Dragons v Raiders
The Dragons managed to maintain a pulse in terms of their chances of making the finals when they scored a shock win over the Rabbitohs on Monday night. Victory looked a forlorn hope when the Dragons trailed 18-6 approaching the final 10 minutes of normal time, but two converted tries later they were in golden point extra time, during which time winger Brett Morris scored to clinch a 22-18 win.
The Dragons, who are playing on a short turnaround here, may need to win each of their remaining seven games to make the finals. They could possibly afford one loss. But they will be trying not to think any further ahead than this game, and the Raiders are their bogy team. This is a fitting game for Rivalry Round, because whenever these two teams come together there is massive interest in whether the Raiders can continue their amazing domination of the Dragons. The Raiders have won nine of the past 10 clashes – including the past eight in a row.
Before beating the Rabbitohs, the Dragons had lost three in a row, against the Cowboys (22-16), Panthers (25-10) and Roosters (36-0). They are in 14th place on 16 competition points, with six wins and 11 losses. The Raiders, having won two in a row against the Cowboys (26-18) and Eels (14-0), are in eighth place on 22 points, with nine wins and eight losses. They have been up and down all season, and have never at any stage won or lost more than two games in a row.
Adding spice to the rivalry, this will be the first time the Raiders have played against Josh Dugan since their former fullback was sacked by the club because of off-field disciplinary issues after Round 1. Senior Raiders players were unhappy with Dugan's behaviour. Dugan took a while to find a new club, but did so at the Dragons. Injuries to Jarryd Hayne and Brett Stewart also opened the way for Dugan to make it back into the NSW side for State of Origins II and III.
The Dragons have promoted Daniel Vidot from the bench to replace injured centre Matt Cooper. Trent Merrin rises from the bench to start at lock, with Tyson Frizell dropping to the bench. Jack Stockwell is the new bench player.
The Raiders have elevated Josh Papalii from the bench to the starting side in the second row. Jarrad Kennedy drops to the bench to make way for him. Star centre Blake Ferguson hasn't been named, but he is expected to play for the Raiders, resulting in Joel Thompson moving either to the forwards or the bench, and someone missing out.
Watch Out Dragons: When the Raiders sacked Dugan, they did so in the knowledge they had a terrific replacement as fullback in Reece Robinson. Now, to get 18-year-old sensation Anthony Milford into the starting side, they have moved Robinson to the wing. That is how good Milford is.
Milford has been at fullback for the wins over the Cowboys and Eels. He has run for a total of 334 metres in those two games, as well as making three line-breaks and three offloads, and scoring a try. Watch out Dragons indeed.
Watch Out Raiders: If Dugan is pumped up for a big one against the Raiders, then we're in for an entertaining game, because he'll put himself in a position where the Raiders' forwards can lay some meaty tackles on him.
Dugan is racking up huge running metres for the Dragons. He ran for 241 metres against the Rabbitohs, and that was his fifth total of over 200 metres in just seven games for them. His 24 tackle busts are a club record. Dugan has also come up with 11 offloads for the Red V.
Plays To Watch: Dragons lock Trent Merrin's game is maturing with all of the representative football he has played on top of his club duties. He has not only racked up 40 offloads this season, but is sniffing out try-scoring opportunities more regularly now. Merrin scored an important one against the Rabbitohs, hot on the heels of his try for NSW in Origin III. The defence has got to be wary of him close to the line.
Raiders five-eighth Terry Campese is never going to run for a lot of metres unless a gap opens up in front of him – it's just not his game. But he ran the ball five times in the win over the Eels, which was his third-highest total of the season. And he came up with what were his first two offloads of the season. He's probing hard, and drawing more support players to him.
Key Match-Up: Nathan Fien is doing his best at halfback for the Dragons. He is a veteran who is best-known as a hooker, but he is playing half because the Dragons lack players in that position. Raiders halfback Josh McCrone is a livewire who likes to try to put support players through gaps. They each get their hands on the ball a lot, and their head-to-head duel could have a big bearing on the result.
Where It Will be Won: The Raiders, led by David Shillington and Dane Tilse up front, will try to play the game at speed for two reasons – it suits them, and the Dragons might be feeling a bit heavy in the legs because it is only five days between games for them. Merrin will be playing his third game in 11 days, when you include Origin III. It's going to be up to the Dragons to hang in there and try to slow the game down a bit at times.
The History: Played 22; Dragons 6, Raiders 15, drawn 1. The Raiders have won nine of the past 10 clashes.
Match Officials: Referees – Alan Shortall & Chris James; Sideline officials – Dan Eastwood & Chris Sutton; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Matt Rodwell.
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Televised: Live – Fox Sports, 5.30pm.
The Way We See It: The Raiders, despite the fact they are still missing a few players through injury, are in good shape to continue their dominance of the Dragons. Ferguson's expected return is a huge plus. Provided the Raiders defend reasonably well, they have got too much attacking firepower. The Dragons won't be able to outscore them. Raiders by eight points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats