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Dan Hunt on the Dragons' early form

Brian Smith on the Knights' line-up

WIN Jubilee Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

TWO sides in great form equates to a classic clash in the Dragons’ heartland, with opposition coach Brian Smith praying to improve his stats from his 22-year coaching rivalry with Dragons mentor Wayne Bennett.

Ironically Smith was in charge of the Dragons in the early 1990s when they lost successive grand finals to Bennett’s Broncos. To date the pair have locked horns 35 times with Bennett holding a commanding 21-14 lead – including the past five games straight – and you have to go back to the Eels’ win over the Broncos in 2005 to find the last time Smith held bragging rights.

The table-topping Dragons are ticking over nicely after five rounds, with four solid wins on the trot following a Golden Point, one-point loss to the Storm in Melbourne in Round 1. They out-muscled the Broncos 25-12 in Brisbane in Round 4 before holding off a determined Eels outfit 22-8 at Parramatta Stadium last week.

Their only personnel changes this week are forced, with Chase Stanley replacing the injured Neville Costigan at centre. Also, Jarrod Saffy returns from injury to assume the suspended Michael Weyman’s starting prop position. Forward Jon Green joins the bench, which is boosted to six with the inclusion of Ricky Thorby and Jason Nightingale.

The Knights are also in form, sitting in sixth spot with three wins including the last two in a row at home over the Sea Eagles (26-12) and the Warriors (24-22) last week, where they weathered a spirited comeback from the Kiwis.

Their squad is unaffected by injury or suspension from last week.

Watch out Dragons: Costigan’s injury exposes a minor flaw in the Dragons’ defence. His replacement Chase Stanley has played just the one first grade game in 2009 (against Melbourne) – he made 16 tackles but missed five and was ineffective on two other occasions. That gives him a lowly 69.6 per cent effectiveness rate, which stacks up poorly against centre partner Beau Scott (89.7%) and team-mates Darius Boyd (86.4%), Ben Hornby (81%), Jamie Soward (76%) and even Wendell Sailor (74%). 

Expect the likes of Akuila Uate, Junior Sau and Kurt Gidley to test out Stanley and also winger Brett Morris (64.3% tackle effectiveness), as will also the Knights’ tall timber merchants close to the Dragons’ line.

Watch out Knights: Jamie Soward is in devastating form. He enters this clash needing just three more points for 300 for his career, having tallied 297 from 59 games at a tick over five points a game. But it’s his kicking game that is reaping the red-and-whites big dividends.

Thanks to Soward, St George Illawarra lead the NRL for territory from kicks with 1831 metres, with a good 59% finding open space. He’s averaging 17 kicks a game (22 last week) for an average gain of 665 metres a game. Plus he’s contributed a try, five try assists, four line-break assists and a line break. Last week he shared the role of halfback with captain Ben Hornby to great effect; look for the pair to do the same here.

Where it will be won: Kick defence. Soward’s kicking game will need to be at its best because waiting down the other end this week is the NRL’s benchmark ball-runner in Kurt Gidley, who has made 99 runs for 823 metres at 165 metres a game to date. And in amongst those figures he’s averaging 9.9 metres on every kick return.

Likewise the Knights need to ensure they kick to space or else the likes of Darius Boyd and Wendell Sailor will make them pay. Fullback Boyd leads the NRL for kick-return metres with 375 at an average of 15 per run, while rejuvenated winger Sailor is making 13.8 metres per kick return. Whichever side is best able to set their defensive lines after clearing kicks will find themselves under the least pressure. And from there the battle is half won.

The History: Played 20; Dragons 13, Knights 7. The Dragons have won six of the past eight games although the Knights were victorious (16-12) the last time they met at WIN Jubilee Oval in 2007.  

Conclusion: Heading back to Kogarah will hold no qualms for the Knights – they’ve won two of the three games between the sides at WIN Jubilee Stadium. But this is a different Dragons side with a much tougher mindset under Wayne Bennett. Given the comparable form of both teams, it will be a surprise if the competition leaders go under.

Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Ricky McFarlane & David Abood; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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