Luciano Leilua and Tariq Sims will be given two stints each in Saturday night’s Charity Shield at Mudgee to decide which of them claims the vacant left second-row spot in the St George Illawarra Dragons pack for the opening game of the Telstra Premiership against the Brisbane Broncos.
The departure of Joel Thompson to Manly Warringah Sea Eagles has left Dragons coach Paul McGregor to find a replacement and he plans to use the Charity Shield clash with South Sydney Rabbitohs to choose between Leilua and Sims.
Leilua is a talented young gun who played a handful of NRL matches in 2016 and is considered the most skilful forward at the Dragons, while Sims is an experienced forward who has been a mainstay of representative teams for NSW Country and Fiji.
McGregor is also yet to settle on a right centre, the position Josh Dugan finished last season playing, and utility Kurt Mann is expected to be given time there against the Rabbitohs, along with Euan Aitkin.
“There are still probably two positions up for grabs,” McGregor said. “The other one is obviously the interchange bench and it comes down to tomorrow.
“I am settled on 18 or 19 players but whoever gets that final spot will come down to tomorrow night.”
McGregor said the players in contention for round one at Kogarah against the Broncos would all be given two stints in the Charity Shield, while others such as Hame Sele, Josh Kerr, Jeremy Latimore and Blake Lawrie – if he plays after suffering a back injury at training - were expected to get just one.
It is likely that whichever of Leilua and Sims misses out on the starting spot will be on the interchange, but if Mann plays in the centres then another forward could be added to the bench.
“We’ve got a plan in place where our main forwards will get two stints and at the back end of the game the young guys will get some time,” McGregor said. “We will use 19 players more heavily than the other four in the 23 [man squad].
“Although the Charity Shield is a great game, it is a trial match and we need to get minutes into our important people for round one.”
The Dragons will field a full-strength squad for the match, and McGregor said PNG winger Nene McDonald had overcome a nagging knee injury to play.
McDonald scored a try and had another disallowed in last Saturday night’s 24-18 defeat of Hull FC after coming on as a second half replacement and he also played that weekend in an Intrust Super Premiership trial.
“Structurally he is fine, load wise he has done what he needs to do, it is just that he thinks about it a little too much because it has been an ongoing problem for him for about six months,” McGregor said.
“The medical staff are saying he will play 80 minutes tomorrow so I am expecting him to do that.”
The match will be star halfback recruit Ben Hunt’s second match with the club and McGregor said it was important he use the pre-season matches to develop combinations with captain Gareth Widdop, hooker Cameron McInnes and fullback Matt Dufty.
“Benny played about 65 minutes last week and he needed that,” McGregor said. “I thought his kicking game was really good, his placement of his kicks was really good and I thought we should have scored a few more tries.
“As the game went on I thought him and Gareth came together well. Benny is the Seven, he has got to execute the game plan, Gareth is a more instinctive player so it is just a matter of getting that cohesion.”