The Dragons have pledged to stand by Jack de Belin and have dismissed concerns the star lock’s uncertain future will negatively impact the squad, salary cap or team’s on-field performance.
De Belin’s playing future is under a cloud after the jury in his sexual assault trial was unable to reach a verdict this week.
St George Illawarra CEO Ryan Webb says a clause in de Belin’s recent contract extension means the player will only be paid a percentage of his salary if his case continues beyond the 2020 season.
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Up until now the Dragons have been paying de Belin’s full salary but if he is unavailable for a third straight season the club is in a position to acquire a replacement for new coach Anthony Griffin’s squad.
The picture will become clearer in the coming weeks but should the decision be made not to go to retrial and the charges not pursued further de Belin would be free to make his return.
“He hasn’t played for two years, the advantage is he’s trained very hard, and has done a lot of opposed sessions,” Griffin told foxsports.com.au.
“Nothing replaces a game. He’s injury free and he’s as fit as he can be without playing.
But we’d take some time to feed him back into the squad.”
If de Belin faces a retrial it will most certainly mean he misses the majority of the 2021 season after the NRL confirmed its No Fault Stand Down policy would still apply.
But Griffin in his first year at the helm of the Red V is in no rush to stack his squad with new faces, telling foxsports.com.au of his plans for Jack Bird and his $2 million halves.
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‘NOT A REBUILD’
St George Illawarra has lost significant experience in its forward pack and has so far failed to fill the void; James Graham departed mid-season, Tyson Frizell headed for Newcastle and the club never replaced de Belin.
The Dragons have picked up Jack Bird from the Broncos, youngster Poasa Fa’amausili from the Roosters and have been in conversation with several forwards over the past few months.
It might appear the club is losing in the race for big-name signatures, but Griffin says it’s quite the opposite.
“We’ve still got some capacity but we aren’t going to rush into just bringing anyone in just for the sake of it,” Griffin said.
“We had an opportunity to pick up a couple of guys over the last month which we didn’t, we didn’t think they were a good fit for us.
“We’ve got terrific young forwards in Lawrie, Ford, Kerr, Tariq Sims, Trent Merrin had an interrupted season and never quite got right, we’ll get him right, and Paul Vaughan.”
Griffin’s approach is risky but he’s confident he can jag a signing or two before 2021 kicks off.
Again, he’s in no rush.
“To really fill our list up I think we’ve got two maybe three spots forward-wise, and we’ve still got a nice capacity salary cap, so we’re just going to wait and make sure we get the right people,” he added.
“We turned one down last week, we just didn’t think they were the right person for us. My opinion is, if you are patient the right thing shows up.”
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‘SERIOUS PLAYER, BUT WE NEED TO CARE FOR HIM’
The only major signing made on Griffin’s watch has been injury-plagued star Jack Bird who has made the move home after 17 appearances for the Broncos over the last three seasons.
“We really need to care for him over the next six months. He will have some mental and physical challenges to get back to his best,” Griffin said.
“And until he’s comfortable playing again, I don’t see a real need to say ‘look we are going to play him here or there’- I just want to see him play.”
Bird won’t be back to full training with the rest of the Dragons squad until late January as he continues to rehab his ACL.
When he does return it’ll be via the interchange before Griffin determines his best starting position.
“He is a serious football player, and was one of the best players in the league before he was 22 but we’ve got to get him fit. There’s a physical and mental aspect of that,” Griffin added.
“Until he’s fit, I don’t want to put any expectation on him to play this position or that position”.
THE $2m QUESTION MARK
The Dragon’s highest paid players were also their most disappointing in 2020, courting intense scrutiny as Paul McGregor chopped and changed his side to try and make it work.
Halfback Ben Hunt never settled in the No.7 jersey, playing at hooker and off the bench. In fact, the Dragons didn’t win a single game when Hunt started in his preferred position.
Then there was Hunt’s misfiring halves partner Corey Norman, who was also dropped and found himself being shopped around.
Griffin is backing himself to get the best out of the pair.
“Hunt and Corey Norman are both a bit unfilled in their careers,” he said.
“They’ve both been at the highest level for a long time, played Origin and finals, but I think they both have another level of performance in them and unfinished business.
“With Ben in particular, I don’t see why he can’t be one of the best halfbacks in the competition.”
Norman meanwhile had his future at the club under question for much of the year, with the Dragons unable to offload him from the final year of his contract prior to Griffin’s arrival.
“I’ve not addressed his contract or anything like that, only his personal performance and the responsibility he’s got to himself and his teammates,” Griffin said.
“I feel really strongly about someone like Corey, in his position, I don’t want him to finish without him getting everything out of himself.
“I’ve had that conversation with him and I think the type of person he is he will rise to the occasion”.
Applying pressure to the $2 million halves are 2020 breakout player Adam Clune and young gun pivot Jayden Sullivan.
