It’s all about momentum at this stage of the season – the Broncos are slowly building some while the Dragons are back to the drawing board after a savaging at the hands of the Raiders in Canberra.
Boy did NRL.com get it wrong last week when we suggested the Broncos were up against it taking on the Panthers and couldn’t afford to fall behind their opponents! Having trailed at halftime they put 40 unanswered points on Matt Elliott’s men to score a resounding win – their second on the trot – to re-announce themselves as premiership contenders.
Meanwhile the Red V earned a red flag from coach Wayne Bennett after blowing a 12-point lead to allow their opponents to pile on 24 unanswered points in a stirring encounter in the nation’s capital.
While that upset win was spruiked and predicted by several NRL observers, the question must be asked: have the Dragons peaked too soon? Certainly another loss here just a fortnight out from the finals would see one of the wheels on the Dragons’ premiership chariot wobbling wildly.
While the home side is assured of September footy it’s a crucial game for Ivan Henjak’s charges – they are currently eighth with the poorest for-and-against record of four sides tied on 26 points. A loss here would see them drop as low as 11th should the Eels, Panthers and Cowboys all win.
Personnel-wise the Dragons welcome back their A-team centre pairing of Matt Cooper and Beau Scott from injury and suspension respectively. Matt Prior slots back into the second row after his return from suspension, shifting Dean Young to starting hooker and Nathan Fien to the bench. Jon Green and Jason Nightingale complete a six-man bench, with Chase Stanley the only player missing out from last week.
Meanwhile the Broncos have retained the 17 that were so dominant at home against the Panthers.
Watch out Dragons: The Broncos have massive motivation for this game. They want to continue their push towards the finals – but they are also desperate to register a win against their former mentor Wayne Bennett, having fallen to the Dragons in Brisbane in Round 4.
While there are still some questions surrounding their defence there’s no doubt the Broncos can score tries – their 83 are the sixth most for the season. Significantly they are particularly punishing from close range, having scored 45 of their tries from within 10 metres of their opponent’s line. A whopping 27 of the 47 tries the Dragons have conceded have been from close range, so Wayne Bennett would have been drumming into his troops the importance of muscling up on their line.
Expect Lockyer and Wallace to probe for repeat sets from grubbers into the in-goal – containing the Red V and making them make tackle on tackle is a workable blueprint for victory.
Watch out Broncos: The Brisbane defence remains a worry. They have conceded 96 tries in 2009, the second most by any side (the Roosters rank first with 102).
The return of Cooper and Scott will ensure the Dragons provide a strong defensive front out wide (Scott is averaging nearly 26 tackles with 87 per cent effectiveness) and the duo are bound to combine well with halves Jamie Soward and Ben Hornby to create good attacking opportunities.
Although overlooked for representative duties this year Cooper is in great form; in 14 games he’s averaging 100 metres, has seven line breaks, five try assists, 30 tackle breaks, 18 offloads and three tries. And Scott has been a revelation since Bennett shifted him out wide from the back row – from 17 games he’s averaging 76 metres with two try assists, 43 offloads (7th in the NRL), 29 tackle busts and two tries.
Where it will be won: This shapes as a massive battle of the playmakers in Hornby and Soward up against Wallace and Lockyer.
Starved of possession last week the Dragons struggled to get any go-forward, despite the best efforts of their dazzling halves. The Raiders managed a whopping 1597 metres against the Dragons – the most they’ve conceded all year. Meantime the Dragons made just 1211 metres – well down on their average of 1453 metres.
The plan for Lockyer and Wallace will be to try to pin the Dragons down their end of the field and try to bustle them into mistakes.
The Dragons will put last week’s performance behind them and consider it but a blip on their premiership radar. With all troops back on deck expect them to return to the smart, snappy style of attack that’s worked so well for them in 2009 – including their trademark run-around and wide sweep down the left sideline anywhere between halfway and the opposition 20-metre line – they’ve scored a brace of tries this way, with Brett Morris (19 tries, equal second in the NRL) the leading beneficiary. The Broncos have leaked 40 tries down this corridor, compared to 33 on Wendell Sailor’s right side.
The history: Played 21; Dragons 12, Broncos 9. Incredibly the Dragons have won the past eight games against their Brisbane opponents – seven of them against Wayne Bennett-coached Broncos sides! The Broncos have a good record in Wollongong, winning three of seven games there – although the past two encounters have resulted in easy wins to the home side in 2006 and 2008.
Conclusion: The Dragons have been so dominant for so long during the season that it’s hard to get too concerned about last week’s loss to the Raiders, especially given they were down on troops in crucial positions.
There was plenty of fire from the opposition in that loss and you can bet that won’t be lost on the young Broncos – especially the likes of starting prop Dave Taylor, who will be itching to show Bennett he’s come of age, and bench prop Ashton Sims who returns home to the Illawarra with plenty to prove up against his old side.
Brisbane will be fuelled by emotion, the Dragons fuelled by composure. If the visitors knock the Dragons off their game plan they’re a chance. But if the Dragons – and Soward in particular – are allowed to settle into any sort of rhythm, they’ll be tough to beat.
The head says St George Illawarra – and you should always tip with your head.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Russell Turner; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 5am Sat.
• Statistics: NRL Stats.