Dragons’ surprise contender to replace de Belin
Jack Bird's return from an ACL injury will be closely monitored by St George Illawarra over summer, with the Dragons recruit emerging as a potential candidate for the No.13 jersey if Jack de Belin's rape saga drags deep into a third year.
While the de Belin case returns to Wollongong District Court on Wednesday, the Dragons are already making preparations for a range of scenarios which could include playing the entire 2021 season without their NSW Origin star.
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While initially signed as a centre, Bird is now among a shortlist of players new coach Anthony Griffin will consider for the Dragons back row spot, although much will depend on how quickly his body proves ready to handle the workload.
During three injury-plagued seasons with Brisbane, the 2015 Dally M Rookie played just 17 games - which included missing all of this year with a busted ACL.
As a result, Griffin is expected to ease the 25-year-old into pre-season training and, potentially, a utility role off the interchange bench.
Other contenders for the No.13 jersey include Jackson Ford, Blake Lawrie, even Roosters import Poasa Faamausili.
Certainly, de Belin's future remains clouded after the jury in his sexual assault case, which also involves fellow Dragon Callan Sinclair, could not reach a unanimous decision on Monday.
As a result, the pair will now learn on Wednesday if there is to be a retrial - which may not be until late next year - or if the Director of Public Prosecutions chooses not to pursue the charges.
While de Belin's contract with St George Illawarra has officially expired, the back rower has been granted permission by the NRL to begin pre-season training and also continue being paid by the club.
The Dragons can also name the NSW Origin forward in its 30-man NRL squad for the upcoming season, however his contract - which has already been agreed to in principle - will not be registered until the court case is concluded.
It will be up to the Dragons how much the choose to pay de Belin as an employee of their club.
It is understood the new contract, a three-year extension, does have clauses which would prevent the footballer - who has maintained his innocence throughout the case after pleading not guilty to the charges - being paid in full if he doesn't play next year.
An NRL spokesperson suggested the Dragons would also be allowed to seek salary cap relief and, if required, sign an extra player to the usual NRL 30-man roster.
Despite Bird's ability to play in the centres, halves or even fullback, there are also plenty of good judges who have long believed his best position would be lock.
Awarded the 2015 Dally M Rookie gong, the Wollongong product then went and won a premiership with Cronulla the following year while also racking up five Origins, an Indigenous All Stars game and that $975K-a-year contract in Brisbane.
But after three luckless seasons up north, Bird now returns to the same Dragons club where he once starred as an U/20s player.
However, the potential Dragons No.13 is yet to play first grade for the club after leaving in 2015 for Cronulla, where he played 67 matches in three seasons.
Originally published as Dragons' surprise contender to replace de Belin