“I literally want to sit and watch, I want to see them train, I want to watch them and how they care about their teammates, how they care about the club, and make decisions based on what’s best for the club,” Griffin said.
“That’s the best way to build teams – to build people that care about their organisation and ultimately sustain some long-term success.
“Obviously Ben Hunt and Corey Norman are experienced and have played at a high level already but that’s for them to prove to the rest of their teammates and to me that they care most about the place, that they want to play those positions.
“And for the younger guys it’s a great opportunity for them — I’ve got an open mind — to win themselves a spot.”
YOUNG DRAGON BREATHING FIRE
When it comes to the young blood coming through in 2021 we can expect to see more of 20-year old flyer Cody Ramsey.
Having burst onto the scene at the NRL 9s last year, Ramsey played three first grade games at the back end of the season and will be giving fullback Matt Dufty a run for his money for that number 1 position.
“Ramsey is an enormous talent. He could play fullback, centre, wing. I’m going to watch and leave that up to them. If he shoots the lights out on the wing or at fullback, then we’ve got a decision to make,” Griffin said.
Ramsey looked comfortable in first grade when he scored two on debut against Canberra and with speed to burn he’s been setting the pace in pre-season while adding some size to his 82-kilo frame.
“When I first met him I couldn’t believe it, there was nothing to him, he had a body like a snake,” Griffin said.
“Part of his education over the off season is to get his body to a better NRL standard.
“He’s a really diligent kid, he’s worked really hard, putting on about 5 or 6 kilos.. I think he’s now 88 kilos. He hasn’t just gone and eaten a heap of McDonalds.
“We sent him through some diet and strength advice, so he’s gone and done that himself.
“He’s got enormous speed, when you see him live, he just goes whoosh… it looks like everyone else is standing still.
“I haven’t got any preconceived ideas (on where to play him). I think that’s the best way for the players to get everything out of themselves.”
With Euan Aitken moving onto the Warriors it opens up a spot in the centres and Griffin sees the Feagai brothers as bright prospects for the season ahead.
“The junior players that have come through, they’re going to be a real cornerstone of the team going forward.
“My belief is, if you give young people an opportunity they very rarely let you down.”
FIXING THE ‘BIG ISSUE’
When the Dragons broke their premiership drought over a decade ago they were a team that stood for something.
They had machine-like defence; they were a side that were always hard to beat.
Gradually the Dragons seem to have lost their way.
Griffin says the focus first and foremost must be on defending their line.
“Defence has been a real issue for the team, conceding I think nearly 24 points per game for two years,” he said.
“You can’t win with that.. you are relying on teams to play badly against you.
“That’s the thing as fans, as the coach and as players – you want to feel that everyone is competing really hard for one another and has got a great attitude and that comes out in your defence.
“We need to play for each other defensively, and if we are playing for each other defensively, and showing some resilience people will identify with that. And then with the football – we’ve gone right back to scratch.. we’re going to build a system that suits the team.”
“With the playmakers, McIness, Ramsey and Dufty at the back, I think we’ve got a lot of assets there.. if we get them working well together and we get the right system, it’ll free up the rest of the team.”
‘I’VE HAD A LOT OF LETTERS’
What many might not know about the new Dragons head coach is that the man born and bred in Rockhampton developed a soft spot for the club some 44 years ago.
“Rod Reddy played in Rockhampton for the same club we all played for so to see someone like that from Rocky playing on the television and in grand finals, in 77’ and ‘79 for St George, instantaneously everyone turned into mad Dragons supporters.
“We’d get our white shirts, and paint ‘Red Vs’ on them, I had five brothers and we’d stencil the Dragon onto them as well, my Mum would blow up because we’d ruin all these shirts,” Griffin laughs.
“The Dragons were always close to my heart, even when I was in the Brisbane system, you sort of always had one eye on how the Dragons are going.”
Now it’s all eyes on Griffin and how he plans on returning this proud club to playing finals football.
Asking for patience on the recruitment front might fall on deaf ears as he knows all too well he’s now in charge of a team with one of the most passionate supporter bases in the league.
“I’ve had a lot of letters,” he said.
“They say, ‘Oh – it’s great to see you at the club, but now let’s talk about the team.
“I’ve never met so many long-suffering St George Illawarra fans in my life, everyone I run into now, they all say ‘I’m a long-suffering St George fan’… it’s not ‘I’m a Dragons fan’.
“My answer is – I am too, from 1978!
“St George Illawarra have the benefit of a really strong fan footprint. That doesn’t bother me, that’s the strength of the place.
“I’ve experienced the highs and the lows of big fan bases. I hope there’s as many of them out there, I hope we are playing finals and there’s 50,000 of them packed into ANZ Stadium, that’s a really good thing about the club”.
“There’s a lot of improvement in the group, they’re very talented, we can build a team capable of playing finals – no risk.”