Dragons v Cowboys
WIN Stadium
Sunday 3pm

Let's hope the dreaded swine flu stays well clear of this massive match-up, as Wollongong is set to come alive with the table-topping Dragons hosting the in-form Cowboys.

The Dragons may have fallen victim to the Titans’ impressive first half last Monday night but they have still maintained the top position on the NRL ladder thanks to differential.

The Cowboys have been on a sensational run in recent times, winning four in a row (the first of which was against the Dragons) and six of their past seven, to move into sixth place on the ladder, just a win from top spot.

Both these sides are more than likely to spend time in the finals, especially if they can maintain a lofty ladder position with a win here… and we could even be watching a grand final preview. There might be several other sides with something to say about that but it wouldn’t be the greatest surprise to see them both lining up on the first Sunday in October.

Darius Boyd returns at fullback for the home side after his imposed swine flu lockdown, which pushes Jason Nightingale back to the bench. Jarrod Saffy also returns to the starting side in the second row, with Dan Hunt coming off the bench. Chase Stanley has been added to the extended list of reserves.

For the Cowboys, Carl Webb has been selected to start, with former Dragon Steve Southern heading back to the bench.  James Tamou, Grant Rovelli and Manase Manuokafoa have been added as extra reserves also.

Watch out Dragons: If anything is going to get in the way of the Dragons’ ability to get the job done, it could be their discipline with the whistleblowers.

The Dragons have been the most-penalised team in the competition, hearing the shrill sound 97 times in 2009, and it is putting undue pressure on their defence at crucial times. The effect of a penalty has been mentioned over and over and should they continue to give their opposition extra chances even their impressive defence will crack.

In the last match-up Johnathan Thurston crushed them with three tries, two of which were individual efforts from close range. If they give up field position through penalties, the Cowboys will put on points.

Watch out Cowboys: You better have your kick chase ready to go come Sunday, as the Dragons’ back three are in sensational form and will tear the visitors up if they are not careful. The Dragons’ kick-return team is by far the most potent in the competition, with 11 line breaks already in 2009, the likes of Boyd, Brett Morris and Wendell Sailor all being very hard to bring down.

Boyd is averaging 138 metres gained a match, Morris 129 metres and Sailor 131 metres. The Cowboys, by comparison, are yet to break the line at all from a kick return – despite having Matt Bowen at the back!

Where it will be won: Field position is the key in this blockbuster. The Dragons have seen first-hand how potent the Cowboys can be when they get into position to attack from close range.

The boys from North Queensland have scored a whopping 39 tries from within 10 metres of the try line, many more than any other side, and while that’s impressive it shows their reliance on being close to the line to get the job done.

The Dragons have the Cowboys’ number in terms of gaining territory both across the ground and from kicks, and the visitors will need to lift to get the result away from home.

The Dragons average 1427 metres gained a match, compared to the Cowboys’ 1307 metres, and they also have the edge with the boot gaining 726 metres a game compared to 481 metres.

If the home side can dominate and keep the Cowboys’ territory number down, their defence should be strong enough to stunt the Cowboys’ attack.

The History:
Played 18; Dragons 8, Cowboys 10. The Cowboys have won four in a row against the Dragons, including a 24-20 win earlier this season in Townsville. At WIN Stadium in Wollongong the Dragons hold a 4-3 advantage – but the Cowboys have won the past two matches at the venue.  

Conclusion: The Cowboys have a string of wins going against the Dragons but there is a big chance the run could end come Sunday.

The Dragons will be hurting and embarrassed about their first-half effort against the Gold Coast and Wayne Bennett-coached sides rarely put in back-to-back poor performances.

The Cowboys are in good form but they were only just able to beat St George Illawarra a month ago, at home, with the Dragons having some stars missing and others backing up from representative football just 24 hours earlier. Sure Thurston was also backing up, but the chances of the Australian halfback being given the same leeway this time around are slim.

It’s not a lock but lean towards the Dragons.

Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Steve Carrall; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.