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Dragons v Cowboys
WIN Stadium
Friday 8.35pm (AEDT)

The Cowboys ride into Wollongong with the dust barely settled on their stunning 28-20 come-from-behind win over the Panthers in Townsville last Saturday. But they’ll need all guns blazing – and no misfires – if they are to get on top of the Dragons, who two weeks in have emphatically stamped themselves as the benchmark force in 2010.

Wayne Bennett’s brigade played ruthless and committed football to shut out the Eels 18-12 in Round 1 and then belted the Bulldogs 26-6 at WIN Stadium last week. They have found their groove early – and even the worrying season-ending injury to hooker Nathan Fien in week one looks to have been managed with a good return to form of veteran Luke Priddis.

This week, representative centre Matt Cooper makes his 2010 debut after recovering from a hamstring strain sustained in the trials. His return pushes last week’s surprise centre replacement Matt Prior back to his starting position at prop, shunting Trent Merrin from the 17.

The Cowboys retain their continuity, with their only change prop Matt Scott named to start the game, with Carl Webb warming the bench.

Watch out Dragons: When a side plays as clinically as the Dragons have been – just 10 errors in their first two games and with halo-like completion rates of 95 and 93 per cent respectively – the danger lies in what happens when the player unit puts in just an average performance.

Sure, even with an acceptable completion rate of 80 per cent or more, the Dragons should still be able to play great footy. And win this game. But when the wheel begins to wobble, and you’re not sure why, sometimes the wagon can run off the road.

So the biggest danger for the Dragons this week isn’t necessarily Johnathan Thurston (most try assists in the NRL with 6, most line-break assist with 4). They know he will be coming at them trying to set up attacking plays. No, the Dragons need to do all the one- percenters right – added up they have been getting the side top marks to date.

Watch out Cowboys: Brett Morris is the danger man. Fresh from a hat-trick of tries last week, he comes up against some of his favourite prey here – in three games against the Cowboys the speedster has scored five tries, including bagging four in the Dragons’ 24-20 loss(!) in Round 9 last year. And in 11 games in Wollongong he has crossed for 10 tries.

Morris has really developed over the past year and the early signs are that 2010 will be his best yet, with perhaps a debut Origin jersey beckoning. He ranks third for tackle-breaks (16), is a prominent dummy-half runner (10), and ranks in the top 10 for line-breaks (2). Last week he had a mock fight with twin Josh that brought the Wollongong house down – this week the Cowboys will be fighting to stop his incisive runs.

Where it will be won: No prizes for guessing the two key strategies in this game! The visitors will use their speed out wide, where Willie Tonga has been damaging over the past fortnight. The Queensland Origin representative ranks eighth in the comp for most running metres (308, average 154) and leads the NRL for line-breaks with four.

The Cowboys’ completion rate of 76 per cent is a worry for supporters – but they don’t base their game on a grinding style anyway, preferring to risk it from most parts of the field. That could work well against a disciplined Dragons unit well-skilled in nullifying orthodox play.

Meanwhile, we’d love a dollar for every time the Dragons attack the left side of the footy field with a sweep from close range this year. They were at it again last week, with Ben Hornby and Darius Boyd pumping it wide with cut-out plays for Brett Morris, or else feeding towering Ben Creagh with a flat ball at the advantage line.

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again. Yes it’s predictable, but oh so effective. And we reckon there isn’t a team in the comp that feels comfortable defending against it.

The history: Played 19; Cowboys 10, Dragons 9. Honours are even four games apiece from the past eight clashes, although the Cowboys have won three of the past four. At WIN Stadium the Dragons hold a 5-3 advantage.

Conclusion: This is the third Friday night game in a row for the Dragons, who haven’t had to travel any further than to Parramatta over the past month. They have struck a routine and it’s working for them.

The dummy-half rotation of Priddis and Dean Young will be placed under a little bit more pressure here, and Young’s passing game in particular will need to rise a notch if his side is to continue to fire on all cylinders.

The Cowboys are warming up in the engine room, with back-rower Scott Bolton (108 metres average) and lock Luke O’Donnell (122 metres) leading the way.

But the danger for them is that Jamie Soward’s kicking game (average 18.5 a game, most in the comp) will target fullback Ty Williams and further expose him to mistakes. Williams has been shaky over the past fortnight and has made five errors the first two games.

It’s hard to see the Dragons dip too much from what they’ve shown over the first two weeks. Even if the Cowboys lift, the home side should win comfortably.

Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Davis Abood & Gavin Morris; Video ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live from 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW). Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 1am Sat.
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