Nigel Wall,, NRL.com
Dragons v Broncos
Going up against a side that’s won just one of their past nine NRL clashes would normally be considered a sweet deal for an under-the-pump team but Dragons coach Steve Price knows his attack-challenged 17 have a tough job ahead if they are to wrestle their first competition points of the season from the similarly struggling Broncos.
With both sides losing last week – the Dragons outmuscled 30-10 by the Storm and the Broncos hobbled 22-14 in a second-half shutout by the Sea Eagles – a win here is desperately needed. The saying goes you can’t win the premiership in March – but then again keep losing and you can risk playing yourself out of contention.
Despite the 20-point loss there were some good signs from the Dragons, especially given the modest expectations heaped on them from most quarters in the lead-up to season kick-off. For the most part they held onto the football (just eight errors and 79% completions) and built pressure. But two long-range tries against the run of play sucked the wind out of their sails.
Meanwhile Brisbane looked to have the matter well in hand when leading Manly 14-6 at halftime. They completed their first-40 sets well (81%) and were required to make 50 tackles fewer than their opposition. Consequently their massive fade in the second half, when they missed 20 tackles, completed just 50% of sets and made nine errors, came as a huge jolt.
Steve Price has named an unchanged Dragons 17 but tweaked the starting side: Michael Weyman will commence at prop with Leeson Ah Mau benched, while Trent Merrin runs on at lock with Bronson Harrison to warm the pine.
Anthony Griffin has reinvested in the squad that took the field against the Sea Eagles, with all players to start as per last week.
It could all boil down to whichever side runs with greater enthusiasm and force – both teams rank second-to-bottom of the league for tackle-breaks, with just 13 apiece.
Watch Out Dragons: The Dragons were shaky down their right side last season, leaking 36 tries in their 24 games, and last week they gave up two tries there and were sliced open repeatedly. To make matters worse first-choice centre Chase Stanley, although named, remains under an injury cloud (knee sprain); should he be a late withdrawal (as is our mail) usual-winger Daniel Vidot will come in as the makeshift man. Regardless of who lines up in the No.4 jersey, expect Jack Reed, Josh Hoffman and Corey Norman to launch plenty of left-side raids for the Broncos, while Alex Glenn and Sam Thaiday will be used as battering rams.
Justin Hodges looms as the big danger man for the Saints; he was devastating on the right side last week, with 150 metres, two try assists, two line-break assists, two offloads and four tackle-breaks – almost a third of his team’s combined tally.
Watch Out Broncos: Brisbane can expect a fast and furious softening-up from the Dragons’ props. Last week it was Dan Hunt and Leeson Ah Mau who put their bodies on the line in the extreme 35-degree Melbourne heat – the pair each topped 100 metres in little more than 30 minutes on the field. Coach Price has elevated Michael Weyman to start alongside Hunt; after taking baby steps in his NRL return after 10 months out with injury, Weyman will be expected to rally here. When he burns out expect interchange Ah Mau to carry the torch.
Trent Merrin is another who will take the battle to the Broncos. Starting at lock he will need to be contained in the tackle or else he’ll pose a threat with his ability to offload (three last week).
Hooker Mitch Rein had a subdued season opener – he’ll offer a lot more than the 36 receives and solitary run he provided last week. In particular he’ll be dangerous sizing up opportunities to go himself out of dummy-half, particularly inside the Broncos’ 10-metre zone.
Scott Prince can’t let the missed tackles mount or he’ll prove a liability every week; Prince missed six tackles last week – in 2012 he averaged 4.5 misses per match, the third most in the league.
Plays To Watch: Dragons wingers Jason Nightingale and Brett Morris attempting to spark their side like they’re fleeing a stampede; Trent Merrin’s charges and offloads (three to date); veterans Matt Cooper and Justin Hodges locking horns; captain Sam Thaiday giving his all (15 runs, 31 tackles in 59 minutes against Manly); Alex Glenn (17 runs, 150 metres) eyeballing Nathan Fien in the Dragons’ right-edge defensive line; Andrew McCullough running from dummy-half close to the try line – he came within a blade of grass of success last week.
Key Match-Up: Gerard Beale v Corey Norman. The last time these teams met Beale occupied the right wing for the Broncos while teammate Norman wore the No.6 jersey. Now they oppose each other at fullback. Neither player offered a great deal for their team last week – Norman ran just 76 metres without any impact in attack, while Beale fared little better adding just 84 metres – so both will be keen to spark this week.
It’s safe to assume Beale will be focusing on a huge game against his former club after never really being considered a standout candidate for his preferred position. He’ll look to work on his combinations with wingers Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale, as well as five-eighth Jamie Soward targeting the right edge in particular.
Meanwhile Norman will be desperate to repay the faith shown in him by coach Griffin and register some big gains with the ball in hand – he was leading Bronco for try assists and line-break assists last season (14 each category) while he added 11 line-breaks and 10 tries. Look for him to chime in off a delayed Scott Prince pass down the left edge of the field inside the Dragons’ 20.
Where It Will Be Won: For Brisbane it’s about a sustained effort throughout the 80 minutes while the Dragons simply have to find a way to get into good field position and convert that into points.
Brisbane capitulated in a diabolical second 40 against the Sea Eagles, bumbling to just eight completed sets from 16 individual possessions, missing 21 tackles after the break and committing more than an error every five minutes!
Meanwhile the Dragons completed their sets better than opponents Melbourne (79%-64%) and made almost half as many errors (8-15) – yet they struggled with the ball in hand, making just one line-break and creating just the one true scoring opportunity to Jason Nightingale (not including Jamie Soward’s long-range intercept effort). It doesn’t appear much has changed for them in attack since last season and if they can’t find some mojo they’ll struggle again here.
The History: Played 28; Broncos 15, Dragons 13. The Broncos have won six of the past nine games. The Dragons won the last encounter in Wollongong 34-16, back in Round 5 of their 2010 premiership season. Since then the Broncos have won three times in Brisbane.
Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Paul Holland; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Gavin Reynolds.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 8.05pm AEDT (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports 1HD – Delayed 10pm.
The Way We See It: Whichever side wins the battle for territory will emerge the victor. Both teams struggled in this department last week, with the Dragons limping to the fourth-fewest metres of the round (1124) while the Broncos were only marginally more forceful (1217 metres). These numbers were way down on their efforts last year, when the Dragons tallied the fourth-most metres (1401) and the Broncos the third-most (1406). From what we’ve seen so far the speed of the ruck is quicker than it was last season; we’re inclined to think that will favour the Broncos. Brisbane to win away by six points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats