Returns to the Fold

St George Illawarra's Lance Thompson will enter the 2004 NRL season "bigger and stronger than ever" after being given a break to sort out his personal problems.

The former club captain has been reluctant to discuss the bust-up of his marriage which led to the Dragons granting the veteran forward two weeks off from pre-season training last month.

But Thompson, who celebrates his 26th birthday on Monday, broke his silence on his state of mind at the joint venture club's season launch.

"It was at a time in my life when I needed a break," said Thompson, a loyal man who represents the heart and soul of the Dragons.

"The club was good enough to give me the break and I took two weeks off.

"It was probably the best thing I've ever had to do in my life.

"Those two weeks helped me a fair bit and gave me time to get away from things and relax and sort out what was going on in my head.

"I've come back bigger and stronger than ever, especially upstairs, and I'm looking forward to the season ahead."

Meanwhile, Dragons skipper Trent Barrett said today his form and that of Brett Firman's would improve when the pair reformed its deadly halves combination.

Breaking an ankle restricted Barrett to just five matches last year, placing enormous pressure on halfback Firman as the playmaker in his NRL rookie year.

Firman, 21, struggled during his initiation period in first grade but his confidence and stature grew as the season progressed.

Barrett, who will play his first match in nine months in Saturday night's Charity Shield clash with Souths, can't wait to reunite with fellow Temora product Firman.

"I only played three or four games with him last year and we went OK," said Barrett.

"I'm looking forward to playing with him again.

"It'll certainly take a lot of pressure off me and I'll be able to take a lot of pressure off him.

"I guess the result of that will be less errors between the both of us."

Barrett will need to be at his best because he has just six weeks from the Dragons' NRL season-opener, against Canberra on March 14, to impress Australian selectors before the ANZAC Day Test.

The 26-year-old's injuries cost him the No.6 jersey in 2003, with St George Illawarra teammate Shaun Timmins filling that role.

Timmins will play lock for the Dragons and Barrett, if fit and firing, should be a certainty for the Test five-eighth spot.

"I don't want to think about that," Barrett said.

"If we can win our first three games and we're around about the top of the competition, then that certainly helps when rep sides are picked.

"If I play to the best of my ability, then the rest of it will take care of itself."