For Paul McGregor, St George Illawarra’s loss to Penrith came at the worst possible time.
A 16-day break between the Panthers loss and the Dragons’ clash with Canterbury on Monday afternoon left a lot of time to dwell.
Their State of Origin quartet – Ben Hunt, Tyson Frizell, Jack de Belin and Paul Vaughan – won’t return to the club until Thursday, limiting their own preparation to face the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium should they get through Origin I unscathed.
But it has also given McGregor the chance to reflect on the Dragons’ excellent start to the season.
St George Illawarra share first place with Penrith midway through the regular season and play three of the NRL’s bottom four clubs in the next three weeks. After the Bulldogs, St George Illawarra host struggling Manly and Parramatta in Wollongong.
“It would have been really good to go into a bye with a win and staying on top of the competition like we have been since round one. Now we’re equal first. It bloody hurts,” McGregor said.
“In saying that the boys have played some really good footy over the first half of the year. They’ve been consistently good, they’ve maintained their standards from round one.
“I think our consistency [has pleased me most]. It was something we weren’t very good at last year at different stages. I feel that our consistency, what we do week to week, our best and our worst isn’t too far apart which is really pleasing.
“We’ve won games in different ways this year, coming from behind, we’ve led. I think we’ve won in ways we haven’t in the past.
“The pleasing thing is we’ve kept healthy. Even though it has been difficult at stages with a lot of guys playing with needles at the moment. And when you want to do your contact through the week and your defence and you’ve got a lot of players missing because of the rigors of week to week footy. However, come game day, they’ve delivered.
“Nothing of one thing stands out. But I just feel that maintaining our standards on a week to week basis and playing with a lot more consistency helps. I feel the players who’ve come into our squad have complemented other players in our team.
“We’re trying to build a strong culture at Dragons around team first.”
A number of Dragons players were given the week off leading into St George Illawarra’s bye on the weekend to refresh. McGregor and his coaching staff also took a couple of days off to regroup as the Dragons begin their charge for the finals in the second half of the campaign.
Such is the depth of St George Illawarra’s squad, first grade squad players Hame Sele, Jacob Host, Blake Lawrie, Luciano Leilua, Reece Robson and Jai Field all played in the club’s Intrust Super Premiership win over North Sydney on Saturday.
They could be called upon in first grade this week pending how the Dragons’ Origin stars recover from Wednesday night.
McGregor said maintaining their excellent start to the season was their next challenge after a disastrous mid-season fade out saw them miss the finals last year.
“It’s something you don’t speak too much about because you don’t want your processes and standards to drop. But certainly if we look at the start of the year when we gathered a lot of experts had us between the eighth and 12th position,” he said.
“We always wanted to be a top four side, we are that at the moment. We’ve led the competition since round one. I’m proud of the character of the players we have.”