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Broncos v Dragons preview

Broncos v Dragons preview
Broncos v Dragons
Suncorp Stadium
Friday, 7.45pm

So, we meet again.

Since Brisbane's admission into the New South Wales Rugby League in 1988 fans of these two teams have developed an admired rivalry that has witnessed countless clashes of high import in each of the three forms the red-and-whites have taken.

In the pre-season of 1992 the Steelers secured the sole trophy of their top-flight existence when they defeated a Broncos team laden with internationals 4-2 in the final of the Tooheys Challenge in Dubbo.

More than six months later Brisbane would have the last laugh, winning their first premiership with a comprehensive 28-8 defeat of St George, a result they would repeat 12 months later, the last team to win back-to-back premierships.

The merged entity has also found itself in absorbing clashes with the Broncos since 1999 including three semi-final encounters, the most dramatic of which was the match-winning field goal by Darren Lockyer in what would be his final game in the 2011 Semi-Final.

And so we come to Round 25, 2014 and two teams that are both still somewhat affected by the fingerprints of master coach Wayne Bennett and have at various stages of the season looked like over-achieving before stumbling.

Both will have different coaches in 2015 than that which they started the season with Paul McGregor last week having his interim capacity upgraded to a three-year full-time role while Griffin was afforded the opportunity to finish the season before he will make way for the return of Bennett next season.

But rather than parting gifts or sucking up to the new boss, the motivation for this game is clear: Win and keep the dream alive; lose and the finals dream gets snuffed out two weeks too early.

Taking a read on the form line is problematic as both the Broncos and Dragons come into this clash with big wins under their belts against teams who are ready for a horror 2014 to end.

Brisbane fumbled their way to a 14-0 lead at half-time against Newcastle but after some early second-half resistance broke the spirit of the Knights and the scorer's pencil in scoring six tries in the closing 23 minutes.

The Dragons defeated a Titans team not considered up to first grade standard by interim coach Neil Henry and after a scare surrounding Benji Marshall's right ankle have come through relatively unscathed.

After being named in the centres before playing at fullback last week Justin Hodges officially gets to wear Brisbane's No.1 jersey this week with Todd Lowrie named as 18th man on a five-man bench.

In 13 previous visits by St George Illawarra to Suncorp Stadium these two teams have drawn an average crowd of 39,655; expect hopeful fans to number more than 40,000 this Friday night.

Watch Out Broncos: Whether it's a 90-metre intercept or a gravity-defying put-down in the corner, few know their way across the try-line better than Dragons flyer Brett Morris. His length-of-the-field effort against the Titans last Sunday was his 13th from 16 games this season and brought up 200 career tries combined for he and twin brother Josh.  In 13 appearances in his career against Brisbane Morris has crossed 10 times, six of which have come at Suncorp Stadium. His overall record at Suncorp Stadium – including representative matches – is nine tries from 16 games but New South Wales' win in Game One this year was his first victory at the venue since Round 4, 2009. At this time of year when half chances make all the difference, Morris is a major weapon for the visitors.

Watch Out Dragons: Perhaps it could be considered his formal application for membership of the front-rowers' club but Broncos co-captain Corey Parker is yet to score a try so far this year and his record against St George Illawarra instils little confidence that will not change on Friday. The Dragons are just one of three clubs that Parker has never scored a four-pointer against but given his involvement last week against Newcastle he may be presented with an opportunity on Friday. His 193 running metres were his best return of the season although he failed to come up with an offload for the first time since Round 2. If he gets the ball near the try-line this week, don't expect Parker to look for support.

Plays To Watch: The shift of Justin Hodges to fullback on a permanent basis last week produced immediate dividends and prompted incoming Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett to ponder whether it was a role worth reprising further in 2015.
Every time Hodges popped up in possession the Broncos looked dangerous while giving Ben Barba the freedom to stay on the ball at all times. Although the Dragons possess two of the finest flankers in the business in Morris and Nightingale, it was their work in the middle of the field that most upset the Titans' defence, Trent Merrin's offloads and Josh Dugan coming back hard on the angle proving difficult to contain time and again.

Where It Will Be Won: There are some interesting statistical match-ups in this clash that could have a bearing on who keeps their season alive for one more week at least. The two least-penalised teams in the competition match up favourably for the Dragons when it comes to runs out of dummy-half. Only the Wests Tigers make more of a habit of dummy-half scoots than the Dragons (402) while the Broncos give up more dummy-half runs than any other team, making it an area St George Illawarra can target for cheap metres coming out of their own half. On the flip-side, the Dragons have given up more offloads than any other team in 2014 so the likes of Corey Parker, Matt Gillett and Justin Hodges might fancy their odds of promoting some second-phase play.

History: Played 31; Broncos 18; Dragons 13. It was a rivalry forged more than 20 years ago in two epic grand finals in consecutive years but in truth it wasn't until 1999 that St George Illawarra first played the Brisbane Broncos. It's a rivalry that has since consisted of winning streaks with the Broncos starting with four straight and then the Dragons winning eight times in a row from 2005 to 2009. The Broncos are currently on a seven-game winning stretch dating back to Round 21, 2010. In 14 appearances at Suncorp Stadium the Dragons have seven wins and seven losses.

What Are The Odds: This is a very even affair as far as betting is concerned. Both the Dragons and Broncos ($1.42 favourites) have been well backed to win 1-12 with Sportsbet, and the Dragons +7.5 is proving popular. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.

Match Officials: Referee – Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee – Dave Munro; Touch Judges – Brett Suttor and Nick Beashel; Video Referees – Steve Clark and Luke Patten.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live, 7.30pm.

How We See It: The Broncos have had the wood on the Dragons in recent years and given their disposal of the Knights last week it is hard not to see that continuing. Their attack clicked into overdrive in the second half with Justin Hodges and Ben Barba running amok and with a host of internationals up front the home side appear to have the edge across the park. Dragons halves Gareth Widdop and Benji Marshall will ensure there's no blow-out but statistically speaking the Broncos are better both in attack and defence, and that's how an entertaining clash should play out. Broncos by 10 points.
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