It's a great endorsement of the 2009 competition that the clash between these two in-form sides is arguably only just the game of the round ahead of the grand final rematch between the Sea Eagles and Storm and the western Sydney local derby between the Bulldogs and Wests Tigers.
But make no mistake: this will be a bell-ringer.
Wayne Bennett’s Dragons will take to the Wollongong stage having bounced back from a surprise defeat at Kogarah at the hands of Brian Smith’s Knights. Their clinical 29-0 demolition of the Roosters in the traditional ANZAC Day clash probably put the sword through Brad Fittler’s side’s chances of recovering to be a force in 2009 – and as we have seen in all of their five wins this year their five-eighth Jamie Soward was among the best and fairest points when the full-time siren blew.
A bonus this week is the return of Wendell Sailor after a week off with a hamstring complaint; big Dell’s form is outstanding but his role as motivator is proving equally as important in the red-and-whites’ campaign.
Elsewhere they remain unchanged with Mathew Head again named in jersey no.18. But with Sailor back and Jason Nightingale relegated to the bench the question remains whether Head will get any game time here, allowing some ruck relief for hooker Dean Young.
After an enigmatic start to the season the Warriors have proved their mettle over the past fortnight against the Roosters and Storm, playing for 175 minutes to record a combined one point more than their oppositions – but gaining three valuable competition points for their efforts.
Wade McKinnon has been named to return at fullback after recovering from a hamstring injury, pushing the in-form Lance Hohaia to the bench. Jesse Royal takes the starting position at prop in place of Sam Rapira who is out for three weeks with a chest injury, while Aidan Kirk completes a six-man bench.
Watch out Dragons: Wendell Sailor needs to be at his defensive best against Manu Vatuvei on the Warriors’ left wing. Vatuvei has scored 20 tries in his past 21 games so the visitors will be looking to spread it wide at every opportunity. Last week he really stretched the Storm, making 178 metres with three punishing line breaks.
Sailor has been strong in defence to date, making 23 tackles in six games, missing just three and being ineffective on three other occasions for an effectiveness rate of 79 per cent. But he’s been ably assisted by some swarming team defence on the sidelines that has seen the Dragons amass 24 try-saving tackles (Darius Boyd five, Beau Scott four and Ben Hornby three). By comparison, the Warriors have just 16.
Other Warriors who will cause the Dragons headaches are their top metre-eaters, including Hohaia (157 metres last week) and captain Steve Price (200 metres).
Watch out Warriors: Gee, where do you look? There’s no doubt the Warriors need to negate the attacking game of Jamie Soward. His kicking game is the best in the comp; he’s kicked 123 times in general play – a massive 31 times more than second-ranked Terry Campese (who is no slouch as a playmaker for the Raiders himself).
But if the Warriors focus solely on Soward there are plenty of other Dragons who will rip them to shreds. At fullback Darius Boyd remains the NRL’s benchmark for making territory from opposition kicks, earning his side an average 14.8 metres a carry. And in overall runs he ranks third to Kurt Gidley and Petero Civoniceva, averaging 144 metres a game. And he leads the NRL for tackle breaks with 51 - 10 ahead of second-ranked Kurt Gidley.
And expect Michael Weyman to improve on his 97 metres from 45 minutes last week after a week out on suspension – prior to that he was averaging almost 140 metres a game.
Where it will be won: Expect the Dragons to target the Warriors one man in from the visitors’ left touchline. The stats show the Warriors have a massive weakness in that specific region, having conceded 10 of their 28 tries there. By comparison they have conceded just three through Vatuvei on the left sideline. Jerome Ropati look out!
Discipline looms as a major enemy for the Dragons – they have conceded a whopping 48 penalties while defending, compared to the Warriors’ 35. They’ll need to be on their best behaviour, even allowing for the fact they’re at home.
The History: Played 13; Dragons 9, Warriors 4. The Dragons have won six of the past eight games between the sides and are unbeaten in six games at WIN Stadium.
Conclusion: It remains to be seen whether or not the Warriors can steel themselves for a third consecutive week. While they’ve shown great courage the modern game is pretty unforgiving on bodies when it comes to gruelling contests. And this will be another high-energy, physical encounter – against a side that hardly got out of third gear last week.
Also, the Warriors will have to overcome the bogy of never having won in Wollongong.
Weighing things up it all points to a Dragons win.
Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Jason Robinson; Sideline Officials – Adam Devcich & Paul Holland; Video Ref – Steve Clark.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.