The race for the South Sydney number nine jumper is wide open after Damien Cook made a strong case in his side's 18-14 Charity Shield win over St George Illawarra.In a dour game blighted by a stream of handling errors, aside from the lack of injuries, highlights were few and far between for both sides at Sydney's Olympic stadium on Saturday.
Cook, recruited from Canterbury in the off-season, was amongst a handful of standouts along with damaging back-rower Paul Carter and playmaker Cody Walker.
After Cameron McInnes started the game in the number nine jumper, Cook made his presence felt immediately when he came on midway through the first half, coming within inches of scoring after darting out of dummy half with one of his first touches.
While he out-pointed McInnes, who came into the pre-season as the more likely to replace Issac Luke as the side's starting hooker, coach Michael Maguire said it would come down to the side's final trial.
"I've got ideas about which way I'll go but it's up to the players - if they perform, we're a performance-based team," Maguire said of his hooking quandary.
"We talk about that amongst each other and the senior players and we'll make that decision after the next trial."
Walker was asked to guide the side around the park after Luke Keary was an 11th hour withdrawal due to what Souths said was a minor hip problem.
He comes into the pre-season with a big chance to impress, with Keary set to miss the first round through suspension, and a chance to put pressure on the starting halves.
While Walker's game was blighted by a couple of errors - including his decision to kick on the first tackle with his side in an attacking position - he came up with a couple of strong line breaks.
When he sliced through in the second half and Ed Murphy went over the next play, it opened up a decisive eight-point lead.
Carter - who came to the club after being sacked from the Gold Coast for drink-driving last year - was dogged in defence and attack and put his hand up for a starting back-row spot.
For the Dragons, coach Paul McGregor was blunt in summing up the positives for his side after a forgettable performance: "no injuries".
Melbourne recruit Kurt Mann was given his chance to stake a claim for the Dragons' number one jumper and had some solid involvements, including preventing Cook's first-half try.
However McGregor said he still had not decided whether Mann or Josh Dugan would start there in round one.
"(Mann) is a work in progress," McGregor said.
"He had some nice touches."