WIN Jubilee Oval
There will be no tackles felt harder than during this classic Heritage Round match-up between traditional Sydney foes the Dragons and the Bulldogs. That points no disrespect at the Illawarra band of the joint-venture, but the truth is the feud between the red-and-whites and the blue-and-whites is one of rugby league’s fiercest, with bloody battles, title deciders and player-swapping pivotal.
This game epitomises heritage: on the one side Dean Young will be jogging onto the field as captain – just as his dad Craig did against Canterbury before the Saints’ victorious 1979 grand final win. And Bulldogs coach Kevin Moore now presides over the proud club, continuing the family association forged by his dad Peter “Bullfrog” Moore.
Throw in the fact the second-placed home side is taking on the premiership front-runners and it’s arguably the clash of the season so far. Certainly the fans think so, with Kogarah declared a sell-out midweek meaning more than 20,000 will turn out to cheer.
Under Wayne Bennett the Dragons have rebranded as a tough, fearsome unit. They lost narrowly to the Cowboys last week (with Brett Morris scoring four tries!), although some blistering Johnathan Thurston form, injuries to Beau Scott and Ben Creagh and plenty of other troops backing up from Country-City and Test duties were mitigating circumstances.
Second-rower Jeremy Smith remains sidelined with an ankle injury and prop Jarrod Saffy is out with a rib injury; however Luke Priddis is back and takes a spot on the bench.
The Bulldogs enter this game refreshed from the bye, although Luke Patten, Andrew Ryan and Michael Ennis played rep games last week.
Josh Morris’ foot injury robs this clash of the spectacle of him going up against his brother Brett, but otherwise the Bulldogs are fighting fit.
In a significant milestone Hazem El Masri will play his 300th NRL game, while team-mate David Stagg will mark his 100th appearance.
Watch out Dragons:
Elsewhere, David Stagg’s offloading (17) will need to be watched, while Jamie Soward will need to be at his best with his kicks to open space, given Luke Patten is averaging 11.4 metres on kick returns.
St George Illawarra continue to have problems with their discipline. So far this season they have been pinged by the refs on 73 occasions – just one penalty less than the NRL’s worst offenders the Cowboys and Titans. Compounding that is the fact that the head referee this week is Jason Robinson – part of the ref team that blew five and nine penalties in a row to the Roosters and Storm respectively last week.
Watch out Bulldogs: The Dragons continue to carve out killer metres in their games – they are the benchmark side in the NRL with an average territorial gain of 1,399 metres. That presents the Bulldogs’ defence with a huge task here given Kevin Moore’s boys have missed the fourth most tackles all year (276). And by comparison the Bulldogs make 121 metres a game less on the ground – and the Dragons have missed the fewest tackles of any team (193). They’re compelling stats in the Dragons’ favour.
Where it will be won: The niggle. Under Wayne Bennett the Dragons have retained their focus throughout their games but if they let former clubman and terrier-like Bulldog Michael Ennis get under their skin that could all go pear-shaped.
Ennis is a schemer who will be hell-bent on showing he can bounce back into contention for a NSW Origin jersey after being shaded by Robbie Farah in their two clashes over the past fortnight.
He thrives in competing, and will if allowed run the show from dummy-half, providing his side with plenty of scoring opportunities. He has nine try assists, just two shy of the NRL benchmark.
The History: Played 17; Bulldogs 12, Dragons 5. The Dragons scored their biggest win (30-0) over their neighbours at ANZ Stadium last year. But the Bulldogs won all seven previous encounters. The Bulldogs also have the wood over their neighbours on their home turf, winning both games played at Kogarah.
Conclusion: It’s a danger game for both sides. Having climbed the NRL ladder and asserted themselves approaching the midway stage of scheduled rounds, neither can afford to give way.
Certainly, the Bulldogs have nothing to lose, and will be under no pressure.
You’d think a packed WIN Jubilee Oval would be a huge advantage to the Dragons but given their overall recent record against the Bulldogs, and their record against the Bulldogs at Kogarah, that may not be the case.
For the Dragons to win, their forwards need to play to form when carting the ball up, while keeping their errors to a minimum – they can’t afford any repeats of clean drops at crucial stages as Justin Poore did against the Cowboys last week.
Two other imperatives: Jamie Soward needs to be able to weave his creative magic in space and not be rushed, and Wendell Sailor needs to involve himself and get his side on a roll like never before. He’s a showman, Big Dell, and he’ll love the Kogarah stage on Friday night.
If the Dragons manage all of the above, it doesn’t matter what the Bulldogs throw at them; they’ll prove too strong.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jeff Younis; Video Ref – Steve Clark.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30am Sat.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.