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Gus Gould: Where were you?

Sydney Football Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. Yep, it’s the clock ticking away on the Wests Tigers’ season.

They finally managed a win a fortnight ago against the Eels but any chance of momentum was killed with a close loss to the Melbourne Storm minus Origin stars last weekend.

It was the perfect opportunity for the Tigers to prove their worth and start a climb up the NRL ladder but some crucial errors at vital times allowed the Storm to prevail; consequently the 2005 premiers are down in 13th spot with just 11 rounds left.

And now, with their backs well and truly against the wall, they come up against a Dragons side riding high on top of the table.

It is true the line-ups won’t be finalised until post-Origin II, with Wests Tigers captain Robbie Farah involved for the Blues and the Dragons quartet of Ben Creagh, Justin Poore, Michael Weyman (New South Wales) and Darius Boyd (Queensland) also involved on Wednesday night.

Backing up on short notice is always tough and this could be just the bit of luck the home-side Tigers need to rescue their season.

If there is a silver lining it is the fact they are just two wins away from the eighth-placed Sea Eagles, so it is not beyond the realms of possibility to suggest they can play finals football for the first time in four seasons.

If Farah returns John Morris will move back to five-eighth, Blake Ayshford will slide out to centre and Rhys Hanbury will start from the bench.

John Skandalis has also been picked to start at prop, with Todd Payten pushing back to second row and Corey Payne moving to lock with Dene Halatau onto the bench.

Willie Mataka has been given a rest, with Alan Schirnack named.

For the Dragons, their Origin boys have all been named, as has Jason Nightingale at centre to replace the suspended Beau Scott.

Also, Mickey Paea is out with a virus with Jon Green, Matt Prior, Trent Merrin, Chase Stanley and Luke Priddis all new faces on a seven-man bench.

Watch out Wests Tigers: The Dragons have some great outside backs in Matt Cooper and Brett Morris and they have some great fringe runners like Ben Creagh – but look for the side to spend a bit of time attacking up the middle of the ruck.

The Dragons have scored 13 tries up the middle this season to be one of the better sides in the NRL at doing so and considering the Tigers struggle to defend in tight, it makes sense to target the area.

The Wests Tigers have conceded 18 tries up the middle, revealing areal lack of mettle in the guts. The forwards need to muscle up or they’ll get steamrolled.

Watch out Dragons: Young Tigers centre Blake Ayshford is starting to find his feet in the top grade and could be a player to watch in the future. In just five games he has shown an ability to play at both centre and five-eighth and he has already notched up four line breaks.

He has scored twice and set up another try and as his team-mates trust him with more ball you get the feeling his numbers could improve rapidly. He is strong and elusive and while other teams are oblivious to his play he could be the perfect attacking weapon.

While the Dragons will no doubt spend more time doing homework on Farah and Marshall they should spend a little bit of time checking out Ayshford and be prepared accordingly.

Where it will be won: The battle between the team linchpins is where this game will be won. For the Tigers the linchpin will be hooker Robbie Farah should he make it through Origin, while for the Dragons the match could rest on five-eighth Jamie Soward.

Farah might play hooker but he is the main man when it comes to direction and penetration for the Tigers. He was brilliant in their most recent win and chances are had he been available to play against the Storm, the final result would have been reversed.

In his 11 games this season Farah has seven line breaks, including six from dummy-half. He has seven line-break assists, five tries and another 10 try assists to his name plus 47 tackle breaks and 19 offloads.

The Dragons cannot rest at any stage when it comes to Farah as he only needs a small lapse to take advantage. Should Farah not play, the responsibility falls on Benji Marshall.

For the Dragons, Soward’s performance is certainly vital. His kicking game gives the side the field position they need but it’s his ability to break the line and produce some magic which is crucial.

Just like Farah, he only needs a millisecond to slice through the smallest of holes and with a vast array of chip kicks and grubbers plus pure acceleration and speed, the Tigers need to monitor him vigilantly. With nine line breaks, eight line-break assists, six tries and a massive 14 try assists he is certainly in form.

This match could easily come down to one moment of brilliance from either of these players.

The History: Played 17; Wests Tigers 9, Dragons 8. The Wests Tigers have won six of the past seven against St George Illawarra, including the last three in a row. At the Sydney Football Stadium the record is 3-0 in favour of the Tigers, with the Dragons yet to beat their joint venture rivals at the venue.

Conclusion: The Dragons should be legitimate favourites here but just how will they go coming off their first bye and just how will their stars back up from Origin?

By all reports the team trained super hard in the ‘mountains’ around Wollongong before some time off, with Mickey Paea collapsing from exhaustion after not mentioning a virus he was carrying. So while they did take a break, they’ve worked extra hard to compensate.

The Tigers are hitting desperation stakes and have a great record in recent times over the Dragons. Hopefully a huge crowd is on hand to either lift them back into the play-off picture or push the Dragons towards a first minor premiership.

Smart money is on the Dragons – but wait for post-Origin news to make final decision.

Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Mohamad Fajajo; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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