Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Dragons v Bulldogs
WIN Jubilee Oval
St George Illawarra and Canterbury built one of the great rivalries of the 1980s and to this day the fans of both clubs love nothing more than getting one over on their old foes. So it’s a shame that they face off this week with the Dragons almost certainly out of finals contention in 2013.
It’s been a tough year for the Red V. Although any thoughts of a genuine premiership challenge were probably confined only to the diehards, they would have hoped to have at least figured in the finals race but instead have found themselves caught in that awkward period between the success of the Wayne Bennett era and the regeneration of their squad as they look to claw their way back up again.
In that sense, 2013 might be viewed as a rebuilding year but that comes as no consolation to coach Steve Price who has endured endless speculation over his job security this season. No doubt he will be looking forward to next year in the hope that a brand new halves combination can alleviate the club’s attacking woes.
Still, the signs have been there of late that the Dragons have the makings of a pretty decent squad – particularly since they signed fullback Josh Dugan. And it is Dugan they will look to this week as they try to put a dent in Canterbury’s title aspirations. A genuine match-winner, he has at least provided them with some attacking spark since debuting for the club in Round 10.
His presence this week is particularly intriguing given that the Bulldogs will be without their star custodian Ben Barba through injury.
It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Canterbury at the moment. They belted Parramatta 40-12 last week although so diabolical were the Eels that the Bulldogs’ Under-20s side probably would have secured the two points as well. Likewise, they downed Melbourne 39-0 in their previous start but the Storm were missing their four Origin stars. Prior to that, Des Hasler’s men had lost consecutive games to Newcastle and Sydney Roosters and they certainly aren’t playing the same irrepressible football of 12 months ago.
Still, they boast a squad any coach would love to have and if they can finish in or around the top four they won’t be taken lightly come finals time. A win over the Dragons would certainly have them pumped for a big run home.
Dragons coach Steve Price has made one minor change, with Trent Merrin back in the starting side at lock and Tyson Frizell returning to the bench.
Barba’s absence with a foot injury sees Sam Perrett move to fullback with Tim Lafai coming in at centre and Krisnan Inu moving to the wing.
The Dragons are at risk of losing four straight games at WIN Jubilee for just the second time in their history, although they will take confidence from the fact that Canterbury are suffering their 10th worst ever season in defence when away from home, conceding 25 points per game.
Bulldogs forward Frank Pritchard requires 105 metres to reach 20,000 career run metres while Josh Morris plays his 150th NRL game.
Watch Out Dragons: Canterbury’s forward pack has struggled to match its incredible feats of 2013, but not James Graham. The England international has been a standout since returning from suspension in Round 8 and easily their best forward in wins over Melbourne and Parramatta over the past few weeks. Graham ran for 141 metres against the Storm and a game-high 156 against the Eels, with his ball-playing ability constantly troubling the defence. He is the individual St George Illawarra’s big men should focus on shutting down.
Watch Out Bulldogs: We noted Josh Dugan as being the main danger when St George Illawarra have the ball in hand. The 23-year-old boasts phenomenal stats since joining mid-season, averaging 188 metres, scoring four tries, making six line-breaks and a whopping 53 tackle-breaks from just eight appearances.
Plays To Watch: A short ball from hooker Michael Ennis to one of his big men when camped on the try line. James Graham and Aiden Tolman have both benefited from this simple play with tries in 2013, which usually sees Ennis look right before quickly heading left and throwing a flat ball to catch out the close defenders. He also loves throwing an inside ball in a similar position.
Key Match-Up: Josh Dugan v Sam Perrett. Ben Barba is a huge loss for the Bulldogs, however they have a number of ready-made replacements – none better suited than Sam Perrett. Perrett spent plenty of time at the back during his time at the Roosters and has a habit of notching big metres with his strong kick returns and penchant for darting out of dummy-half. His clash with the always-lethal Josh Dugan will be worth watching.
Where It Will Be Won: The Dragons are a grinding-style of team – when they won the comp in 2010 they basically frustrated their opponents into submission – and that’s exactly the style of tactic they’ll need to upset Canterbury in this one. If their big men can go forward with intent and defend with greater enthusiasm they can nullify the ball skills of the Bulldogs pack.
The History: Played 25; Bulldogs 15, Dragons 10. St George Illawarra has won six of their past nine meetings with the Bulldogs although the Dogs have won on four of their past five visits to WIN Jubilee. The Dragons need 22 points to make it 500 scored against Canterbury.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Clayton Sharpe; Video Referee – Ashley Klein & Justin Morgan.
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Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7pm AEST.
The Way We See It: It will be interesting to see how the Dragons perform now that their finals hopes are dashed. Will they keep fighting or will they wilt? Either way they face a tough ask here against a Bulldogs side that has been playing some decent football and can still push for a top-four spot should they get on a roll. Bulldogs by 12 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats