St George Illawarra players were asked at an honesty session after last Sunday’s 38-0 capitulation to Canterbury to put themselves in Jason Nightingale’s shoes and consider whether they’d be satisfied if that was their final game.
As expected, the answer was a resounding “no”, following a performance described as the worst by any NRL team this season and one which cost the Dragons a top-four finish.
As they returned to training on Tuesday, the players were still stinging from the defeat and felt they had let down Nightingale, who was making his farewell at Kogarah and will not play again unless the Dragons advance deep into the finals.
“We’ve had a few honest conversations already so it is how we respond,” second-rower Tariq Sims said.
The NSW Origin forward said the theme of the discussion had been: “Was that your best effort?”
“Gypsy [Nightingale], that was his last game playing there in a regular round, Jubilee [Oval] is part of the furniture and with Lance [Thompson’s] passing, if that was the last game you ever played would you be happy with that,” Sims said.
“Across the board, it was pretty much ‘no’, so we have got a lot of areas that we need to address.”
Nightingale will continue training in the hope that his career is not over after being told he would be sidelined for two-to-four weeks with a dislocated elbow.
Centre Euan Aitken hopes to return for the finals after suffering a low-grade hamstring tear against the Bulldogs, while captain Gareth Widdop is also due back from a dislocated shoulder in the play-offs.
The Dragons remain confident they can still be a force in the finals and believe they need to revert to the playing style which saw them lead the Telstra Premiership for the first 16 rounds of the season.
Discipline has become a problem for the team and they were forced to make a mammoth 449 tackles last Sunday, compared to 314 by Canterbury.
“I think we clocked in another record for the most tackles on the weekend so for us to get that is obviously disappointing, but the penalties we are giving away are just childish, schoolboy penalties,” Sims said.
Lock Jack de Belin added: "When you never have any ball and all you are doing is tackling it is pretty hard to find the energy to run hard. When we finally do get it we are gassed and fatigued and can't get a roll on".
He also revealed the Dragons had changed their game plan and defensive structure.
“I think we are just playing edge to edge football, whereas we need to go back to playing power,” Sims said. “Our strength is our forward pack. That’s what got us the wins earlier in the season.”
De Belin said some players were trying to do too much on their own and admitted his form had been down since Origin after losing 5kg and suffering a sternum injury.
“I haven’t been playing my best footy, and the rest of the team would have to put their hand up to say the same thing,” de Belin said.
However, the Blues stars insisted they had not felt the need for a rest after Origin and told coach Paul McGregor they wanted to continue playing for their club.
“As players. we took it out of ‘Mary’s’ hands and said we wanted to play. I think to a person we just haven’t played up to our standards as representative players.”
De Belin and Sims defended McGregor and halfback Ben Hunt, who have borne the brunt of most criticism for their team’s poor performances since Origin.
“I feel he has done a great job for us and he is in the same boat as me and half the side, we aren’t playing our best and I suppose it is hard when you are the halfback and the focal point of the side and you are obviously not performing, then you cop a lot of criticism,” de Belin said of Hunt.
Sims, who has been defending next to Hunt on the right edge since NSW prop Paul Vaughan was injured four weeks ago, added: “As a back-rower I didn’t do my job on the weekend so to be honest I am pretty dirty on myself."
He also rejected criticism of McGregor.
“He’s one of those coaches who as a player makes you want to play for him,” Sims said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Mary, he was pretty much the reason I came here. To play for a coach such as Mary was too good to knock back.”