St George Illawarra’s 12 suspended players have vowed to regain the trust of teammates after receiving a dressing down from coach Anthony Griffin when they returned to training.
However, the Dragons will be without fullback Matt Dufty and forwards Tyrell Fuimaono and Kaide Ellis for this weekend's clash with Manly after they were nominated as the first players to serve their one game bans.
Monday was the first time since the infamous Shellharbour barbecue, that led to the sacking of prop Paul Vaughan, those embroiled in the situation returned to training.
The 12 players, who have been fined a total of $267,000 and must each serve a one-match ban during the next four weeks after breaching the NRL’s strict biosecurity protocols and NSW Health’s stay at home orders, apologised and admitted they had let the club and the game down.
Josh McGuire and Blake Lawrie were the first Dragons to face the media since the July 3 incident and both said the players were aware of the restrictions for Greater Sydney but didn’t realise the significance as they were in a bubble and Vaughan’s house was a significant distance from Bondi.
"We were at Shellharbour, which is a long way away from everything that was happening and the decision to go to the barbecue, everyone made it," McGuire said.
"At the end of the day, we just thought it wasn’t going to be a drama if we didn’t get caught.
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"We just obviously kept it within the team and thought it wasn’t going to be a big deal, which it obviously is, and we made that stupid decision to go ahead and do that.
"We decided to go as a team and stay together. In hindsight, we wish we didn’t."
Lawrie added: "I knew we had to be safe, but I thought it was just a harmless little get-together. Because we are in our own bubble, we thought it was harmless."
The 12 players missed a scheduled training session last Thursday and all but Zac Lomax and Daniel Alvaro were cleared to return on Monday after signing statements to confirm that there were no other people in attendance from outside the Dragons bubble.
Lomax and Alvaro are yet to sign due to legal advice and must spend 14 days in isolation at home, while the remainder of the squad fly to Brisbane on Wednesday to enter an NRL hub with Cronulla and the Wests Tigers players.
McGuire, who has a long relationship with Griffin after playing under him at the Broncos, said speaking to him after the incident had been a "difficult conversation to have".
"It was probably one of the hardest phone calls I have had to make to 'Hook'," McGuire said.
"He was quite ropeable and for myself I have got to earn back that trust and earn back that respect from the group.
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"We had a big chat yesterday, we got read the riot act, which is very much deserved, and everyone was a bit remorseful, gun shy, and nervous around the group.
"We trained really well yesterday, everything was put to bed and we just want to move forward as a football club and as a team. The 12 of us are very upset that we have let everyone down, especially the club, the fans and the NRL as well.
"It is a massive ordeal that has gone on and we warrant every repercussion that we have copped so we can't sit here and cry foul," McGuire said.
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Lawrie insisted that there were no divisions within the Dragons playing group, with the players who didn't attend the barbecue not doing so because they hadn't played in the 19-18 golden point defeat of the Warriors and had training scheduled the following day or were on Origin duty.
"Moving forward we have got to win games, that is the most important thing for our club," Lawrie said. "We have got to make it up to our teammates and make it up to our club.
"We have got a big task so hopefully on Friday night (Manly) we can go out there and get a win and prove we are not disjointed at this club. We are a tight-knit group here, it is just that some of us have proved to do the wrong thing. It is as simple as that and everyone makes mistakes."
Lawrie has been Vaughan’s regular front-row partner for the past three seasons and he said he was "shattered" for the former NSW and Australian representative after he was sacked by the Dragons and received a $50,000 fine and eight-match suspension from the NRL.
"As a close mate I am just more worried about his mental state and wellbeing," Lawrie said. "Moving forward. I am sure that he will get another deal elsewhere. He is a representative player at his best."
McGuire said that Vaughan would be a huge loss for the Dragons on and off the field.
"We made the wrong decision and we are all paying the price, some more than others," McGuire said.
"My biggest concern out of everything is that Vaughan and his wife get the help that they need and the support that they need. The club is doing everything they can to make sure that they can help them."