Dragons defend de Belin NRL bubble plan

Matt Encarnacion
St George Illawarra have defended Jack De Belin's inclusion on their NRL players and staff roster

St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor has defended the decision to include Jack de Belin in their COVID-19 bubble, declaring he's still a part of their top-30 NRL players' squad.

The future of the stood-down Dragons star remains in limbo after the coronavirus pandemic delayed his rape trial until early next month.

Yet the former State of Origin forward was still registered among the maximum 50 players and staff allowed access to training and game day.

McGregor said de Belin's inclusion was to leave the door open for his possible return, as well as to look after his mental wellbeing.

"It's a combination of all that. But most important thing, Jack's a part of our top-30," McGregor said on Friday.

"So the guidelines were he would still be included. He's got a court case coming up as we know in June, as well as the welfare around Jack."

The choice to keep de Belin came at the expense of a number of the Dragons' development players, including boom centre Shaun Sauni-Esau.

Rising winger Cody Ramsey, who shot to fame during February's NRL Nines, wasn't considered after undergoing major shoulder surgery before the lockdown.

"We had to make a decision that three players miss out ... so making that phone call was difficult," McGregor said.

"To the players' credit, they really understood that it wasn't our decision.

"It was a decision from the NRL around the importance of trying to limit the coronavirus with minimal players and staff available."

McGregor also conceded their poor start to the season, along with the shortened schedule, meant he would approach the restart with a clean slate.

That includes the possibility of shelving pre-season plans to establish youngster Zac Lomax at fullback and pushing him back to the centres.

"We're two days into a three-week pre-season so I'll have a better gauge next week in what sort of condition after we do a lot of contact," he said

"But it's certainly a really nice headache to have with quality players available in the fullback position and the centre position as well.

"Being away from football for five weeks and picking it up again, you really want to simplify the game. So there'll be some tweaks in our system."

Plans have also begun on how the club will spend the salary cap space vacated following Tyson Frizell's decision to leave the club at season's end.

First-grade regulars James Graham and Tim Lafai are also off-contract, as well as Euan Aitken and de Belin.

The club re-signed promising forward Jackson Ford during the shutdown, and have been impressed with summer recruit Tyrell Fuiamaono.

"(Ford) finished the season playing the last five games last year, and he's a likely replacement (for Frizell) right now going forward," McGregor said.

"Tyrell we signed this year, he played round two against Penrith and was one of the better players on the football field.

"So they're two players currently in our squad that we look forward to fill that Tyson position."