After Gareth Widdop dislocated his right shoulder for the third time in eight months and having been slated for a long spell on the sidelines, many were prepared to put a line through St George Illawarra's premiership hopes. However, Widdop's injury may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Red V.
Following the off-season recruitment of former Parramatta Eel Corey Norman as the long-term replacement for Warrington bound Gareth Widdop, Dragons coach Paul McGregor had some tough decisions to make prior to round one.
The man affectionately known as Mary eventually settled on deploying Widdop at fullback, a position he had excelled at for England in the World Cup and for the Melbourne Storm in their juniors. While on paper it seemed like a good plan as it would allow the Dragons to have all their attacking weapons on the field at the same time, in reality, the Dragons' spine failed to fire.
Much like his team, Widdop endured a slow start to the season. Producing zero try assists, line-break assists and tries in the opening three rounds, as well as averaging a measly 45.7 running metres per game, a statistic which is normally inflated for fullbacks due to the metres gained on kick returns.
As displayed above it was no secret that Widdop’s shift from five-eighth to fullback was not going swimmingly, with many pundits and fans calling for him to shift back to five-eighth, but he remained. And the Dragons' attack continued to look clunky at best.
Unfortunately for Widdop, he would go onto dislocate his shoulder in round three against the Broncos, and after undergoing surgery, it looks like he may have played his last game for his beloved Dragons.
It's not often that you can say that an injury to a team's best player could leave them in good stead, but in this case, it could actually turn into a positive for the Dragons.
With Widdop out for the majority of the season, this has allowed for youngster Matt Dufty to return to the position he excelled at last year, rather than languishing on the bench.
With Dufty back in the No. 1 jersey, the Dragons now have a dual threat fullback, by that I mean he is equally adept as a runner and passer, as opposed to Widdop who largely relied mostly on his admittedly excellent ball-playing.
Dufty possesses the ability to beat a man one on one with his scarcely believable pace and footwork, as well as being more than capable at giving the final pass out the back of block plays, evidenced by his stellar cut out ball for Mikaele Ravalawa's try against Newcastle.
While Widdop would be equally if not more proficient at providing this final pass, he does not possess the same running threat or unpredictability that Dufty does. This x-factor that Dufty possesses also affords his outside backs more space when they get the ball, as opposition teams tend to bite in on Dufty to deny him ample time and space to utilise his skillset.
Widdop’s long-term injury has also allowed Corey Norman to assume a more natural five-eighth role in the past two games, both of which he has come up with the match-winning play for his new club.
Prior to going down, Widdop seemed to be calling the shots from fullback and directing his team about, which isn’t unusual seeing as he has been the Dragons main attacking threat since he joined the club from the Storm.
However, what makes it unusual is that he isn’t in one of the two primary playmaking positions (halfback or five-eighth). This over-riding influence seemed to shackle Norman to one side of the field, as well as limit his opportunities with ball in hand, displayed by the fact that he only had 39 receipts against the Cowboys in round one, as opposed to the 55 he had against Newcastle.
Norman now seems much more comfortable being second in charge behind halfback Ben Hunt, and rather than getting the ball when it is given to him, he gets the ball when he wants and needs it.
This has allowed him to play a more traditional five-eighth's role, in that Hunt will predominantly direct the team around the field, and then Norman will pull the trigger when in an attacking position.
The return to this more traditional role has also seen the return of his running game, after recording a lowly 58 running metres against the Cowboys, he has clocked up 109 and 143 against the Broncos and Knights respectively.
With Hunt, McInnes, Dufty, and Norman all signed until at least the end of 2021, this injury will allow the all-important spine to set the foundations for the combinations that the Dragons' hierarchy will be hoping can carry them through for at least the next half-decade.
This earlier than expected coming together will allow each player to learn about their teammate’s games and forge combinations with immediate feedback, which they otherwise would have had to do in the protected and closed off environment of pre-season training.
While it is extremely unfortunate to see such a great servant to the Dragons have their career in the Red V cut short, this injury could set St George Illawarra up for years to come.