Dan Walsh, Staff Writer
Dragons v Roosters
Friday, 4pm (AEST)
Fast becoming as big a part of the Anzac Day tradition as dawn services, two-up and homemade Anzac biscuits (heaven help the fool who serves up a store-bought offering), the annual Dragons-Roosters clash is one of the most anticipated on the rugby league calendar and this year’s offering proves no different.
Now don’t go calling Ripley’s, but come Sunday night we’ll actually be a third of the way through the season, and both sides would love nothing more than the two points and a bit of momentum as the NRL juggernaut pulls in for the rep weekend pit-stop. The Roosters in particular need a win to ensure they don’t fall off the top eight pace, while the Dragons will earn themselves some much-appreciated breathing space between them and the inevitable mid-table logjam if they come out on top.
Both the Chooks and Dragons got the job done last Saturday night under differing circumstances, with the Dragons rolling up their sleeves and grinding it out against the Warriors in a throw-back to the Wayne Bennett era of high completion rates, few missed tackles and dependable, structured football. The Roosters chose a slightly different approach against a rejuvenated Sharks outfit, relying on the attacking brilliance of their halves and outside backs to make up for a whopping 46 missed tackles (double their 2013 average of 22.3 misses per game) that will ensure the tackle bags get a solid work out at Roosters HQ during the week.
And as if the occasion or respective form lines aren’t enough of an incentive to turn up or tune in to this one, any number of rep jumpers are just an impressive performance away for several of the stars on display. The likes of Boyd Cordner, Shaun Kenny-Dowell, Frank-Paul Nuuausala, Gerard Beale, Trent Merrin and Jason Nightingale are all capable of playing their way into the respective Australian and New Zealand line-ups for next Friday’s Trans-Tasman clash, while Josh Dugan, Mitch Rein, Michael Jennings, Daniel Tupou and James Maloney are also vying for berths in the upcoming City-Country fixture.
For the Dragons, Trent Merrin plays his 100th game in the Red V since debuting in 2009 and Joel Thompson returns from concussion to slot back into the run-on side. Prop Dan Hunt has also regained his starting spot, with Jack De Belin dropping back to 18th man.
Roosters winger Daniel Tupou is back after sitting out last week’s win over the Sharks with a minor leg injury, pushing Mitch Aubusson to the reserves bench and Daniel Mortimer to 18th man duties.
Watch Out Dragons:
He’s big, he’s fast, he’s been raised on a diet of Dave Dobbyn’s 1986 hit ‘Slice of Heaven’ and he’s got a trendy hyphenated name that can be shortened into an even trendier three-letter acronym. We’re talking about SKD, and the big Kiwi’s devastating return to form should have opposite number Nathan Green on edge. The football player formally known as Shaun Kenny-Dowall had had a quiet start to 2014, but with Tautau Moga returning from injury in NSW Cup last week renowned stats man Aaron Wallace picked it like a dirty nose when he declared Skiddsy’s competitive fire would be lit and he’d bag a hat trick against the Sharks. SKD didn’t quite get across for a treble but he did do everything but last Saturday, racking up two meat pies (including the match winner), 263 running metres, two line breaks and five tackle busts and with Green missing three tackles and another two ineffective in his first run for the year against the Warriors, Kenny-Dowall would be licking his chops at the thought of coming up one on one with the Dragons' green horn.
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Watch Out Roosters: The Dragons have more than a bit of firepower of their own, with their back three setting the benchmark for wingers and fullbacks across the competition. Josh Dugan, Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale ran for 454 metres, broke 17 tackles between them last week and withstood a persistent aerial assault from the Warriors with aplomb. International frequent flyers Morris and Nightingale are renowned as two of the best in the air but the pair have proved particularly valuable for the Red V coming out of trouble, with their dummy-half metres (Morris 346, Nightingale 245) the most by any wingers in the NRL and worth their weight in gold as they bring the Dragons off their own line. And with 177 tries between them in the NRL it goes without saying B-Moz and Florence can sniff out a bit of meat like a beagle on the trail of… well a bit of meat really.
Plays To Watch:
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Sam Moa one-twoing it near the try line to replicate Moa's try against the Eels two weeks back that came off the back of a lightning play-the-ball from his fellow Kiwi bookend; Gareth Widdop backing himself with a chip-and-chase from most anywhere on the field; and the Dragons to target the Chooks playmakers in defence with Maloney (34) and Pearce (28) recording the second and seventh most amount of missed tackles in the competition respectively.
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Where it Will Be Won: In the all-important spine. The Dragons' key men are starting to hit their straps – Mitch Rein was tremendous for the Dragons last week with two try assists against the Warriors; the Widdop and Witt (sounds like a law firm don't it) halves partnership continues to blossom and Josh Dugan is playing like a man possessed. On the flip side of the old two-up pennies NSW incumbents Pearce and Maloney turned in their best combined performance of the year against the Sharks and Jake Friend is always reliable. The difference could well come down to the fact the Roosters have not one but two fullbacks, with Tuivasa-Sheck switching into the custodian role for the dependable Anthony Minichiello whenever the youngster feels like it – and as the try he laid on for Boyd Cordner and the rings he ran around the Cronulla defence show – it’s often to devastating effect.
The History: Played 30; Dragons 17, Roosters 12, drawn 1. The Dragons have proved easy pickings for the Chooks of late, with the Bondi boys running in a combined 96 points to 20 in the past three tussles between the clubs. When it comes to the Anzac Day clashes though it's a different story, with St George Illawarra enjoying the spoils with seven wins from the 11 games played on April 25th since 2002.
What Are The Odds: The Roosters are clear favourites in this one but the punters with Sportsbet.com.au disagree, with more than double the money coming for the Dragons despite being $2.95 outsiders.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 4pm (NSW & Qld).
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Morris; Touch Judges – Russell Turner & Brett Suttor; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Luke Phillips.
How We See It: When these two come together it usually goes one of two ways, either down to the wire or a blow-out, and given the nature of the NRL this year we just can’t help but see it being another Anzac Day thriller. While the Dragons will keep them honest, with the Roosters attack getting closer to clicking into gear and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s dancing feet seemingly just a mere moonwalk away from a match-winning play, it’s hard to go past the Chooks continuing their recent run of wins over the red and whites. Roosters by four points.