Dragons centre Euan Aitken has vowed to fight his way back into the starting line-up if he is overlooked for new recruit Brayden Wiliame in the opening round clash with Wests Tigers at WIN Stadium on Sunday night.
Wiliame trained at left centre with Tim Lafai switching to Aitken’s usual right side position on Monday and it is believed the Fiji international will be one of four new faces in St George Illawarra’s 17-man squad, along with Trent Merrin and hookers Issac Luke and Billy Brittain.
Merrin has returned to the club after a stint with Leeds and Wiliame was also signed from Super League, where he scored 34 tries in 77 matches for Catalans and was regarded as arguably the competition’s the best attacking left centre.
After making 29 first grade appearances for Parramatta and Manly between 2013 and 2016, Williame is now a more mature player and the 27-year-old wanted another chance to prove himself in the NRL.
A recommendation from Trent Barrett convinced the Dragons to offer him a two-year deal and Wiliame now appears set to be given a starting jersey in the club’s first Telstra Premiership match of the season.
Dragons focus on defence
The 27-year-old would play left centre, with Tyson Frizell defending inside him as the Kangaroos star and fellow second-rower Tariq Sims have swapped sides during the off-season.
With Wiliame and Lafai training in the centres on Monday, Aitken admitted: “I am not sure if I am playing. There is a bit of competition for spots. It’s a bit up in the air and last week I was sick so I have been away for a few days.”
However, Aitken said he was undaunted by the prospect of being left out of the squad for the Tigers clash and vowed to win his spot back if that was the case.
“I have been dropped before so it is what it is and you have just got to let your footy do the talking,” he said. “I’m confident in my own ability and I always will be. I have just got to show a bit more and I know it is in me to do that.
“It is first grade so there is always going to be competition for spots. I welcome the challenge. We are all competitive people so we are all gunning for the same thing and you have just got to do your best to get there.”
Brittain is the other player who appears to have forced his way into St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor’ top squad in the pre-season trials against Newcastle and South Sydney after being offered a train-and-trial contract when McInness injured his knee in the final of the NRL Nines.
The 25-year-old had been working as an apprentice fire sprinkler fitter after being cut by Souths but he did enough in the two trials to earn a one-year contract and is now set to play off the bench against the Tigers.
NSW and Australian prop Paul Vaughan said he was excited by the additions to the team and compared Brittain to State of Origin and Test hooker Damien Cook.
“[Williame] looks really good, in the trials he broke the line a couple of times and he got a nice offload,” Vaughan said.
“He is a big strong boy so that is going to be exciting to see in the centres and we have got Mez coming back, who has a wealth of experience and he’s good to have around because he has played a lot of important rep games and he has won a grand final.
“Issac Luke is a great buy, I am looking forward to seeing how he plays. We will miss the skipper [McInnes], he is inspirational in everything he does, but Bully was the best No.9 for a long time so he knows what he is doing and he brings the forwards on to the ball really well.
“I am just excited to be playing with him because he is such a great player and then we have got Billy on the bench as well, who reminds me a lot of Cookie. He is very fast out of dummy half and again he gets the boys on to the ball. He has got a good story too.”