Dragons v Broncos
Well what a difference three weeks makes.
If not for some plucky Rooster resolve and a perfectly timed Mitchell Pearce pass this would have been the showdown between two undefeated teams who many experts, punters and six-year-olds believed had no right to hold such lofty positions in the 2014 season.
The Dragons' only home game in the opening three weeks was at their home away from home, ANZ Stadium, in Round 1 but they have been nothing but impressive in accounting for the Tigers, Warriors and Sharks to sit ahead of the Storm on points differential as the only teams still boasting a perfect record.
And if you don't think the good folk of Wollongong aren't busting to get out to WIN Stadium on Friday night in their best red-and-white then you've obviously forgotten the fervour surrounding their minor premiership seasons of 2010-11.
With 58 wins and four draws in 94 fixtures at WIN Stadium since 1999, the Dragons have a 62 per cent winning record in the 'Gong and their record against Brisbane there in recent times is at a similar rate, having won three of the past five.
If NRL games went for 75 minutes and not 80 then Brisbane would be sitting pretty alongside the Dragons atop the competition table but the defending premiers gave them a lesson that should hold them in good stead for the remainder of 2014.
Wins against the Bulldogs and Cowboys were more gritty than pretty but a breakout performance from Ben Hunt and whole-hearted performances from Sam Thaiday, Corey Parker and Martin Kennedy last Friday gave the competition sufficient warning that the Broncos are more than mere nuisance value in 2014.
A month ago the decision by Channel Nine to schedule this match on a Friday night could have been questioned but the vagaries within rugby league now make it a genuine showstopper on both sides of the border.
Watch Out Broncos: Up there in the sky... Is that a bird? A plane? No, it's high-flying Dragon Brett Morris! A week after breaking Warrior hearts with a 100-metre effort from his own goal-line, Morris soared high above the Remondis Stadium surface, claimed a judicious Gareth Widdop 'mini-bomb' and conjured a put-down to rival that of David Nofoaluma's try of the year last season.
His fourth-minute try against the Sharks brought up his ton of four-pointers in the NRL and 35 minutes later he started on the next 100 with a spectacular effort that will not be easily forgotten. It took his tally to three tries from three games in 2014 and a one-try buffer on twin brother Josh in their annual try-scoring shootout.
With 20 dummy-half runs he is the only player who doesn't play hooker in the top 14 for that statistic – the next winger is teammate Jason Nightingale – and with 474.2 metres from three games (at an average of 158m) only Albert Kelly and Sam Burgess have covered more territory.
He's lethal at the point-scoring part of the field but the Broncos will also have to contain his runs from dummy-half coming out of trouble that have been getting the Dragons' sets off to good starts.
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Watch Out Dragons: He was quoted during the week as saying that he may never recapture the form of 2012 that stunned the rugby league world but Ben Barba has shown enough in three weeks to suggest that even below his best he is still better than most.
With a halves combination in Ben Hunt and Josh Hoffman that is still coming to terms with each other's strengths, Barba has been asked to be more of a provider than a finisher and is taking the ball first or second from the ruck on a much more regular basis than previous seasons.
Getting the ball in his hands more often can only be a good thing for the Broncos attack and there were signs last Friday that not only is Barba contributing but his mere presence is providing more space for Hunt to play his natural game.
Although he is still to open his try-scoring account as a Bronco, Barba has contributed two try assists, four offloads and has had possession 89 times, 10 more times than five-eighth Hoffman.
His 143 metres last week against the Roosters was the most for both teams and a massive jump from the 49 and 58 metres in the opening two rounds. Barba's confidence is growing, and that should be a major concern for the Dragons defence.
Plays To Watch: With the changes to rules around the ruck the speed men have become lethal out of dummy-half and in Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale the Dragons have two of the best in the business. And with 83 dummy-half runs to date, the Dragons do it more than any other team in the competition. If the Broncos markers give them any latitude they will soon propel their side downfield and give the Dragons momentum in a set of six that can be difficult to stem.
With two tries and two try assists Ben Hunt's confidence went to new levels last Friday night but Dragons coach Steve Price will have taken note of where he attacked. Hunt scored the opening try by ducking down a short blind-side in the sixth minute and then laid one on for Lachlan Maranta in the 55th minute when he again exploited a stretched Roosters defence on a short right edge. Blind-side Dragons defenders beware, especially close to your own line.
Where It Will Be Won: Both teams spent an extraordinary 56 minutes of last weekend's games in the opposition half yet while the Broncos came up with 26 points and lost, the Dragons converted all that territory into just 14 points but still defeated the Sharks.
Winning the territorial battle will be crucial but shapes as an absorbing arm-wrestle, with little separating the two teams in key statistical categories. They have both conceded 19 penalties, the Dragons have made one less error (25 to 26) and missed three less tackles (69-72) than their northern opponents.
The platform laid by the forwards and kicking games of the respective halves will determine which team cracks first.
The History: Played 30; Dragons 13, Broncos 17. The history between these two teams since the merger entity came into being in 1999 is dictated very much by periods of dominance by each club. The Broncos won the first four meetings (including a 44-14 hammering at Wollongong in 2000) but between Round 23, 2005 and Round 4, 2009 the Dragons won eight straight. The record recently is all the Broncos, having won the past six encounters and eight of the past nine.
What Are The Odds: The Dragons have been on fire but punters are tipping their run will come to an end, with virtually all of the early money taken by Sportsbet.com.au going on Brisbane despite them being $2.05 outsiders.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Gavin Morris; Touch Judges – Paul Holland & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton, Ben Galea.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld); Delayed 9.30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the Dragons lost two consecutive grand finals to the Broncos in 1992-93 but this shapes as an absorbing new chapter in the storied history between these proud teams. The first game in Wollongong for 2014 will ensure a parochial home crowd but the Broncos have been exhibiting a toughness in the opening three weeks that has been missing since Darren Lockyer's retirement at the end of the 2011 season. The class of Gareth Widdop and the home fans might just be enough for the Dragons to maintain their unbeaten start. Dragons by 4 points.
• Statistics: Champion Stats.
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