Paul McGregor's last throw of the dice for Dragons' season

Happier times - Paul McGregor at the beginning of his tenure as Dragons' coach. Mark Nolan/Getty Images

St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor has been under a lot of pressure lately as his Dragons have slumped to 14th on the NRL ladder and are left with just the faintest of chances of playing finals football.

The criticism intensified last week after he gave star halfback Ben Hunt a week off to rest. They were thumped by the Panthers, which left their top-8 aspirations barely flickering.

McGregor defended the decision further this week, insisting that the welfare of Hunt was paramount.

"A lot's been said about it over the last week. It was a conversation between me and Ben. I made the decision," McGregor said.

"For the welfare of the player and betterment of the team in the future to finish the season well, it was time for Ben to not play.

"If I've put Ben on the field and he was injured through fatigue and we didn't have him for this week or for the rest of the year, how would that have looked?

"So a decision was made. We need to move on."

And move on he has. This week they face the high-flying Rabbitohs and McGregor has made some key changes to his line-up. Hunt returns to halfback where he'll be expected to put in a strong performance on refreshed legs. Club captain Gareth Widdop is back from a shoulder reconstruction at five-eighth, sending Corey Norman to fullback.

"He (Widdop) hasn't played any footy for about 18-20 weeks. The loads that you do have at fullback are extremely high," McGregor explained.

"And Normy wanted to go back there, to be honest.

"He was keen and Gareth wanted to play six. It's important that you get players comfortable playing in positions."

McGregor has also dropped both wingers, Mikaele Ravalawa and Jonus Pearson, promoting Zac Lomax and giving young star Jason Saab his debut. The rest of the team remains the same, so McGregor will be placing a lot of hope in the inspirational leadership of Widdop to turn things around.

If the Jack de Belin saga has been a distraction, there is no resolution to that problem within sight. This week he was committed to stand trial over the sexual assault charges which grow in number seemingly with each court appearance. He faces a very real battle far above and beyond anything that is happening on the football field, and it is unreasonable to continue to blame the club's form on his predicament, regardless of the depth of player sympathy for him.

Forward leader James Graham has a run under his belt after returning from injury and there is no more competitive player in the NRL. He'll need to lead the Dragons forwards on a mission to take advantage of the understrength Rabbitohs pack. Hooker Cameron McInnes can be as dangerous as Damien Cook when playing behind a dominant pack, and in Hunt and Widdop the Dragons have two of the most experienced halves in the completion to take advantage of that forward momentum.

On paper they should be too good for the Rabbitohs, too good for most teams in the competition. And that's why the fans are so frustrated with McGregor. Wayne Bennett has the Rabbitohs back in form, despite playing without a single Burgess brother. If they beat the Dragons, particularly if the score is ugly, the torches will be lit again and the red-and-white-clad mob will close in on Kogarah.

Dragons chief executive Brian Johnston denies McGregor's position is in any danger.

"This is a performance driven business that we have and I can understand their frustration, I feel the frustration myself," Johnston told the Illawarra Mercury.

"I'm listening to the criticism but I don't think removing a coach at this stage of the season in isolation to everything else is the right move.

"Mary's [McGregor] working very hard, as we all are, and I think there needs to be shared responsibility for the results. I talk the players as well and they're disappointed as everybody else."

Last week after the loss to Penrith, McGregor was unable to explain his team's dismal second-half performance.

"I can't explain it right now because it shouldn't happen," he said.

When the coach runs out of answers, no matter how much the players are letting him down, he is usually the one to go. Friday night's clash with the Rabbitohs could be the turning point in both the Dragons' season and in McGregor's career. A win, or at the very least, a much-improved performance, is vital.