There are no more excuses. There is nowhere to hide.
Jack de Belin has a blunt message for his teammates and the club’s fans, saying St George Illawarra are kidding themselves if they do not reach the NRL finals in 2018.
The Dragons kick off the NRL season when they host former coach Wayne Bennett and the Brisbane Broncos at Jubilee Oval, Kogarah.
St George Illawarra have under achieved in recent seasons, reaching the finals only once in the last six years. Last season, the Dragons were just the third team since the top-eight system was introduced to miss the finals after leading at the end of the seventh round. They also had the highest for-and-against (+83) of any team to miss the finals in the 2000s. Captain Gareth Widdop even labelled the season a failure.
But a new season and new faces have brought a new vibe to the red V.
The club have recruited strongly, with Australian and Queensland State of Origin representative Ben Hunt arriving to play halfback alongside five-eighth Widdop. While they have lost incumbent Test centre Josh Dugan to fierce local rivals Cronulla, coach Paul McGregor is likely to hand the No.1 jersey to exciting Penshurst RSL junior Matt Dufty.
And, with England international James Graham added to a forward pack that includes Tyson Frizell, Paul Vaughan, Tariq Sims and de Belin, McGregor told the Leader in December it was the best squad he had ever coached.
It is that underwhelming recent past and the promise of what could be in 2018 that has de Belin believing that anything but St George Illawarra playing finals football would be another failure.
“You’d want to think [we’ll play] at least finals footy and give it a red hot shake,” he said.
“I suppose that’s a goal of ours to make the top four. Obviously we've let ourselves down the last couple of years not playing finals footy.
“I suppose this is kind of our year now. We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t make it.”
The club also lost influential back-rower Joel Thompson to Manly but have a number of young forwards with potential. Local juniors Jacob Host, Hame Sele and Luciano Leilua will all challenge for a first grade spot alongside new signing Jeremy Latimore.
But de Belin believes the club have the back of the scrum covered despite 29-year-old Thompson’s move to the northern beaches.
“Having a player like Joel, he was a great asset to the club on and off the field,” de Belin said.
“He’s definitely a leader and someone that brings a lot of energy and chat on the field as well. He was an essential part of our team but that’s life and that’s football, people move on.
“Obviously we’ve got a big hole to fill but at the same time we’ve got a lot of quality back-rowers in Tariq Sims, [Luciano Leilua] and Frizz. We’re pretty sweet there.”
This season also promises to be a big one personally for de Belin. At 26-years-old and almost 130 NRL games under his belt, he is approaching the prime years of his career.
While NSW coach Brad Fittler has a number of options in his back row including Blues captain Boyd Cordner, Josh Jackson, Sharks forward Wade Graham and Dragons teammate Frizell, de Belin is determined to have as strong a start as he did to the 2017 campaign to force his way into State of Origin reckoning with the Blues.
“I feel like I know my role and where I’m at and what I can provide to a team,” de Belin said.
“I suppose every year I’m still improving and getting better. And this year is no different. I’m still looking to take that step forward… higher rep honours, playing State of Origin and representing my country.
“Any player wants to hear that, [that] they’ll be picking the team on merit and not previous years. If your form warrants it hopefully you should get picked and that’s obviously what it comes down to. I’m going to be putting my best foot forward for the Dragons.”
Obviously we've let ourselves down the last couple of years not playing finals footy. I suppose this is kind of our year now. We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t make it.Jack de Belin
De Belin is hoping another mammoth pre-season will provide a similarly explosive start to St George Illawarra’s 2018 campaign despite going down in their annual Charity Shield clash to South Sydney in Mudgee.
The Dragons were slow out of the blocks in pre-season last season, including a sluggish showing in their Charity Shield loss to Souths. But a fortnight later they smashed Penrith 42-10 in atrocious conditions in their season opener.
The red V faithful will hope for much of the same on Thursday night.