Dan Walsh, Staff Writer, NRL.com
Dragons v Bulldogs
Sunday, 3pm AEST
What do you get when you throw your reds, blues and whites in the wash? A very snazzy, light purple acid wash wardrobe that costs an annoying amount of coin to replace, and one that left this correspondent writing off even the uni student staple of two-minute noodles as a luxury item for a month, that’s what.
Of far more consequence to everyone else in the rugby league world will be what comes out of the mix this Sunday, as the Dragons and the Dogs clash in a Mother’s Day special at ANZ Stadium.
Will the Red V’s bright start to the year continue to fade with another loss, their fifth in six outings after three straight wins to kick off the season?
The Dragons are one of seven teams sitting with a 4-4 win-loss record with a third of the season gone, but those wins have come against the Warriors (twice), Cronulla and the Tigers in Round 1 before they kicked into gear. The home side need to prove they can match it with a competition heavyweight sooner rather than later if they’re to push for a top eight spot at the pointy end of the season, particularly with Trent Merrin, Josh Morris and Josh Dugan likely to be notable absentees over the upcoming rep season.
Or will the Bulldogs cut it a bit too close with their now-typical last-gasp wins and find themselves hung out to dry?
Despite sitting at the top of the NRL class and not having tasted defeat in over month, Hasler’s men haven’t put together one of those 80-minute performances coaches are so fond of since downing the Chooks in Round 5. With the likes of Josh Reynolds, Josh Morris and Tony Williams pushing for spots in Laurie Daley’s NSW side, a strong team performance would go a long way to furthering the trio’s representative aspirations, as well as giving the Dogs some always welcome breathing space between themselves and the pack of sides hot on their heels.
There are changes aplenty for the Dragons, as Sam Williams replaces Michael Witt at halfback and Steve Price reshuffles his backline to cover for the loss of injured Kiwi winger Jason Nightingale. Joel Thompson moves to left centre, pushing Nathan Green onto the flank, while Bronson Harrison moves into the back row and Leeson Ah Mau comes onto the bench. Dan Hunt has been named to start with Jack Stockwell warming the pine, but don’t be surprised if they pull the old switcheroo like they have already this year.
For the Bulldogs Tim Lafai returns from the midweek concussion that ruled him out of the Round 8 win over the Knights, pushing impressive debutant Moses Mbye back into the 18th man role, while Greg Eastwood suits up for his 150th NRL game.
In a special Mother's Day promo, rail transport has been thrown in with cheap family tickets ($40 for a family of four) and all mums will receive a free gift pack as well as access to a pamper zone where they can get a massage from one of the NRL's '5-minute Angels.'
Watch Out Dragons: The Roosters' forwards found the going far too easy up the middle in the Dragons' last start, with every member of the premiers starting pack running for over 100 metres and leaving the Dragons' inside defence looking like the aftermath of a trailer park tornado. The going doesn't get any easier just because it's Mother's Day either this week, with the Bulldogs possessing an even more imposing pack led by James Graham; the biggest hit out of England since The Beatles, and marshalled by the wily Michael Ennis; a bloke who washes down a morning bowl of glass and nails with a piping hot cup of concrete. The Dogs' big men will be chock-full of confidence having run for the most metres in the NRL (13,565) and welcoming back the likes of Williams, Aiden Tolman, Dale Finucane, Josh Jackson, David Klemmer and Greg Eastwood from impressive showings over the rep weekend.
Watch Out Bulldogs: It’s hard to believe Trent Merrin is just 24, though the fact he’s already got an NRL premiership, seven NSW jumpers, a couple of starts for Country and 100 first grade games under his belt may have something to do with it. The Shellharbour junior works harder than a Japanese beaver in defence; with an average of 41 tackles per game (8th best in the NRL), but he also packs quite a punch with the ball in hand, with his 14 offloads this year (off the back of 48 in 2013) generating valuable second-phase play that the Dragons little men Mitch Rein and Gareth Widdop, and the not-so little Josh Dugan thrive on. If Merrin can get his arms free amongst the Bulldogs midfield monsters, then the previously mentioned trio should cause some headaches for the competition leaders.
Plays To Watch: The respective back threes for these teams are amongst the best in the business when it comes to bringing the pill back on kick returns, with the Dragons (1052 metres) and the Dogs (1009 metres) two of the four teams to have run for over a kilometre in literally kick-starting their side's sets, though the loss of Nightingale is a big one for the home side. Sam Perrett in particular is making an art form out of keeping the defence honest, with his 494 kick return metres behind only Souths superstar Greg Inglis (613m) and Roosters veteran Anthony Minichiello (588m) in the competition.
Where It Will Be Won:
The halves. Josh Reynolds (8 try assists), Trent Hodkinson (5) and Gareth Widdop (7) have been amongst the form playmakers in the competition, with each of this trio playing arguably the best football of their careers. But the reason the Bulldogs are sitting in position Numero Uno and the Dragons find themselves in the mid-table logjam comes down to the fact they can't find a suitable option to partner Widdop in the halves. Sam Williams, Adam Quinlan and Michael Witt have all tried their hand at the Dragons No.7 jumper, and it looks like it’s Williams’s turn again now the music has stopped in Steve Price’s latest edition of musical halfbacks. Williams has arguably been the most impressive of the three, with four try assists in three games, though he will be well and truly in the sights of the Dogs edge runners and needs to put in a good showing in defence.
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The History: Played 26; Bulldogs 16, Dragons 10. The Dogs have got the bikkies in their last four showdowns with the Dragons, and before that it was the Red V that went on a six-game hot streak across three years. And before that it was all Bulldogs again, with seven straight wins between 2003 and 2008.
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Grant Atkins; Touch Judges – Steve Carrall & Chris Sutton; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel 9 -Delayed 4pm AEST.
How We See It: Any team that can let the likes of Eastwood, Klemmer, Browne and Kasiano off the leash and into the fray when the opposition's forwards are starting to tire is going to take some beating, and we just can't see the Dragons being able to contain the Bulldogs' big men. St George Illawarra are an honest side, and will make the Dogs earn it, but with too much grunt up front and a more settled halves pairing we can't go past Des Hasler's men racking up their sixth win in a row. Bulldogs by 12 points.