The red-hot form of the St George Illawarra Dragons has seven of their starting 13 in genuine State of Origin contention, something coach Paul McGregor is preparing for in coming weeks.
The first step to manage that process came this afternoon, blooding young Reece Robson into the NRL due to the possible Origin selection of Cameron McInnes. Robson – a Dragons junior – has had his own State of Origin experience in a lesser sense, playing for the NSW U-18s and U-20s in the past two years at hooker.
He got eight minutes when the result against the Melbourne Storm was well and truly beyond doubt, but it was a necessary introduction to first grade should he need to play a bigger role in the potential absence of McInnes.
“It was a bit different to what I’m used to in [the Intrust Super Premiership] and Under-20s, but to come out here in front of this there’s no feeling like it,” Robson said to Dragons.com.au after the game.
“I can’t be any happier at the moment; the eight minutes at the end I just tried to get out there and do the best I could for the team.
“I can’t take too much credit, I only came on at the end, but the boys went so well and dug in and got me a win on my first game.”
Of course, McInnes isn’t the only player McGregor is preparing to lose over the Origin period. Ben Hunt, Tyson Frizell, Euan Aitken, Paul Vaughan, Tariq Sims and Jack de Belin are all in scintillating form, and therefore contention to represent their state.
Thankfully, the Dragons’ Intrust Super Premiership side has enjoyed a somewhat successful start to the season. After a shaky opening two rounds, they find themselves knocking on the door of the top four.
There are players in that team who are ready to put their hand up for the top grade. Coach McGregor has no doubt kept a watchful eye over the second-tier side, and will use them as much as he needs with player welfare at the forefront of his mind.
“The biggest thing about myself is about the welfare of the player around the Origin period,” McGregor says.
“It’s important to get wins now, because if or when we do lose players [we have to judge] weather we can afford to rest them, freshen them up or put them out there for smaller minutes.
“That’s sort of the unknown at the moment, it’s still three weeks before they select their side, anything can happen in that three weeks.
“Every team goes through it, teams that are successful hurt a little bit more from it, it’s part of the game [and] you’ve just got to manage it.”
With Ben Hunt looking likely to secure a Queensland jersey, the all-important halves position would consequently be up for grabs. Options include Darren Nicholls – who is arguably the best player yet to play NRL – or perhaps a young-gun like Jai Field.
Nicholls sat out of today’s Intrust Super Premiership match with a throat injury, and it’s no coincidence that Field played in the halves for the first time this year as a result.
“It’s a goal to go up there and play first grade, there will be a few boys that will potentially go up to play Origin so if a spot does pop up I’ll take it with both hands,” Field says to NSWRL.com.au.
“I’ve been playing fullback, so Benny [Ben Hunt] and Gaz [Gareth Widdop] are always willing to kick-catch with me, they’re very special players.
“We train with them every day, any questions I want to go and ask they’re always happy to help.”
Due to the success of NRL and the Intrust Super Premiership side, the Dragons are a very happy club at the moment. McGregor would hope that fact would allow for an easy transition for any player called upon to replace an Origin player.
Robson only played eight minutes, but it was important to give him a taste rather than throwing him in the deep end. Field and Robson have played a lot of footy together at club and representative level, and was more than happy that his teammate and friend got his chance.
“He brings defence and toughness,” Field said of Robson.
“He’s going to come out of the line, he comes out of the line for 80 minutes just belting people all the way to the end of the game, he brings some solid defence and plenty of energy.
“When you see [first] grade succeed that pushes us boys to succeed, we’re training with them week in week out and when they’re playing well.
“We like to think that we can play as well as them because we can do it against them at training.”
Tomorrow marks three weeks until State of Origin team selection, and it will be interesting to see what else McGregor does between now and then to prepare for potential losses.