days of clashes between fans from both nations in Auckland as the highlight of the World Cup.

“Both captains [Samoa’s Frank Pritchard and Tonga’s Sika Manu] heard what was going on and they are good friends as well so they wanted to show everyone there was no need to go silly,” Lafai said.

“It is just a game and we know you are passionate but the love we have for each other in the islands is good and after that there was no more trouble out there in the streets. I think it was the best moment by far in the World Cup.

“Other than the poor results it was a good experience. I think there should be a lot of work put into the Pacific nations moving forward.

“The support we got from the Pacific people was good and seeing how well Tonga, Fiji and PNG went was good for the game. If they want the international game to grow I think they should invest more into it.”