Nigel Wall,, NRL.com
Sydney Roosters v Dragons
The high-flying Roosters will be focused on shattering the Dragons’ tight grip on traditional Anzac Day meetings when they lock horns with the back-on-track visitors at Allianz Stadium on Thursday afternoon.
Trent Robinson’s squad have been the surprise packet of the 2013 season thus far, turning around their paper-thin defence of the past few years to rank among the Telstra Premiership’s hardest nuts to crack.
But the rock-hard resistance that has seen them already notch three shut-outs through just six rounds of the competition will be tested by a resurgent St George Illawarra, who will play with confidence after stringing together a hat-trick of victories over the Sharks, Knights and Wests Tigers – albeit their last win a lucky escape after surrendering a 12-nil lead with 15 minutes to play.
Further buoying their spirits, and those of coach Steve Price, on the coach ride to Moore Park would be the knowledge they have won eight of the 11 Anzac Day clashes against the tri-colours stretching back to 2002.
The Roosters are still basking in the glow of their 38-nil thumping of the Bulldogs in Round 6 – their third whitewash in a sparkling month of football that also saw them hobble the Broncos (8-0) and peck apart the Eels (50). The only blemish in that time came when they were over-run by the Raiders (24-22) in Round 5.
Driving the Roosters this week will be the painful memory of last year’s Anzac encounter, when they seemingly had the game wrapped up with five minutes to play – only for the Dragons to steal the encounter with two caution-to-the-wind tries. The whirlwind finish delivered a fairytale ending to Ben Hornby’s record-breaking 257th game in Dragons colours.
Victory for the fourth-placed Roosters could see them finish the round as high as second on the ladder, while defeat would not threaten their position in the top eight. The eighth-placed Dragons could push for a top-four spot with a win – although a loss could see them plummet as low as twelfth should other results go against them.
It’s been a relaxing fortnight for Roosters coach Trent Robinson: with no injuries he’s named the same 17 that took down the Dogs in such brilliant fashion.
Meanwhile Dragons coach Steve Price has added Michael Weyman (jersey No.18) to the squad of 17 that accounted for the Tigers.
Matt Cooper plays his 10th Anzac Day clash for the Dragons, while Roosters captain Anthony Minichiello extends his club record to eight April 25 encounters.
Watch Out Roosters: If the Roosters can keep Dragons lock Trent Merrin quiet they’ll go a long way towards securing the two competition points. Merrin has been outstanding to date, making 17 hit-ups and 137 metres in an average 60 minutes on the paddock. But it has been his ability to promote second-phase play that has triggered the Dragons’ recent revival: Merrin leads all players for offloads (19), with the Dragons averaging the second-most offloads of all teams (13.3).
The charges of prop Dan Hunt need to be checked too – he’s providing excellent service with 14 hit-ups and 122 metres every week.
Watch Out Dragons: St George Illawarra will need to be at their best in both attack and defence if they’re to be competitive here. The Roosters’ defence has been superb in 2013, conceding the second-fewest points (11), tries (two) and metres (1255.3) per match to date. But they have also unleashed some blistering attack, leading all teams for line-breaks (six a game) and ranking second for average points per match (24) – a whopping nine points more than the Dragons have averaged, and more than two line busts more.
Kiwi Sonny Bill Williams, playing his first Anzac Day clash, will pose the biggest threat: Williams has built a remarkably balanced portfolio of statistics in his comeback season, with four tries, four try assists, four line-breaks, five line-break assists and 11 offloads (the second most by any second-rower). Incredibly, SBW touched the ball just eight times against the Bulldogs but still managed to score twice, punch two line-breaks, notch a try assist and a line-break assist and make five tackle-breaks. This selective involvement is a warning the Dragons can’t relax for even a moment.
Plays To Watch: Michael Jennings (seven line-breaks, second most by a player to date) exploiting the short left edge, particularly when close to the Dragons’ try line; Brett Morris’ runs out wide – the winger has scored three tries, ranks second for tackle busts (30) and is averaging 143 metres; punishing runs and offloads from Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (averaging 12 hit-ups and 10 offloads in total); Red V hooker Mitch Rein having a dig from dummy-half inside the Roosters’ danger zone.
Key Match-Up: James Maloney v Jamie Soward. The battle of the five-eighths will be crucial to the outcome, with Maloney looking to further stake his claim on a NSW jersey and passionate clubman Soward hoping to prove a point to Dragons management in the wake of Gareth Widdop’s signing last week.
Maloney is an astute runner of the football and he’s also shown a willingness to put his body on the line, being on the spot to receive the Steeden and charge at even the smallest gap in an opposition goal-line defence. To date he’s scored four tries and his six line-breaks are the most by any pivot and the fourth most by any player. He is more than capable of putting his outside man through the line too, with four line-break assists and three try assists.
The Dragons’ chances could hinge on how Soward performs in his first outing since effectively being dumped by the club. Having thumped the St George Illawarra crest on his chest with gusto over the past six seasons it will be interesting to see whether he lifts for the occasion. Certainly the Dragons need more involvement from their No.6, who is yet to make a line-break and who is running the football the second-fewest times by a five-eighth (just four spurts a game). In 2010 Soward ranked second for line-breaks by a No.6, with 11, a tally he matched in 2011. Since then he has contributed just four line-breaks in 25 matches.
Where It Will Be Won: Field position through kicks. The game pits two of the competition’s best exponents of the long kick, with the Roosters’ halves Maloney and Mitchell Pearce booming out the most metres in the NRL (3,633 metres), while Dragons duo Soward and Nathan Fien rank fourth with 3,195 metres between them. Whichever team gets to the end of their sets most often, punches deep down the other end and follows up with a good chase will minimise the pressure on their defensive line.
The History: Played 28; Dragons 17, Roosters 10, drawn 1. The Dragons have a dominant record against the Roosters, winning seven of the past 10 clashes. More importantly they’ve won eight of the 11 Anzac Day encounters. The ledger at Allianz Stadium is level at nine games apiece – although the Dragons have won four of the past five matches held there.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Matt Rodwell.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 3.30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 9am Friday.
The Way We See It: As always, a huge Anzac Day crowd will ensure the players are pumped for the occasion. While recent April results have favoured the Dragons, on exposed form in 2013 it’s difficult to go past the home side here. We tip the Roosters by seven points (the odd scoreline courtesy of Jamie Soward’s fifth field-goal in as many matches).
*Statistics: NRL Stats.