Kent: De Belin drama killed Dragons’ season
Jack de Belin is a popular member at St George Illawarra but he wears the weight of his team's failures.
This is the unspoken truth at St George Illawarra. It is an unpopular truth, a delicate admission.
It goes that de Belin's presence at training each day, glowing like a new colt, and later in the dressing room before games where he does everything but suit up is a constant reminder of what the Dragons could have.
It has had a devastating effect on the Dragons.
And now Paul McGregor's short-term future hangs on his board's understanding of football matters and the consequence of decisions, of which they were wholeheartedly a part of, and of their strength for the fight.
Dragons fans are angry and campaigning.
They have almost certainly spooked the Dragons board into a nervous admission that McGregor's job, which they extended only five months ago, is now under review.
It is almost irrelevant that McGregor has two more years to run and the Dragons can ill-afford to pay him out.
Review under way, fans quieten.
What concessions will be made to the de Belin situation inside the review remains to be seen.
After police charged de Belin for aggravated sexual assault and he was stood down by the NRL, under their no fault clause, the Dragons were almost bullish in their defence.
De Belin was going to continue to train and continue to be an important part of the club.
To a man, they all agreed.
He was going to continue training each day as he fought the NRL's stand down in court and he was going to help the Dragons prepare each week as best they could.
What a player to have to run against in opposed sessions, they suggested.
But each day when training finished and the players went away to rehab their niggly injuries de Belin was still there, still glowing and fit.
When the Dragons began dressing for games de Belin was there, walking free and fresh and reminding them of who was not running out.
The quiet acknowledgment around Wollongong is the shattering effect de Belin's presence has had at the club.
McGregor was in an unenviable position.
He realised the effect de Belin was having on his team. He saw it in their beaten faces, the quick glance to de Belin after another shattering loss.
McGregor will not speak about it. But it is understood that in the quieter moments there have been conversations held.
The Dragons have handled it badly.
The NRL stood down de Belin but conceded the Dragons could apply for salary cap dispensation to cover for his loss.
That gave the Dragons about $250,000 in the cap but they did not spend it. The simple reason being they simply did not have the money.
All season the salary cap has taken a hit.
Tyson Frizell's testicle took on a stray knee early and, after a standing eight count, was unable to continue on doctor's orders and he was out of the game for several weeks.
Then Gareth Widdop dislocated a shoulder.
James Graham broke a leg.
Tariq Sims has been carrying injury since round three.
They lost to the Roosters in the Anzac Day game when they could have won.
The following week they led Parramatta 14-0 until Corey Norman fractured his eye socket. Parramatta came back to win 32-18.
The Dragons grimly held on to eighth.
The following week they led the Warriors 10-0 and then 18-6 but their confidence was gone, even against a patchy team like the Warriors, and they capitulated, losing 26-18.
Then de Belin went to court to hear his challenge against the NRL's no fault policy and lost.
It was the end of the season for the Dragons.
They lost 45-12 to Newcastle that weekend and haven't raised a burp since.
Since de Belin lost his appeal the Dragons have won three games and lost 11 while de Belin floats around training, fresh as a new daisy.
All that cap money on the sideline - Widdop, Norman, Graham, Zac Lomax, de Belin - with de Belin's shadow constantly hanging over them.
The solution for McGregor was the tough one. To simply ask de Belin to disappear for the sake of the team.
But McGregor went deeper. He understood rugby league is, at heart, a game.
And while the Dragons might be struggling de Belin's problems were real and the price of casting him out for the sake of the team's results were not, according to the coach, worth the cost.
People come first.
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