The future starts now.
St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor delivered the messsage loud and clear to the club’s new look spine at a video session on Thursday in the wake of captain Gareth Widdop’s shoulder injury during last week’s epic 25-24 defeat of Brisbane.
With Widdop planning to return to England at the end of the season to finish his career with Warrington, the Dragons have settled on fullback Matt Dufty, five-eighth Corey Norman, halfback Ben Hunt and hooker Cameron McInnes as their spine for at least the next three years.
The Dragons hope Widdop will return in round 23 after undergoing surgery on Monday but the club had already made preparations for life without him by signing Norman, who revealed how close he came to joining Sunday’s opponents, Newcastle, during the off-season.
It was a deliberate strategy by the Dragons to sign Dufty, Norman and McInnes until the end of the 2021 season, while Hunt is under contract for a further year.
NSW Origin forwards Paul Vaughan and Tariq Sims, lock Korbin Sims and winger Jordan Pereira are also committed to the club until at least the end of 2021.
"Mary said in video today that it would be a good time to gel for the years going forward because I think we are all on contract for the same amount of time," Dufty said. "I guess now we have got a chance to practice for next year - a year early.
"The spine is pretty much set for the next couple of years so it will be a good opportunity to finally gel and play with each other."
Norman, whose negotiations with the Knights had been so advanced he was able to confirm the Kalyn Ponga five-eighth experiment would never have happened if he had signed, said he would now assume a greater playmaking role after shifting to fullback last week to accommodate Widdop's short-lived return to the halves.
"It is Gaz’s team and he is not playing now so I am definitely going to have to step up and help Hunty," said Norman, who kicked the match-winning field goal against the Broncos.
"Our structures are the same and our game plans are the same, it’s just that Dufty is back there now [at fullback]. The spine is going to be set in stone for a while now."
The clash with the Knights at McDonald Jones Stadium on Sunday will be the first game Dufty starts this season after being used as an impact player as McGregor shuffled his spine towards the end of matches.
When Dufty came on at fullback, Widdop would move to five-eighth, Norman to halfback, Hunt to hooker and McInnes to lock but their spine will now have stability as Zac Lomax is more likely to be used from the interchange to cover an injury to the outside backs.
Despite only playing 13 minutes in the opening-round loss to North Queensland and 19 minutes in the defeat by South Sydney the following week, Dufty believes he has never been fitter as he had to simulate the running he would do during matches in additional training sessions.
"It’s not fun when you have to do it on your own but they have been telling me all year you never know when you have to play 80 minutes and now it’s that time," Dufty said.
"A couple of years ago I might have sat around and had a sook about it but not many people get to play NRL every week so just to be around the boys and in the squad I’m over the moon. That’s the cut-throat life of footy."
The opportunity for McGregor to shuffle his spine only arose because the club was able to secure Norman as Widdop’s long-term replacement after the English playmaker requested a release at the end of the season to play in the Super League.
After being told Parramatta were not intending to offer him a new deal beyond 2019, Norman held discussions with a number of clubs, including the Knights.
"I was going to partner with [Mitchell] Pearce and just keep Ponga at the back," he said. "Everything fizzled out and it looked like I was staying at Parramatta. I went back there in the pre-season and then the Dragons popped up."