While ladder position might not suggest the Raiders are much chance of knocking off the Dragons, history certainly suggests they can – and it might just be the best result all-round if they can provide an upset.
Figures released on NRL.com earlier this week show the Dragons would be defying history if they were to go the rest of the season without a loss… so maybe a defeat here, when they can afford it, will take away the extra burden and pressure.
Teams don’t want to be losing right up around finals time, so maybe resting up a few stars and possibly losing others to suspension wouldn’t be terrible for the Dragons, who are four points clear at the top of the table.
Then again, no-one likes to lose, and maybe this Dragons team is supposed to be the one that breaks all the records and registers a dominant premiership to the club.
They have not beaten the Raiders in Canberra since 2000 but they are shooting for a joint-venture record-tying eighth consecutive win, which they achieved in 2005.
It is a little uncanny but during the middle of last season the Dragons put together a string of seven wins and were heavily favoured to extend that against the Raiders in Wollongong, only to be beaten… can the Raiders snap the streak again?
With Matt Prior out suspended the Dragons have named Nathan Fien to start at hooker, pushing Dean Young into Prior’s back-row position with Chase Stanley coming onto the bench.
With Justin Poore and Beau Scott facing the judiciary and Matt Cooper in some doubt with a heel complaint Jason Nightingale and Jon Green have been added as cover.
The home-side Raiders come into the contest in 13th place having lost a close encounter with the second-placed Bulldogs last weekend. It spelled the official end of their season in terms of play-off dreams, so now they have nothing concrete to play for except some pride, their loyal fans and the possibility of individuals being selected for the end-of-season Four Nations Tests in England and France.
Glen Turner is out of the side that lost last weekend, with young forward Joel Thompson to start in the back row, while Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Joe Picker have been added to the bench which currently has five men.
Watch out Raiders: While the Green Machine were the kings of long-range tries last season the crown this year could well be headed for the Dragons’ lair.
St George Illawarra have managed 15 tries from over halfway so far this season to be equal-first with South Sydney, while the Raiders have conceded 12 long-range tries to be the second worst side in the NRL behind Brisbane.
It is imperative the Raiders’ defence is switched on at all times or they could be split open often from anywhere on the park. Plenty of the long-range efforts have come from Jamie Soward who can sniff both an intercept and who can clean up an attacking kick better than most, so the Raiders need to have some back-up defence when heading his way.
Watch out Dragons: He might have had a few quiet games here and there but Raiders’ second-rower Bronson Harrison showed his skill level against the Bulldogs and should he provide an 80-minute effort, the Dragons could be in trouble.
Harrison’s main weapon is the offload; he has 68 for the season thus far to well and truly lead the NRL, but he also busts the odd tackle (57 tackle breaks) and sets up the odd try or break (six try assists, nine line-break assists). He also has five line breaks of his own and four tries.
His neat step and dummy before passing to Daniel Vidot for a try against the Bulldogs was sublime and the footage would have no doubt been given some airplay at Dragons training during the week.
Where it will be won: Commitment to defence. Basically the reality here is the Dragons are the better side but the Raiders can – and will – trouble them by throwing the ball around and looking to score some unconventional tries.
For the Dragons to win the match they need to stay committed to the defensive pattern and attitude which has them four points clear and heading for a maiden minor premiership.
If they are drawn into a game of touch football, in the chilly Canberra air with the Green Machine’s fans calling for Dragon blood, they could well find themselves staring down the barrel of defeat.
It is obvious the Raiders will look to chance their hand in attack but they also need to keep some discipline in defence. It was only a few lapses against the Bulldogs that cost them victory so if they can tighten up a little they could certainly make this game interesting.
The history: Played 16; Raiders 9, Dragons 6, drawn 1. The Raiders have won seven of the past eight games between the two clubs and hold an imposing 6-2 advantage at Canberra Stadium. The Dragons have not won in Canberra since July 1, 2000. Yikes!
Conclusion: The Dragons are obviously in better form than the Raiders so conventional wisdom says pick them – but the history is hard to ignore.
If you are desperate for a few upsets picks to go your way maybe this is the match to go out on a limb. It may well backfire spectacularly but if you’re already behind you don’t have much to lose, right?
Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.