WIN Jubilee Oval
Plenty have declared the Dragons the real deal over the past few weeks as they’ve both methodically and brilliantly disposed of their oppositions on the way to skipping four competition points clear in the race for the minor premiership.
Well, if they can overcome the Storm this week, NRL.com is prepared to jump on the Red V bandwagon too.
It is easily their biggest game of the season: the Storm have proven their bogy side over the past decade, ever since they lost the 1999 grand final through a controversial penalty try. Try as they might, the Storm have mostly had their measure, with the red-and-whites winning just two of the past eight encounters.
The last time they won was a 36-12 victory at ANZ Stadium last year when the Storm were minus eight Origin stars. And in Round 1 this year, in coach Wayne Bennett’s first premiership game at the helm, the Dragons toiled hard for a win but fell short when a Greg Inglis field goal in the 84th minute broke the deadlock.
While the Dragons (seven wins from their past eight) can afford a loss and still be frontrunners for the minor premiership, a lot rides on the outcome. A win will see them break the mental hoodoo Melbourne have over them. But a loss? It could be critically debilitating – especially if they have to meet the Storm again during the finals.
Last week the Dragons were too good for the Warriors (29-4) – as you’d expect. But they delivered their worst half of football all year in the second 40 minutes, with nine errors. They can’t afford a repeat this week.
Personnel-wise the Dragons have named a three-man dummy-half rotation (Nathan Fien, Luke Priddis and Dean Young) – although it’s unlikely Priddis will play as he was named last week and didn’t take the field.
Otherwise they’re unchanged from the 17 that defeated the Warriors, with Chase Stanley expected to remain at centre while Matt Cooper recuperates from his heel injury for another week. (Also remaining sidelined is ex-Storm back-rower Jeremy Smith.)
Meanwhile the Melbourne fire has been dwindling over the past few weeks and they look in dire need of some big logs to get it burning fiercely again.
They have been spluttering, smashed by the Raiders in Canberra in Round 16 before looking flat in falling to the Eels in Round 19.
Steve Turner, who signed with the Bulldogs from 2010 during the week, returns from his foot injury to replace Dane Neilsen on the wing. Greg Inglis returns after a week, replacing Brett Anderson. Jeff Lima starts at prop with Matt Cross on the bench, while Ryan Hoffman and Dallas Johnson return to the back of the scrum.
Watch out Dragons: The Storm know they have the wood on the Dragons so they’ll be itching to get on top early and assert their dominance.
They will be looking to follow on from their closing passage last week against the Sharks when they scored 18 points in the last 20 minutes – their best effort in 2009.
Billy Slater looks to be working his way back to peak form – last week he made 16 runs for 141 metres, with nine tackle breaks and two try assists. If he can repeat those numbers the Dragons will know they are in a contest.
Watch out Storm: In somewhat of a turning of the tables, the Dragons are racking up “Melbourne-like” numbers in attack. Three players figure in the top-20 tryscorer’s list – Brett Morris (NRL-high 17), Wendell Sailor (ninth with 11) and Jamie Soward (10th with 10). By comparison the Storm only has Billy Slater (19th with nine tries).
Look out for a big game from centre Chase Stanley, who has signed with the Storm from next year. Last week he was devastating against the Warriors, with a try, a try assist, two line breaks, three tackle breaks and three offloads. Importantly, given he’s going up against Greg Inglis, he made 23 tackles, missing just one.
Last, fullback Darius Boyd broke his try-scoring duck for the Dragons last week. Now he’s scored one it’s possible the floodgates could open for Boyd, who is one of the most damaging runners in the game.
Where it will be won: In the “unexpected” plays. Melbourne used to be the benchmark when it came to making sides pay for their errors, their blistering backline turning scant opportunities into points. But this year the Dragons are top of the heap.
At the start of the season the critics reckoned the Dragons would struggle to score points off anything but Jamie Soward’s kicking game. Boy, have they proven that wrong! In their 74 tries (third behind Souths 77, Cowboys 75) they’ve scored an NRL-high 11 four-pointers on the breakaway – three more than the next-best Wests Tigers. Largely it’s come on the back of opposition turnovers and a quick communication and willingness to offload to the likes of Brett Morris.
Then there’s Soward’s brilliance – his ability to score long-range tries from seemingly nothing, whether they be pass intercepts, kick intercepts or simply sprints into space.
Incredibly, the Storm have only managed one try on the breakaway this year. They are still a great attacking side but could it be they’ve lost their edge when it comes to playing unpredictable footy?
The History: Played 22; Storm 16, Dragons 5, drawn 1. The Storm have won six of the past eight encounters. Games at WIN Jubilee are two wins apiece.
Conclusion: The battle of the number nines will have a huge bearing on the result, with Nathan Fien facing his first big test for the Red V after a good warm-up against former side the Warriors last week.
But Cameron Smith is the benchmark hooker in the game and how the Dragons defend around the ruck will be crucial.
Look for Craig Bellamy to direct his runners to get plenty of territory out of dummy-half, as the big Dragons’ forwards have shown an inability to retreat back to the defensive line quickly. If the Storm can earn easy territory on the back of “manufactured” penalties it will assist them no end.
If this game were being played in Melbourne we’d be tipping the Storm, on the back of their overwhelming head-to-head record and the fact that the Storm are still winning while underperforming. That suggests they are a team on the way up.
Meanwhile the Dragons are playing to a high standard every week. But do they have any improvement in them should it be required?
We’re going to lean towards the Dragons – but only because the game is at Kogarah.
Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Steve Chiddy; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 2am
• Statistics: NRL Stats.