Dragons captain Ben Hunt has backed Jack de Belin to keep pace with a game that has changed ten-fold since he last played as a Red V pack run ragged in recent weeks searches for answers.
Hunt, coach Anthony Griffin and St George Illawarra teammates will be in attendance at Lidcombe Oval on Saturday when de Belin plays his first game since September 2018 for the Dragons' NSW Cup side.
The dropping of sexual assault charges against de Belin saw his estimated $3 million, four-year Dragons deal registered by the NRL on Friday.
Griffin's side slumped to a demoralising 34-18 loss to Wests Tigers hours later, raising the prospect of a rapid first grade return for de Belin, though the coach also dismissed the suggestion quickly after the game, saying "that's the furthest thing from our minds at the moment."
Rushing de Belin back 'furthest thing' from Griffin's mind
In the midst of a 1-7 losing run after an impressive start to 2021, the Dragons have been bested in run metres tallies by around 400 metres in two losses to the Tigers and defeats against the Storm and Roosters.
The introduction of six-again interpretations and several other rule changes have sped the game up markedly since de Belin last played, but Hunt left little doubt around the external expectations still held for the ex-NSW forward.
"He adds a lot. Defensively he’s one of the best forwards I’ve ever played with," Hunt said.
"The way he defends and in attack, he’s got some halfback-like traits when he’s got the ball in his hands.
Match Highlights: Wests Tigers v Dragons
"He’s been out for a while now and there have been a lot of different changes that have come into the game."
De Belin's court matters have hung over the Dragons for more than two years, with Griffin making the call for him to train with reserve grade rather than his NRL side this season.
De Belin has completed what staffers have dubbed a "mini pre-season" over the past eight weeks in preparation for a potential NRL return.