One week shy of 12 months ago Wayne Bennett was experiencing finals heartbreak at Suncorp Stadium as the Broncos crashed out of the 2008 title race with a final-minute loss to the Storm.
The defeat was the Brisbane side’s sixth in six finals games at Suncorp. Meanwhile the Dragons have won five in a row against the Broncos at the venue – stats that will surely give Dragons fans some heart.
That is, until they realise all those Broncos finals defeats had Wayne Bennett as the common-factor coach… with Bennett at the helm of just one of the Dragons’ five wins in the Queensland capital (a 25-12 win back in Round 4).
This game represents a crossroads for Bennett and St George Illawarra. Widely accepted as being the benchmark side all year and having carried off the JJ Giltinan Shield as minor premiers, plenty of questions will be asked of the club, its players and the new coaching regime should they get bundled out of the 2009 premiership with consecutive finals losses.
If that sounds like they’re under a lot of pressure, you’d be right. Although in true Bennett style, the Red V are emanating a positive veneer while plenty of critics savage them.
They’ve now lost four of their past five games, their sole win a devastating, morale-boosting 37-0 win over the Eels in Round 26. But all the positives from that clash went flying out the window when they failed at the second attempt last week at Kogarah, humbled by a resolute Eels defence and some typical and not unanticipated Jarryd Hayne brilliance.
They have all their stars intact, so the question now is: do they have the resolve to prove they are the side everyone thought they were before they left their dressing room for their Round 23 game with the Raiders?
It’s a possible milestone game for Jamie Soward, who needs eight points to reach 500 career points in the NRL. He has 232 so far this year alone.
Meanwhile, coach Ivan Henjak has resurrected the Broncos’ fortunes since a 56-0 whipping at the hands of Canberra in Round 21. They’ve now strung together six wins and have good momentum, as illustrated by a devastating attacking performance that dismantled the Titans at Skilled Park last week.
Their pack is making good territory, their mistakes are down, and they are missing fewer tackles than during the middle point of the season.
Henjak will be itching for consecutive wins against his former master Bennett, while ex-Dragons Ashton Sims and Lagi Setu will be pumped for another big game against their former club.
It’s doe or die – so who is going home on their shield?
Watch out Broncos: You just know it’s coming – the Dragons love to shift the ball left, especially from play-the-balls in centre field around 35 metres out where they have more space to execute than when closer to the opposition try line. Defenders Justin Hodges and Jharal Yow Yeh can’t afford to rush up too quickly or else it will leave Dragons’ winger Brett Morris with good space to attack the try line.
When the Dragons aren’t shifting the ball to their preferred left side in attack there’s a good chance they’ll be picking out Broncos’ halves Darren Lockyer and Peter Wallace who are suspect in defence even when not targeted. Lockyer has 86 missed tackles from 21 games (average four a game), while Wallace has missed 90 in 22 games – including 20 in his past three outings!
And left winger Antonio Winterstein better brace for Jamie Soward (26 try assists, 2nd in the NRL) to bring back his looping left-to-right torp pass to Wendell Sailor on the right flank. We haven’t seen it for six weeks and it’s a super strike weapon.
Watch out Dragons: The Dragons’ strength of attacking to their left side is also a weakness for them. Teams know what’s coming time and again and a well-drilled defensive line can bustle the likes of left-side attackers Hornby, Creagh, Boyd and Morris into error.
Last week they butchered a possible try when they were hustled into poor execution and it also cost them a converted try – and possibly the game – when Soward threw a pass that was intercepted by Grothe. Hodges will be licking his lips at that, too.
There’s no doubt the Broncos will continue to terrorise the Dragons’ right-side defence with hulking prop Dave Taylor (11 line breaks, most by a Bronco) out on the fringes. In their 12-2 win in Wollongong in Round 24 Taylor scored a blockbusting try on the fringes and set up their other four-pointer. He monstered Jamie Soward, who looked all at sea trying to contain the big man. And last week Taylor was punishing against the Titans, involved in plays at every opportunity and streaking away for a decisive intercept try.
Wendell Sailor can prepare for a busy night opposing the towering vertical leap of Israel Folau on the right wing. Sailor can be a little shaky under the high ball, which probably had a bit to do with him not contesting a bomb with Eel Daniel Mortimer last week, instead holding off to tackle the rookie; when Mortimer batted the ball back it led to a try. Any such indecision against Folau will prove costly. (And won’t the Brisbane crowd give it to him!)
Where it will be won: In the wide open spaces. The Broncos can be relentless attacking machines and will look for the guile and athleticism of Karmichael Hunt (22 try assists – 8th in the NRL) and creativity of Wallace (18) and Lockyer (13) to get them their four-pointers.
Also out wide in the centres the defensive battle between Matt Cooper on Justin Hodges and Beau Scott on Israel Folau will be decisive. The Brisbane pair have the edge in attack but Scott, with 58 one-on-one tackles this year (3rd most in the NRL) is capable of snuffing out raids.
Missed tackles will prove costly when the fulltime siren sounds – the Dragons completed more sets than the Eels last week (28 to 25) but missed a whopping 47 tackles to the Eels’ 36.
The history: Played 22, Broncos 10, Dragons 12. The Dragons have won seven of the past eight, with the Broncos’ sole win a 12-2 victory in Wollongong in Round 24.
Conclusion: Twelve months ago the weekend newspapers were saturated with photos of an anguished Darren Lockyer after Brisbane were denied advancing to the grand final when Melbourne scored with just seconds remaining. That hurt will cut deep with Lockyer – but it will also cut deep with Wayne Bennett. So who wants it more?
If the Dragons can create more broken play than they have in the past month they could bamboozle the Broncos. Matt Cooper seems to have lost his way lately and Soward and Hornby have been too focused on being links rather than sparks. If that trio start to break open the Broncos, including Soward taking on the line within the opposition 20, we can see the Dragons getting on a roll.
Although there’s a massive question mark surrounding the Dragons’ ability to go all the way in 2009, when distilling their chances in this game you’d have to say they still deserve to be favourites. We’ll pump for the master Bennett to edge out the apprentice Henjak in an entertaining and expansive showdown.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jeff Younis; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats.