Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
St George Illawarra Dragons v North Queensland Cowboys
It is crunch time for the Dragons and with three wins from their final three games essential if they hope to sneak into the finals, this week’s clash with North Queensland looms as a real test of their premiership credentials.
Needless to say it’s been a rough few weeks for the Red V. After a spirited win over Melbourne in Round 21, they’ve since dropped games to the Sydney Roosters and Wests Tigers over the past fortnight to leave themselves sitting four points adrift of the top eight. They’ve also been dogged by rumours of a rift between coach Steve Price and five-eighth Jamie Soward, with both expressing their frustration at the situation in recent interviews.
But the crux of the matter is that this once-dominant Dragons side hasn’t been able to maintain their fearsome reputation in 2012. Although they remain a solid defensive outfit, scoring points has been their Achilles heel all year, with their 316 points at 15 per game fewer than any other side in the Telstra Premiership.
And against sides like North Queensland – who put 52 dazzling points past the Warriors last weekend – that’s a major problem.
Despite narrow losses to Manly and Canterbury prior to their big win last Saturday, the Cowboys appear to be building nicely towards the finals, with key position players Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen in top form and a top-four spot beckoning.
Currently sitting fifth on the ladder, their mission over the final rounds of the regular season will be to move up as many spots as possible given the obvious benefits that come with that top-four finish. The NRL has implemented a new finals system this season similar to that used by the AFL and as NRL.com revealed a few weeks back, it has now been 13 years since a side that finished outside the top-four last competed in an AFL grand final.
So there is plenty for the Cowboys to play for. Still, WIN Stadium has always been a tough ground to visit and St George Illawarra will take confidence from the fact that they’ve won the past three games played against North Queensland at their Wollongong base.
The Dragons welcome back veteran centre Matt Cooper from a hamstring injury with youngster Nathan Green dropping out. Nathan Fien’s neck injury means Jamie Soward returns to the starting line-up at five-eighth. Coach Price has named an extended five-man bench with Josh Miller and Leeson Ah Mau coming into the squad.
The Cowboys are yet to make a final decision on the fitness of Ray Thompson who re-injured his shoulder last week. Anthony Mitchell has been added to a five-man bench as cover.
Cowboys fullback Bowen has been on fire over the past 10 weeks, his 13 try assists in that time equal with Benji Marshall as the NRL’s best. He has eight tries in 15 games against the Dragons.
Meanwhile, Jamie Soward is poised to become the first St George Illawarra player to score 900 points with just six more required.
Watch Out Dragons: The Dragons’ edge defenders can expect a working over this Monday with Cowboys ‘general’ Johnathan Thurston a huge fan of the short-side play. The Cowboys have attacked the short side more than any other side this season with 163 plays run down the right and 132 down the left.
Danger Sign: Can the St George Illawarra forwards match it with the Cowboys’ big men? North Queensland rank first for metres gained with the ball in hand in 2012, with 30,113 at 1434 per game. Leading the way are starting props James Tamou (148 per game) and Matthew Scott (132).
Watch Out Cowboys: St George Illawarra’s back three are their greatest asset and it is in North Queensland’s best interest to steer clear as much as possible. Not only do the Dragons’ back three of Jason Nightingale, Brett Morris and Daniel Vidot rank first when it comes to defusing bombs, with 66 of 84 caught for a 78.6 per cent success rate, they also average more metres than any other side from kick returns with 148.3 per game – well clear of the next-best Titans at 124.8.
Danger Sign: If there is one Dragon who can punish North Queensland should they offer him room to move it is Brett Morris. The speedster has been in career-best form this season and continues to make the most of the smallest opportunities. He scored two brilliant tries against Wests Tigers last week and a decisive hat-trick against Melbourne two weeks earlier. However, most notable is the fact that he has twice swooped on errors from the opposition and run the length of the field over the past month in wins over Cronulla and the Storm. He has averaged 168 metres and produced 99 tackle-breaks so far this season.
Brett Morris v Ashley Graham: Two try-scoring kings line up against one another this week hoping to add to their 2012 tally. Morris has been in fine touch of late – scoring eight tries in his past five games – while Graham has crossed 18 times this season and is closing in on Matt Bowen’s record of 22 tries scored in 2007.
Where It Will Be Won: The Dragons’ attack is the key here. We know that North Queensland can score points… but can the home side add enough of their own to match them? If they click into gear the Dragons will be tough to beat but if they continue to struggle they could find their season grinding to a premature halt.
The History: Played 22; Dragons 11, Cowboys 11. Not much separates these two sides over the years although the Dragons boast a strong 6-3 record at WIN Stadium.
The Last Time They Met: The Cowboys scored a comfortable 30-6 win at Dairy Farmers Stadium in Round 9. Stamping their authority on the match from the outset, it took the home side just 90 seconds to open the scoring with Johnathan Thurston putting Brent Tate through a gap and Ray Thompson backing up on the inside to score.
Matt Bowen added another 10 minutes later as he latched onto a perfectly timed inside ball from his captain to race over and it was 16-0 soon after as Thurston and Bowen combined to send Kane Linnett across.
However, it was their next play that really had the crowd on their feet as James Segeyaro broke clear and put in a cross-field chip that Tate miraculously scooped in to plant the ball in the corner.
It took the Dragons 50 minutes to finally put some points on the board – although it was worth the wait as Jason Nightingale broke clear down the right touchline and kicked in-field for Brett Morris to score.
But that was as good as it got for the visitors. A forearm to the head of Thurston saw Dragons back-rower Matt Prior sent from the field, the Cowboys taking the easy two points from the resulting penalty, and they added their fifth try late in the game as Tariq Sims pounced on a Thompson grubber to score beside the posts.
North Queensland completed 76 per cent of their sets compared with just 55 per cent by the Dragons.
James Tamou was strong up front for the home side, running for 168 metres and making 25 tackles, while Daniel Vidot made 171 metres and produced six tackle-breaks for St George Illawarra.
Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Adam Gee; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.
The Way We See It: The Dragons will surely be primed for a big performance here. At their favourite WIN Stadium base and needing a win to stay alive in this year’s title race, they boast a strong record against North Queensland at this venue. Conversely, the Cowboys can struggle on the road at times although when in form they remain a genuine premiership threat in 2012. We predict a close one but are leaning towards the Cowboys on current form. North Queensland by four points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.
*Statistics: NRL Stats