St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor has pinpointed a lack of cohesion caused by injuries and representative commitments for his side’s poor defensive record.
The Dragons have conceded more points (365) than any other team in the Telstra Premiership and sit 14th but McGregor remains confident they can beat Penrith on Friday night and start a run as their injured stars begin to return.
James Graham will make his comeback at Panthers Stadium from a broken leg sustained eight weeks ago, while captain Gareth Widdop (shoulder), centre Zac Lomax (broken thumb) and rested halfback Ben Hunt are due to return next week against Souths.
After having the luxury last year of being able to field a virtually unchanged line-up each week until State of Origin, the Dragons have been regularly disrupted since the start of the season and have fielded the same squad in successive matches on just three occasions.
McGregor used 25 players last season, including six - Jacob Host (5), Lomax (4), Hame Sele (3), Reece Robson (2), Jai Field (2) and Darren Nicholls (1) - who played five or less games.
In comparison, the Dragons have already used 27 players this year and Nicholls, who again has the least NRL appearances among the squad, will play his second game of the season against Penrith.
The only players involved in all 16 matches so far this season are hooker Cameron McInnes, centre Euan Aitken and forwards Blake Lawrie and Host – the latter of whom has been dropped for the clash with Penrith.
Widdop required shoulder surgery after just three rounds, forward Korbin Sims has managed just eight games due to injury and suspension, Graham has played 11 matches and Tyson Frizell (ruptured testicle), Tim Lafai (ankle) and Jeremy Latimore (knee) have each made 13 appearances.
Five-eighth Corey Norman has played 12 matches and the Dragons have lost all four that he missed – three due to a fractured cheekbone and one because of Origin commitments for Queensland in last week’s series decider.
The Dragons fielded the same line-up in consecutive matches from round 4-6 and won all three, while they also triumphed in round 15 with the same team that had played the previous week.
“Obviously we have had an awful lot of changes to positions during the year to back-rowers and centres and middles so there is no continuity at times and trust and belief becomes an issue when you haven’t been beside each other continually,” McGregor said.
“However, we have got to make sure that is not an excuse and get on with it. Friday night is a start of it.”
McGregor anticipates that 26 points will be enough to make the finals and has calculated that St George Illawarra will need to win six of their remaining eight games to achieve that goal.
With Graham back on deck and Widdop and Lomax to follow, McGregor believes a full-strength Dragons side is capable of beating anyone but he admitted they hadn’t been prepared for the disruptions, which began with Jack de Belin being stood down under the NRL’s no-fault stand down policy.
“We certainly didn’t anticipate that we would be in a position this year after a successful 2018, being 85 minutes away from the grand final with a similar squad,” McGregor said.
“We have had next level distractions and no element of luck but I still feel we should have won a couple more games and we wouldn’t be talking about it right now."
McGregor isn’t concerned about calls from Dragons fans for his sacking after last Sunday night’s loss to Canberra, saying: “I don’t take any of it personally. If they are talking about me they are leaving the players alone so it is a good thing”.
Mid-year recruit Patrick Kaufusi will be used as an interchange second-rower against Penrith, while Josh Kerr has also been added to the bench because of his size after Latimore aggravated a knee injury against the Raiders.
Nicholls will partner Norman at the scrumbase in the absence of Hunt, who succumbed to the toll of playing the Origin series at hooker for Queensland.
“Ben thought he’d be OK after the Origin but with the performance [against Canberra], we got together on Tuesday and we thought the most important thing was to look after Ben as a person," McGregor said. "That’s the reason he isn't playing.”