Warriors v Dragons
Mt Smart Stadium
Sunday 2pm (NZ time)

It’s crunch time for the Warriors, who need to apply all their skill and focus if they’re to be a match for the NRL competition leaders.

Buoyed by the return of strike weapon Manu Vatuvei, the Warriors will have no excuses for not having a real dig in this weekend. Their season is pretty much on the line even approaching the halfway stage of the premiership – they rank 10th on 12 points, having won just two of their past six games, and are surrounded by a bunch of teams who’ve similarly spluttered in 2010. But the chances are some of those outfits are going to strike a vein of form which, coupled with a loss to the Dragons this week, would thrust the NZ-based side further behind the eight-ball.

They showed character to come back and snatch a win against the Rabbitohs in Round 11 but then wilted with a wimpy 50-6 loss to the Wests Tigers last week.

On the plus side, Vatuvei’s return (for his 100th first grade appearance for the Warriors) has the potential to transform them from a four-cylinder runabout into a V8 Supercar.

The negative, though, is they lose playmaker Brett Seymour; James Maloney returns at five-eighth, with rookie Isaac John handed the no.7 jersey. Last week’s late withdrawal Micheal Luck returns to lock, pushing Ian Henderson to the bench.

Meanwhile Wayne Bennett has his side on cruise control. The 30-nil score line they racked up last week against the Eels says it all – although arguably the most impressive stat to come out of the game was they were able to stop superstar fullback Jarryd Hayne from making even one line-break or line-break assist, while restricting him to just four tackle-breaks. Their defence is watertight.

Their only change from last week is the return of centre Matt Cooper, which relegates capable rookie Kyle Stanley to the extended bench.

Watch out Warriors: Dragons fullback Darius Boyd has polled five maximum three-point votes in Dally M reckoning through Round 12, and you can bet there’s more to come. Boyd’s stats in 2010 are truly phenomenal – he ranks no.1 for line-break assists (11), no.4 for runs (176), no.2 for tackle-breaks (74) and no.3 for top running metres (1682).

He is to the Dragons what Billy Slater is to the Storm at fullback – a devastating open play runner who is also a superb support playmaker. Boyd’s trademark cut-out pass down the left edge is the reason winger Brett Morris has found so much open space on the way to his 12 tries this year.  

Watch out Dragons: ‘The Beast’ Manu Vatuvei returns after an injury-interrupted 2010 that’s seen him play just five games approaching the halfway stage. But in his limited game time he’s still proven a force, scoring six tries, averaging 126 metres (with 14 kick-return metres gained), seven line-breaks, nine offloads and a whopping 5.5 tackle busts a game.

The Dragons’ right edge is usually where Jamie Soward “hides” in defence, so don’t be surprised if the Warriors employ some decoy ploys inside the opposition 20-metre zone, including feigning to pick up the angle runner before sending it wide to Vatuvei, or else actually targeting Soward.

Where it will be won:
The first 20 minutes. The Dragons have conceded the least amount of first-half points with just 48 put past them in 12 games! They’ve led at halftime on eight occasions – and have nine wins for the season. Four times they have kept sides to zilch points in first halves.

They’re ruthless in second halves too – the Dragons have lost just three second-40 periods all year.

The big worry for Ivan Cleary is his boys have won the first half of their games on just five occasions – reflected by five competition wins. But they have been kept scoreless on four occasions in first halves, the most of any team.

If the intensity isn’t there from the outset, the Dragons will squeeze their opponents out of the contest.

The history: Played 15; Dragons 11, Warriors 4. The Dragons have won seven of the past eight, with the Warriors’ only win in that time a 44-16 thrashing at Mt Smart Stadium in 2007.

Interestingly, the Dragons have only won the week after holding an opponent scoreless once in the past five times – and that was a victory over the Warriors.

Conclusion: The Warriors will continue to miss Sam Rapira’s grunt; they don’t really look to have the match of the Dragons in the muscle department up front. But they’ll be buoyed by Vatuvei’s return – if he can post some early points it could provide them with the momentum and confidence they need.

It will be a huge debut for Warriors five-eighth Isaac John, who should have the likes of Ben Creagh and Neville Costigan running at him all night. If he gets flustered and makes some errors (they’re going to happen on debut) then the Dragons will rack up points.

The journey across the ditch holds no qualms for the Dragons and a loss here would be a massive upset. Wayne Bennett will have rammed home the message to the players that they will feel better putting their feet up during next week’s bye, reflecting on a win, than they would stewing over a complacent loss.

Match officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Bernard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Ricky McFarlane & Luke Phillips; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 12 noon.