A lack of match fitness after four months on the sideline is behind Dragons captain Gareth Widdop's return at five-eighth alongside a refreshed Ben Hunt and the decision to switch Corey Norman to fullback for Friday night’s match against South Sydney.
Widdop started the season at fullback, with Norman partnering Hunt in the halves, but after 18 weeks on the sideline recovering from shoulder surgery the English star is set to finish his NRL career at five-eighth before joining Warrington next season.
Dragons coach Paul McGregor said Norman had offered to switch to fullback to accommodate Widdop’s return in a new look back three with Zac Lomax returning from a broken thumb on the left wing and Jason Saab making his NRL debut on the right flank.
"The [running] loads you do have at fullback are really high and Normy wanted to go back there to be honest," McGregor said.
"He was keen and Gareth wanted to play six and with the timing of the year it's important you get players comfortable in positions. You might see us mix it up a bit.
"Gareth's our captain and he's had six really strong years here. It shows really good leadership, selflessness and determination for him to want to go back on the field and finish the year."
Why McGregor changed his back three
McGregor said he was looking forward to Hunt’s return after a disappointing performance against Canberra when backing up from the State of Origin series decider five days earlier.
Hunt made more than double the number of tackles at hooker for Queensland than he normally does playing halfback for St George Illawarra and he also found it difficult switching between the two positions on a regular basis during the Origin period.
The decision to rest Hunt from last Friday night’s 40-14 loss to Penrith has been criticised but McGregor said he preferred to have his star playmaker miss the game if he was fit and focused upon his return, and he took ownership of the decision.
"A lot's been said about it over the last week, it was a conversation between me and Ben and I made the decision," McGregor.
"The loads that we looked at that he took playing Origin, along with backing up five days later, for the welfare of the player and betterment of the team to finish the season well it was time for Ben not to play.
"If I put Ben on the field and he was injured through fatigue and we didn't have him this week, or for the rest of the year, how would that have looked?
"The decision was made and we need to move on. Ben's now had a 12-day break between games, he's refreshed and ready to go."
While there has been a lot of focus on McGregor’s decision to rest Hunt after the physical and mental toll of playing three Origin matches for Queensland at hooker, it has been on edges where the Dragons have struggled recently.
Fijian winger Mikaele Ravalawa has played 16 NRL matches since debuting at the start of the season, while Jonus Pearson’s seven appearances is more than he had played in either of his three years with Brisbane before joining St George Illawarra.
Rabbitohs v Dragons - Round 19
Penrith left centre Brent Naden and right winger Brian To’o each scored two tries, while it was felt that Ravalawa, Pearson and fullback Matt Dufty didn’t do enough to help the Dragons get out of their own end at the start of sets.
"Mika has played 16 games in his debut season and it is pretty hard to do every week so he is not playing at all this weekend, he is just working hard at training and doing a bit of recovery there," McGregor said.
"Jonus has had a couple of games that weren’t up to the performance needed so he is going back to reserve grade to work on his game and with Gareth coming back in Duft moves to the interchange and Duft has done some good things but there are some parts of his game that need to improve as well.
"Zac had to come into the team. I think Zac is a very good player of the future whether that is at centre or fullback. He has a liking to play fullback, he has mentioned that numerous amount of times and playing on the wing those first few carries are similar to playing fullback."