Dragons defend decision to rest Ben Hunt

St George Illawarra playmaker Ben Hunt won't play against Penrith in their NRL encounter.
St George Illawarra playmaker Ben Hunt won't play against Penrith in their NRL encounter.

St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor has defended his omission of million-dollar playmaker Ben Hunt as his side's NRL season goes on the line against Penrith, saying he is putting player welfare first.

The Dragons will be buoyed by the return of forward leader James Graham from a broken leg after a nearly two-month lay-off however will be without Hunt at Panthers Stadium on Friday night.

The joint venture are struggling to salvage their season from 14th spot, two wins behind the eight-placed Panthers.

Hunt toiled admirably for Queensland during their State of Origin series loss to NSW, playing 80 minutes at hooker, defending in the middle of the field and making 128 tackles across three games.

But he looked flat during their 36-14 thumping at the hands of Canberra last weekend, missing five tackles, and has been replaced by Darren Nicholls against the Panthers.

Asked if it was a risk to rest one of his star players with their season approaching do-or-die territory, McGregor said: "Not if you look at the welfare of the player, it's not a risk.

"He thought he'd be OK after the Origin. But with the performance (against the Raiders), we got together on Tuesday, we thought the most important thing was to look after Ben as a person."

With the Dragons needing to win five or six of their last eight to make the finals, sections of the club's fanbase have called for McGregor's sacking.

The Dragons' defensive record this year paints a picture of team down on confidence and cohesion having conceded the most points of any team in the competition (365).

They have conceded the most tries (4 per game), the second-most metres (1496), the second-most linebreaks (5.2) and missed the fifth-most tackles (26.4).

The Dragons will now look to the Panthers, who are on a six-game winning streak, for inspiration as they seek to get back in the top eight hunt.

The Panthers will have Nathan Cleary at their disposal after recovering from an ankle injury which kept him out of Origin III.

"We started this winning streak purely based on we had to guts out a few wins purely because we didn't have confidence and we didn't have a lot of flow," coach Ivan Cleary said.

"We're still trying to find (cohesion), having had Nathan out for a couple of weeks.

"But we had different combos and (James Maloney) in Origin. We're still trying to find our true rhythm but we're definitely on the right path."

STATS THAT MATTER * The Panthers have made the fewest metres (1329 per game), have made the most errors (12.4 per game), have the worst completion rate (71.2 per cent).

* The Panthers are the third team in history to have a non-winning streak of at least six straight games and then win six straight games in the same season, along with the 1997 Sydney City Roosters and 2002 Cronulla sides.

Australian Associated Press