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Dragons v Knights preview

Dragons v Knights
WIN Jubilee Oval
Sunday 3pm

Flash in the pan? Or flash is the plan? That’s what Dragons fans are asking following St George Illawarra’s impressive and expansive season-breakthrough victory over well-performed Cronulla last week.

The object of much derision due to their inability to get across the try line through the first three weeks of the 2013 premiership, Steve Price’s charges fired up their previously pop-gun attack to inflict a polished four-tries-to-two defeat upon a Cronulla side that entered the clash leading all-comers for field position with a benchmark 1491 metres each week and having missed just the fourth-fewest tackles in the league. 

With halves Nathan Fien and Jamie Soward finally finding some fluency on different edges of the field and a second-phase game that yielded 16 offloads, the Red V were able to punch out four line-breaks to totally dominate their Shire opponents.

It was welcome reward for the players and coaching staff after some disciplined and dedicated – if fruitless – efforts over the first three weeks. They showed that when their attack clicks they still have enough strike power to trouble the better teams; whether or not they can do it often enough to pose a premiership threat is a different matter altogether.

Meanwhile Newcastle got the job done against the Raiders at home last Sunday, their 28-12 win coming just six days after a rousing 34-6 win over the Cowboys in Round 3. They’ve now scored 62 points and conceded just 18 since being whitewashed 32-nil by Manly in Round 2 and look one of the better units in the league, with a disciplined, hard-running forward pack – something that’s been sadly lacking in recent seasons – strong and fast outside backs and a halves combination in Tyrone Roberts and Jarrod Mullen that have added more try assists than any team other than Melbourne’s Cooper Cronk and Gareth Widdop (six to the Storm pair’s seven). 

In fact, the form from Roberts and Mullen has presented coach Wayne Bennett with the conundrum of what to do with captain Kurt Gidley – for the second week running Gidley has been named at hooker, in an unchanged line-up from the clash with the Raiders that also sees Timana Tahu added as 18th man. 

Not surprisingly Dragons coach Steve Price has stuck solid with the starting 13 that got the job done last week; their only squad changes see Leeson Ah Mau rejoin the 17 in place of the injured Cameron King (knee), while Daniel Vidot joins former Under-20s Player of the Year Jack De Belin to round out an extended interchange that numbers six at this stage.

Watch Out Dragons: The home side will have to work hard for field position this week – given Newcastle concede the fewest metres across the NRL (just 1153 metres) and the Dragons yield the most ground every week (1468 metres). 
Compounding the above, Newcastle rank fourth for inroads with 1413 metres each week. In particular watch for their big boppers Adam Cuthbertson (average 134 metres and nine tackle-breaks), David Fa’alogo (130 metres) and Kade Snowden (129 metres) to lay a platform before Akuila Uate and Darius Boyd (coincidentally each averaging 127 metres from 14 runs a game) cut loose out wide and at the back. 
Cuthbertson will be keen to continue his good form; the interchange forward scored two tries and made two line-breaks plus 105 metres in 31 minutes last week.

Watch Out Knights: Trent Merrin and Nathan Fien have formed a shark-and-suckerfish relationship over the opening weeks of the season – with Fien scoring tries in successive weeks after feeding off the good groundwork of his big lock forward. 

Against the Raiders in Round 3 Merrin charged hard from close range before popping an offload for Fien to score – a scenario that was repeated last week against Cronulla. The Knights need to be mindful whenever Merrin gets the ball in centre-field in their red zone – and particularly if he’s received the ball from Fien, as it’s likely the No.7 will run around his No.13 looking for a belated pass.

Jarrod Mullen needs to make sure he kicks deep and away from the Dragons’ back three – Gerard Beale and Brett Morris rank fourth and fifth for kick-return metres, with 242 and 223 respectively. Last outing against the Knights Morris contributed 204 metres plus seven tackle busts.

The Knights need to be ready to defuse Jamie Soward’s cross-field attacking kicks and grubbers – Jason Nightingale scored from a kick against the Sharks and could easily have had a second had he grasped a 50:50 chance midway through the first half.

Plays To Watch: For both teams it’s about getting the ball into the hands of their speedsters out wide – in particular Brett Morris and Akuila Uate. The Dragons will also put on plenty of left-edge second-man plays, while Darius Boyd – a linchpin left-edge attacker in his time at the Dragons – will continue to focus hard on providing opportunities down the right side of the field for the Knights (two try assists, two line-break assists in 2013 so far). With Uate outside him, why wouldn’t he?

Key Match-Up: Mitch Rein v Kurt Gidley. Rein was the creative hub for the Dragons last year, making 10 line-breaks, five try assists and five line-break assists; however he’s been a little quiet over the opening month, with just the solitary line-break to his name. Expect him to take more control out of dummy-half – especially given the injury to back-up hooker Cameron King.

Meanwhile with all the pressure off him as a focal point of their attack, Kurt Gidley could prove the surprise packet here. Look for him to link with his bigger forwards, popping short flat balls on their chest close to the Dragons’ try line.

Where It Will Be Won: For the Dragons it’s about creating opportunities through prolific second-phase play; while for the Knights it’s all about shutting down the Dragons’ offloads.

St George Illawarra boast the fourth-best offloading game in the league (averaging 13.2 per game) with Trent Merrin leading all players with 13 so far. Others inflicting damage include Jason Nightingale (eight), Bronson Harrison (six) and Brett Morris and Matt Prior (five each).

Meanwhile Newcastle have confidence in their ability to shut down offloading oppositions – they concede just seven each game, the second fewest by any team.    
 
The History: Played 26; Dragons 17, Knights 9. The Dragons have won six of the past nine clashes, including two victories last season. However, while the Dragons have an outstanding record when travelling up the F3, the Knights hold a 3-2 advantage in matches played at Kogarah. 

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Jason Walsh; Video Referees – Paul Simpkins & Matt Rodwell. 

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 6pm. 

The Way We See It: This could be a season-defining game for the Dragons, who must bag the competition points if they’re to stay within striking distance of the top eight. They’re certainly capable, as they showed last week. The Knights will need to be at the top of their game and be switched on or else they could find themselves swamped. It’s a tough game to tip but attitude could carry the day; we have a gut feeling the Dragons will want it more. St George Illawarra by four points. 

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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