St George Illawarra have confirmed they will play Jack de Belin in the NRL at their first opportunity, naming him to come off the bench against Brisbane.
De Belin impressed in his return to rugby league via reserve grade last week after 987 days on the sideline through the NRL’s no-fault stand-down policy while he faced sexual assault charges.
The prosecution’s decision to withdraw the case and not pursue a third trial came too late for the 30-year-old to be named in the NRL squad last week, leaving him instead to play in the NSW Cup.
Dragons officials tossed up whether his 45 minutes on the field were enough to to warrant a spot. However, they have now opted to play him off the bench at Kogarah on Thursday night in the No 17 jersey, ending a two-and-a-half-year absence for the former NSW State of Origin lock.
It means he will make his return following two training sessions with the top squad this year, after rejoining his teammates on Monday.
Coach Anthony Griffin has no concerns, believing he is the ideal ball-playing lock in a game that has become faster during de Belin’s absence.
“He’s a pretty smart player. He will fit in no risk to team structures and things like that,” Griffin said. “He’s a mobile forward and can play long minutes.”
Matt Dufty will also make an early return from a shoulder injury for the Dragons at fullback, while Mikaele Ravalawa has displaced Jordan Pereira on the wing. Brisbane have again dropped Anthony Milford, with Tyson Gamble returning from a suspension in the halves.
Elsewhere, Penrith will debut prop Lindsay Smith and teenage second-rower Izack Tago off the bench as part of a depleted pack. Despite losing seven players to State of Origin camps and suspension, the Panthers still boast a halves combination of Matt Burton and Tyrone May.
Robert Jennings has also beaten Brent Naden for a wing spot, with their back five still competitive against any other in the NRL. However Moses Leota’s suspension hurts them most up front, with only two of their normal starting pack left for Friday’s clash with Wests Tigers.
The biggest name to debut across the league is Preston Campbell’s 21-year-old son Jayden, who will run out at fullback for Gold Coast against Melbourne. Ash Taylor has also recovered from a hip injury to reclaim his No 7 jersey.
Melbourne’s injury crisis in recent weeks means there are minimal changes in their side, despite having five Origin representatives.
Blake Ferguson has paid the price for Parramatta’s right-edge defensive woes, dumped for Sunday’s clash with Cronulla. Haze Dunster will take his spot against a Newcastle side boasting the famous Johns name again with Jack to play his first NRL game for the club on the bench.