Co-competition leaders St George Illawarra got away with one last week against the Bulldogs – but if they think they can now rest up for a week as they head a short distance across town to take on the NRL cellar-dwellars… well, it will be a recipe for disaster.
The Sharks can’t take a trick this season, losing eight in a row including a narrow loss to the Panthers last week after a solid second-half comeback. To add to their on-field woes, doubts about their future remain, with talk of relocation or even folding dominating discussion. But if there’s one game they’ll get ‘up’ for it’s this local derby at home.
Ricky Stuart’s men will be buoyed by the fact one of their best performances in 2009 came when they nearly climbed over their red-and-white adversary at Kogarah in Round 3, losing 10-6. That game became the platform for the Dragons to build their premiership tilt, while the Sharks got smashed 24-12 the following week to set their dismal trend.
But there are plenty of reasons to like the Sharks’ chances this time around. Although their attack has been much-maligned, they showed they could score points when needed, with two late efforts last week to get them back into the contest at CUA Stadium.
A hurdle though, is the possible absence of Reni Maitua due to an off-field incident that is still under investigation.
The Dragons dodged a bullet against the Bulldogs, courtesy of a favourable but poor decision by video ref Steve Clark (that’s cost him at least a week on the sidelines). While they were statistically dominant for the majority of that game it will be worrying for coach Wayne Bennett that his charges even had to fend off such a late assault to get the competition points.
St George Illawarra are deserving of their rank in the competition, no question – but this game looms as a litmus test for the 2009 outfit; it’s a game they would more likely lose in past years, so it will be interesting to see if they are, in fact, made of ‘sterner stuff’.
Adding to their concerns is the fact they’ve lost seven of the nine games played at Toyota Stadium.
Watch out Sharks: With the NSW Origin squad announced at halftime on Monday night, you can be sure Dragons props Michael Weyman and Justin Poore won’t be leaving anything in the tank in their efforts to get their names read out.
Weyman has reinvented himself to perfection under Bennett’s supervision – he figures high in the list of NRL hit-up men with 138 (with a game missed due to suspension) and is averaging 129 metres a game in less than 50 minutes each outing. Last week he made 16 charges and offloaded twice; and he didn’t miss a tackle.
Poore scored a super try from 20 metres against the Bulldogs, brushing off Michael Ennis as if he were a piece of lint and making 129 metres despite heavy attention.
The Sharks can’t afford this duo to get the visitors the sort of platform they are used to this year – the Dragons’ 1413 average metres a game is easily the most by any side in the comp.
Watch out Dragons: Three things might count against the Dragons this week: complacency, lack of discipline and Trent Barrett.
While the first danger speaks for itself the Dragons continue to give away penalties like there’s some sort of reward for doing so. They have conceded 81 to become the referees’ chief ‘whipping boy’ in 2009.
The Sharks have given away just 53 penalties and they are playing at home and in front of what is likely to be a boosted crowd given the hysteria building around their precarious future. Say no more.
Last, the Trent Barrett factor. Former Dragon Barrett was directing things nicely in Round 3 before a heavy head knock in the 52nd minute forced him from the field. He’s been solid in recent weeks (two line breaks against the Panthers) and if media reports are right that he’s in the mix to return to Origin, leapfrogging Terry Campese, you can bet he’ll be primed for a huge game here.
Where it will be won: The Dragons can make their night a whole lot easier if they focus on containing Paul Gallen and Anthony Tupou. From his seven games the Sharks’ captain has three tries, three line breaks, three line-break assists, a try assist, 26 offloads and 22 tackle breaks. In defence he’s averaging 30 a game – with a fraction over one miss each time he runs out. Truly phenomenal.
Meanwhile Tupou has five tries, six line breaks – including three against the Panthers last week – plus 27 tackle breaks (a whopping 10 last week!).
Along with Barrett, you can bet they’ll lead by example again.
With that in mind the Dragons need to get to them in numbers – while being careful not to be penalised in the process.
The History: Played 23; Sharks 13, Dragons 9, drawn 1. Before losing in Round 3 the Sharks had defeated the Dragons the four previous times they’d met.
Conclusion: Wayne Bennett is too good a coach not to have his players aware and focused on what might go wrong this week. Every player will be aware of their duty and will be expected to ‘reach the bar’.
It’s a battle of emotion versus form. If you’re tipping or wanting to place a bet on the outcome of this one, good luck – it’s the sort of game where you’d be silly to tip against the Dragons, but wholly unsurprised if the Sharks get up.
Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Adam Reid; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.