The two form sides of the competition meet in this clash of the round – although both units have lost plenty of their firepower to State of Origin call-ups. The question then becomes: who has the stronger depth to counter the personnel losses?
The Dragons overhauled the Roosters in devastating fashion last week, piling on 28 unanswered points in the second half to blitz Brad Fittler’s charges. While that sounds like a comprehensive win the Dragons got a much tougher hit-out than the scoreline would suggest.
They’ve now won six of their past seven games to sit atop the NRL ladder on their own – after their opponents this week the Sea Eagles accounted for the Bulldogs at Brookvale last Monday.
The Dragons lose prop Justin Poore and back-rower Ben Creagh to the Blues, plus Darius Boyd and Neville Costigan to the Maroons. Also, utility forward Matt Prior has succumbed to a strong virus and is out for a fortnight, while Michael Weyman remains out through Round 23 with an ankle injury.
To plug the holes Dan Hunt and Jarrod Saffy will start for Poore and Creagh, with Chase Stanley slotting into the centre position held down by Costigan last week. Jason Nightingale will wear the no.1 jersey.
Former Warrior Nathan Fien is destined to make his first appearance for the Red V, adding oomph to an inexperienced bench that features Trent Merrin, Nick Merritt and Michael Lett.
Meanwhile Des Hasler’s Sea Eagles continue their impressive mid-season climb. Written off by most when they lost their opening four games and six of their first eight, they now occupy sixth spot just three wins away from minor premiership position. While that’s unlikely they have considerable momentum – they’ve won six of their past seven including the past four in a row – there’s the likelihood they’ll push for the top-four position through Round 26.
They have several forced changes this week. They lose winger David Williams, prop Josh Perry and back-rowers Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart to the Blues’ side. Also, Heath L’Estrange is gone for three weeks after being suspended for a dangerous throw last round.
On the plus side, Jamie Lyon – ruled out of Origin III when it became apparent he couldn’t train with the side early in the week – is every chance of turning out for the visitors on Sunday.
Anthony Suniula will take a wing position, Brent Kite moves from the bench to start at prop opposite Jason King, while Adam Cuthbertson and Shane Rodney form a new-look second row with Glenn Hall reverting to lock. Exciting youngster Kieran Foran is expected to make the 18 given L’Estrange’s suspension.
Watch out Dragons: You can bet the Sea Eagles will target the Dragons close to their line. Craig Fitzgibbon scored two soft tries inside the Dragons’ 10-metre zone last week, the first hitting a straight line off a short flat pass, the second a struggle with flat-footed defenders after lunging from a standing start.
Both tries exposed possibly the Dragons’ sole Achilles’ heel in 2009 and Sea Eagles hooker Matt Ballin will fancy testing them out again.
Elsewhere Matt Orford got the better of Blues recall Brett Kimmorley last week, registering five tackle breaks (Kimmorley didn’t make one) and directing his players with confidence when the chips were down in the second half. The Dragons need to keep the pressure up to Orford – but not make the mistake of rushing him and creating holes in the defensive line where he can pick up fringe runners or grubber for chasers.
Watch out Sea Eagles: There seems to be no stopping Jamie Soward – although Roosters prop Craig Fitzgibbon had some unkind things to say about the Dragons’ creative no.6 after their loss last week, implying Soward wasn’t a player to go to when things go bad. While we’re yet to find out, the good news for Dragons’ fans is this doesn’t look like happening any time soon in 2009.
Soward played the complete game against the Roosters – he scored two tries, made three try assists, four offloads, eight tackle breaks, ran the ball 197 metres, kicked accurately and was sound in defence.
Other danger players are Matt Cooper and Ben Hornby, both approaching peak form.
Where it will be won:
There are no speculative passes and few if any overplayed moments. Last week they appeared on the back foot for much of the first half against the Roosters but forged ahead with poker faces before laying
down their trump cards in the second half.
And the Sea Eagles have shown great resilience themselves in recent times, clawing back from 13th on the ladder six weeks ago. Last week they were entitled to fold to the co-competition leaders when they trailed by five points with 12 minutes to play but they dug themselves out of their hole in the manner of, well, premiers.
Territory will also vital. To date the Sea Eagles are averaging 1353 metres – but last week they monstered 1598 metres against the Bulldogs in undesirable, greasy conditions, while limiting their table-topping opponents to just 1315 metres. The Dragons average an NRL-high 1447 metres – and collected 1667 against the Roosters last week. Serious figures from both sides that should make for entertaining footy.
The history: Played 13; Dragons 9, Sea Eagles 4. The Dragons have won six of the past eight games – although the Sea Eagles have won two of the past three. At WIN Stadium the Dragons hold a 2-1 advantage.
Conclusion: Whoever maximises their opportunities by converting them into points will win this. While the Sea Eagles are officially back on track as a premiership force, Wayne Bennett has had the Dragons firing consistently from the get-go.
While they have lost some weaponry their key players Soward and Ben Hornby remain on the park. They have retained greater continuity than the Sea Eagles and that alone is priceless in the heat of battle. Expect the home side to stay on top of the table.
Match officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Phil Haines; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.