St George Illawarra believe the steel has returned to their much-criticised forward back after kick-starting their NRL season with back-to-back wins.
The Dragons began the new year slowly with underwhelming losses to Melbourne and the Wests Tigers, but had since found some form in morale-boosting defeats of Canberra and Manly.
But they face their biggest test so far this season in their round-five clash with unbeaten Newcastle at Hunter Stadium on Saturday for the inaugural Alex McKinnon Cup.
The Knights have been the NRL’s early-season surprise packet under returning coach Rick Stone and, if the can extend their winning run to five games, it will be their best start since 2002 – the year after they won their last premiership.
But Dragons utility forward Jack de Belin says the joint venture are determined to have a say in that.
“The forward pack copped a lot of criticism at the start of the year, even in years gone by, but I definitely feel like we went out there and made a little bit of a statement on the weekend,” de Belin told reporters on Friday in Wollongong.
“The Knights have a really strong forward pack.
“We are going to have to bring our A game, and our forward pack is going to have to lift another gear from the weekend.
“We didn’t start the season as we would have liked, but I feel the last two rounds we have definitely come on stronger.
“Our confidence is sky high at the moment. We are ready for the weekend.”
Newcastle have outmuscled their opponents up front in every match so far this year and are boosted by the club debut of Tariq Sims, who returns from a five-game suspension earned with North Queensland last year.
The Knights’ backline depth is further emphasised by the return of James McManus from an eye complaint on the wing.
Sione Mata’utia moves onto the bench as 18th man.
The Dragons are unchanged from their win over the Sea Eagles.
McKinnon played for the Dragons and then the Knights before his injury last year.
NEWCASTLE V ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA:
* Newcastle have won 12 of their past 15 matches, but haven’t done it easily, with six of those being by six points or less and all four victories this season have been by 12 or less
* The Knights have not won their first five matches of a season since 2002 and have achieved the feat just three times in total (2002, 1998 and 1995)
* The Dragons’ 81.3 per cent record at Hunter Stadium is the fifth best 10-game-or-better overall record of any team at any venue in premiership history
* The Knights have won their past seven matches in Newcastle, just two short of their best streak of nine in 2008-09
* Akuila Uate has scored 99 career tries, and will become the first player to reach the 100 milestone for the Knights