Former Kiwis captain Benji Marshall says the St George Illawarra Dragons are riding high ahead of tonight's elimination final against the Canterbury Bulldogs, despite leaving it late in their final round clash with Wests Tigers to secure their eighth place finish.
Marshall admitted relief was the overriding emotion after the Dragons needed a penalty goal to survive a spirited Tigers comeback and claim a 32-30 golden point victory over his former club.
With that patchy result behind them, the 30-year-old halfback insists the Red V are now brimming with confidence and eager to make the most of their first finals appearance since 2011, the same year Marshall last enjoyed September football.
"I've noticed the difference around training," Marshall told the Dragons website.
"Everyone's pretty upbeat and excited for what's going to be the first appearance in the semis for a few years so it's a good time for the club.
"For me that relief of making the semis, I haven't played there since 2011, so it's a fair achievement and something I'm proud of and I want to go further than that. We had put ourselves in a good position mid-year and had an up and down back end to the season, but our goal at the start of the season was to make the top eight, and now we're here we feel like we're a genuine chance."
He accepts the Dragons cannot afford to take their foot off the pedal as they did in their last outing, when they let slip a 30-8 lead in the final quarter against the Tigers.
The Bulldogs were also far from perfect in their narrow 26-22 win over the Warriors, but Marshall knows nothing less than a committed 80 minute effort will be good enough against the team that has featured in two of the last three grand finals.
"We probably put the cue in the rack a little bit early," he said. "But what I was impressed with is we played 60 minutes of the type of footy that is finals footy and Dragons footy, and we'll just go back to that. We've got to play for 80 minutes or we'll be beaten.
"They're [Bulldogs] a pretty big physical team and they've been rolling a lot of teams through the middle. We're going to have to win the battle through the forwards and win the field position battle, and try and limit their opportunities in our half of the field with the types of the outside backs they've got, with the Morris boys and that."
The Dragons are again preparing to be without Marshall's halves partner Gareth Widdop, with the England five-eighth in a race against time to recover from a quad injury that kept him out of last week's clash. "He's working very hard and the boys see it every day, he's on the ice machine, he's out with physios, and out walking it trying to get the swelling down.
"He's definitely still a chance but at the end of the day we're just going to prepare like he's not playing and if he does turn up and play on game day we'll adjust accordingly."
Rookie playmaker Drew Hutchison has again been named to start in the No 6 jersey and Marshall has no doubts as to how the 20-year-old will handle the big occasion in just his fourth NRL appearance.
"Absolutely. He's a kid who is not fazed by much. He just wants to do his job for the team. Apart from that, off the field he's one of the nicest young gentlemen that I've been involved with.
"I've got a lot of trust and a lot of faith in him, if Gareth doesn't play, he'll be able to do a good job."
First Elimination Final
Bulldogs v Dragons at ANZ Stadium, tonight, 7.50pm
Bulldogs: 1. Brett Morris, 2. Curtis Rona, 3. Josh Morris, 4. Tim Lafai, 5. Sam Perrett, 6. Josh Reynolds, 7. Moses Mbye, 8. Aiden Tolman, 9. Damien Cook, 10. James Graham (c), 11. Josh Jackson, 12. Frank Pritchard, 13. Greg Eastwood.
Interchange: 14. Sam Kasiano, 15. Shaun Lane, 16. David Klemmer, 17. Tim Browne, 19. Lloyd Perrett.
Dragons: 1. Josh Dugan, 2. Eto Nabuli, 3. Euan Aitken, 4. Peter Mata'utia, 5. Jason Nightingale, 6. Drew Hutchison, 7. Benji Marshall, 8. Leeson Ah Mau, 9. Mitch Rein, 10. Mike Cooper, 11. Tyson Frizell, 12. Jake Marketo, 13. Trent Merrin.
Interchange: 14. George Rose, 15. Ben Creagh (c), 16. Mark Ioane, 17. Jack de Belin, 18. Justin Hunt, 19. Nathan Green, 21. Craig Garvey.