The Dragons face their toughest test yet in 2010, meeting one of their biggest “bogey” opponents with a team decimated by Origin call-ups.
Meanwhile the Raiders get a great chance to right their ship and push back towards the finals zone; although they lie a lowly 13th they are just a win away from the trio of teams that occupy 7th through 9th spots on the NRL ladder.
And given their outstanding record against the Dragons in recent times – they’ve won their past three and seven of the past eight between the sides – it would almost be expected.
The Raiders remain one of the most hot-and-cold sides in the comp. At home last week against a Storm side down on confidence (and hope) after their belting at the hands of the Broncos the previous week, the Raiders were truly disappointing. That loss was their third in their past four games, with a solid win away to the Warriors in Round 8 their only recent joy.
They lose some tall timber for this clash, with David Shillington and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs selected for the Maroons and Blues respectively. That’s seen Scott Logan named to start at prop, with Joe Picker starting in the second row. Brett Kelly, Danny Galea and Sam Mataora are the new faces joining Troy Thompson on the bench, with Travis Waddell relegated.
Meanwhile the Dragons have lost Darius Boyd and Neville Costigan to Queensland, and Brett Morris, Matt Cooper, Michael Weyman and Ben Creagh to the Blues. Kyle Stanley – 19-year-old brother of former Dragon, now Storm centre Chase – makes his debut at fullback, while Michael Lett occupies Morris’ wing.
Trent Merrin, Rick Thorby and Nick Emmett step in for Weyman, Creagh and Costigan.
Elsewhere, Beau Scott returns from injury to assume his centre spot, with his replacement in recent weeks Matt Prior substituting for Cooper.
Jon Green, Jarrod Saffy (returning from injury), Jake Marketo and Michael Greenfield make up the bench.
Watch out Dragons:
Campese will be inwardly simmering at being overlooked for Origin. Here, he gets the chance to exploit the indecision that will likely come out wide.
And Dugan? He leads the comp for tackle breaks (68) and is making 156 metres a game; he’ll punish the Dragons if their clearing kicks land anywhere in his vicinity – especially given Creagh and Morris, the leading ‘good chasers’ in the comp, are missing. Jamie Soward needs to post better than his current 52 per cent kicks to open space.
Watch out Raiders: The Raiders can’t afford to get complacent up against the under-strength Dragons or they’ll be in for a rude shock.
While the red and whites will miss the decoy work of Creagh and Weyman, who with 50 and 40 decoy runs respectively are ranked first and fourth in the NRL, Wayne Bennett will be calling on Dan Hunt, Jon Green (both 30) and Dean Young (27) to keep their bodies in motion around the ruck to confuse the Raiders defenders.
Where it will be won: For the Raiders, it all boils down to knocking the Dragons off their game; for the Dragons, cohesion and executing their plays with an inexperienced line-up will be the key.
The Dragons are far and away the best side at building pressure. They are able to do this because of their “hallowed” respect for possession – they record almost 44 touches of the ball for every error they commit, easily the best rate in the NRL.
But with several new faces, the Raiders’ game plan should be to get up in the face of the Dragons’ hit-up merchants and minimise territorial gain. That in turn will place pressure on the clearing kicks of Jamie Soward and, with a sustained effort, will surely lead to errors.
Sounds simple. And it is – providing the Raiders dedicate themselves to the task.
While the Raiders are strongest attacking down the right-hand side (15 of 26 tries scored), they may want to mix things up, given the Dragons have conceded just five of their 17 tries in this area.
A possible chink in the Dragons’ armour would be that they have defused cross-field bombs just 50 per cent of the time, so if Terry Campese targets the inexperienced Michael Lett it could lead to points.
The history: Played 17; Raiders 10, Dragons 6, drawn 1. The Raiders have won seven of the past eight clashes, including the past three. In that time they recorded their biggest ever win over the Red V – a 30-6 spanking in Canberra in 2007.
Conclusion: The Dragons upset the Titans in Round 6 with a depleted forward pack, so they’ve got the depth to get the job done here. The big question is whether they can still pull off their strong left-side plays missing pretty much all the strike components in Boyd, Cooper, Creagh and Morris.
The Raiders’ record against the Dragons is excellent, but the Dragons hold a 2-1 advantage in games at WIN, with one draw. Possibly the home ground advantage will get them home.
Match officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Adam Devcich & Ricky McFarlane; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.