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Dragons v Sharks
WIN Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Not a lot has changed since the last time these traditional derby sides met back in Round 11 last year. As they trotted onto the field the Dragons were co-competition leaders, while the Sharks were rooted to the bottom of the ladder.

In fact, the only thing that’s changed is that the Dragons are sole competition leaders, while the Sharks are the penultimate worst side due to Melbourne’s relegation after having all their competition points stripped.

Still, they do occupy their ladder rung with four other sides, and an upset win here would incredibly rocket them to the periphery of the finals zone.

Just don’t tell Ricky Stuart’s side they are lining up to be gaffed and gutted. Despite their lowly position they savaged a listless Knights side last week in a dominant performance.

Their captain Trent Barrett will be primed for a big performance in his third game against his former club – and his first in the rugby league backyard where he grew up deep in the heart of Steelers territory. Barrett loves it at WIN Stadium – of the 80 tries he’s scored in his career, 31 have been on its turf.

Meanwhile the Dragons are looking to make it four wins in a row for the first time in 2010, their sole loss coming to the Storm in Round 4.

They’ve surprised a few observers over the past fortnight, minus key forwards Jeremy Smith and Matt Prior, but have shown excellent depth through the likes of Jon Green, Trent Merrin and Nick Emmett.

Of the sides that performed at high levels last year, they and the Storm are the only teams to match or improve on 2009.

Watch out Dragons: Complacency and a lack of focus will see even the best sides come back to the pack in 2010. Already the Dragons have experienced as such, albeit at the hands of the premiers (do we still refer to them as that?) Melbourne in Round 4 – their normally unflappable demeanour was rattled by an opponent who forced them into a mediocre 62 per cent completion rate.

Even with that below-par performance the Dragons are completing their sets on average 82 per cent of the time – the best of any team and five per cent better than the second-ranked Sea Eagles.

Looking for an Achilles heel, of the 11 tries scored against them, five have come from short passes. So the glimmer of hope for the Sharks is that the likes of Barrett and John Morris (three try assists each) can send a runner through the defence close to the Dragons’ line.

Watch out Sharks: The Sharks’ right-side outside defenders Dean Collis and Blake Ferguson, as well as fullback Nathan Stapleton, are in for a torrid evening given the Dragons’ relentless and ruthless executions of tries down their left side.

You might get sick of us repeating this in 2010, but the Red V are the benchmark when it comes to left-edge raids, specifically from centre field between 20 and 30 metres out.

To date they’ve scored 16 tries down the left corridor, compared to just four down the right. Is it any wonder Brett Morris is the NRL’s leading try-scorer with eight ‘meat pies’?

Where it will be won:
On the scoreboard. While that sounds a touch patronising this game sees one of the NRL attacking powerhouses (Dragons, 28 tries) matching motors with the competition’s least potent attack (Sharks 17 tries, 99 points scored, fewest in the comp).That’s like a drag race between a Holden Monaro and a Fiat Bambino.

Worryingly for the Shire club, they couldn’t break a fever at the moment – their 22 line-breaks are the fewest total by any team.

Then there’s the defensive side of things – the Dragons have conceded the fewest tries (12) while the Sharks have conceded the sixth most with 29.

The history:
Played 24; Sharks 13, Dragons 10, drawn 1. The Dragons have won just three of the past eight games – although that includes the past two games, both played last year. The record at WIN Stadium is 2-0 to the Dragons; they won the last encounter there 18-4 in 2006.

Conclusion: We all know what to expect from the Dragons, and anything less would be a blip on the radar from the new premiership favourites.

The Sharks, on the other hand, need to show what they are capable of. They need to bring a focused attitude and attempt to dominate the Dragons where they won’t be expecting it – up the centre of the park.

Their props Kade Snowden and Luke Douglas were devastating last week against the Knights – they were arguably the best of all starting and bench props that ran around in the NRL in Round 7! Snowden made 149 metres and 21 tackles in 49 minutes, with two offloads and a line-break to boot, while Douglas made 197 metres from 21 runs in 57 minutes, with 22 tackles and just the one miss.

If they can get some good go-forward, and match it with an inspired defensive performance, they’ll be in the contest for a long way. Interesting to note they lead the NRL for dominant tackles with a whopping 239 smashes, some 54 more than the next-best Cowboys. But just as the Cowboys have discovered, you “smash” for show, and tackle consistently for dough.

The Dragons should win by a comfortable margin. There will be a 15-20 minute passage of play from the Sharks that will cause them some concern, but they’ll weather it and pull away, just as they’ve shown all season.

Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis  & Adam Reid; Video ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Fox Sports – Viewer’s choice from 7.30pm.
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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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