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Jeremy Smith prepares for a battle up front

Ivan Henjak previews the clash

Broncos v Dragons
Suncorp Stadium
Friday 6.35pm (Qld time)

STRAP yourself in for the clash of the year – Wayne Bennett returns to Brisbane for the first time with a Dragons side already displaying his trademark qualities of grit, determination and patience.

But the master coach knows he’s staring down one of the biggest challenges in his career, with the Ivan Henjak-mentored Broncos appearing to be already nearing peak performance with three wins to head the 2009 NRL ladder and stamp themselves outright favourites for the premiership.

Their 26-10 demolition of the Warriors in New Zealand was simply outstanding – and achieved without suspended strike weapon Justin Hodges. They led 16-0 at half-time and 26-0 after 53 minutes before the Warriors’ pride stung them into late action.

Before that the Broncos beat the Cowboys in a one-point thriller at home and then hung on against minor premiers Melbourne 16-14 at home in Round 2.

Hodges returns for this game, which ousts Jharal Yow Yeh, while veteran Michael De Vere has been omitted from their seven-man bench of last week.

Bennett meanwhile looks to have achieved immediate success at firming up the sixth-placed Dragons’ “soft underbelly” – they’ve conceded just six tries to rank as the best defensive unit in the comp so far.

Their golden-point loss to the Storm in Melbourne in Round 1 was a good barometer to their chances this season; they backed that up with a solid 16-10 win over the Titans in Wollongong.

Last week they out-wrestled the Sharks in a dour clash at Kogarah.

While defensively sound their attack is a problem – they’ve scored just seven tries to date, the second fewest behind the Sharks’ five. And their task is made harder this week by the absence of the international reps Matt Cooper and Jason Nightingale with hamstring tears.

In a major reshuffle, Darius Boyd moves from fullback to centre, Brett Morris comes in for Nightingale on the wing and captain Ben Hornby drops back to fullback. Mat Head has been handed Hornby’s no.7 jersey.

Under-20s prop Trent Merrin makes his debut in jersey 17 and utility back Nick Emmett completes the five-man bench.

Watch out Broncos: The Broncos have conceded all of their seven tries within 20 metres of their line. That’s encouraging for the attack-challenged Dragons who will realise they won’t have to bust the Broncos’ open out wide to gain the ascendancy. Instead they’ll grind out field position (no-one holds a candle to their NRL-high 4277 metres of territory), then look to the creative kicking genius of Mat Head and Jamie Soward (49 kicks, most in NRL). Although the Dragons have just two tries from kicks so far there are no better exponents of the cross-field chip (Soward) or in-goal grubber (Head) than this duo.

Also, discipline could hurt the Broncos – they’ve conceded 22 penalties in defence to date (to rank fourth-highest in the NRL) to the Dragons’ 17 (second fewest).
Watch out Dragons: It’s early days but Broncos halfback Peter Wallace is leading the race for the NSW no.7 jersey. He was devastating dictating play against the Warriors, with two try assist, 10 kicks, 54 touches and an offload. He also ran eight times and made 23 tackles.

And you can bet Wallace and Darren Lockyer will be targeting Folau down the right side – Wayne Bennett has to ‘hide’ little men Head and Soward somewhere on their own line and you can bet your bottom dollar it will be closer to the fringes than to the sticks.

Where it will be won: On the scoreboard. While that sounds like the bleeding obvious, the Broncos under Ivan Henjak have revealed themselves to have plenty of points in them. They’ve outscored the Dragons 12 tries to seven, while the defences appear equally steely (Broncos conceding 2.3 tries per game to the Dragons’ 2).

But this game could well be determined by the magnificent sub-plots across the park: Bennett’s return, Henjak out to beat his mentor, Boyd, Sailor and Costigan returning to Suncorp in “foreign” colours, Lagi Setu turning out against the Dragons for the first time and Aaron Gorrell hoping to prove a point against the club that let him go at the end of 2007.

Also, how the Broncos handle big Ben Creagh in their red zone will be crucial. Creagh is the form back-rower of the comp (389 metres to top the NRL) and it was his damaging surge from close to the line that got the Dragons on top last week.

The History: Played 20; Dragons 11, Broncos 9. Plenty of ammunition in the Dragons’ favour here, with seven victories from their past eight outings. That included a gritty, nail-biting 24-20 win at Suncorp last year. And the Dragons hold a staggering 5-1 advantage at Suncorp.

Conclusion: While the Broncos haven’t beaten the Red V since a 34-24 win in Wollongong in 2005, they look set to better their record this weekend.

Wayne Bennett will ensure the Dragons will be competitive but injuries and a lack of firepower point to a Broncos’ win. It won’t be by many though.

Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Gavin Reynolds; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live from 6.30pm (Qld time) in Qld, 7.30pm AEDT in NSW.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

Ivan Henjak previews the clash

Jeremy Smith prepares for a battle up front

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