Dragons v Wests Tigers Preview

Dragons v Wests Tigers
WIN Jubilee Stadium
Friday, 7.35pm

Could this battle of first versus third be a sneak preview to the premiership decider on October 3?

Two fit, entertaining teams on a combined seven-game winning streak lock horns at Kogarah with the minor premiership firmly in their sights as we head into the business end of the season.

Wayne Bennett’s Dragons remain the litmus test for all sides in 2010. While not earth-shattering this past month, they have nonetheless eked out a hat-trick of wins (over the Eels, Warriors and Sharks) to sit alone in top spot on 24 competition points.

The coaching staff are doing their best to manage injuries and fatigue during the Origin period – they’ve lost centre Matt Cooper for an extended period with a hamstring tear, while last week prop Michael Weyman was rested after Origin against the Sharks.

But it’s a stronger unit this week, with Weyman’s return pushing the impressive Trent Merrin (163 metres last week) to the bench, while Dean Young returns at lock after a week out with injury. Jon Green is the only addition to their five-man bench, which jettisons Jake Marketo.

Meanwhile the Wests Tigers (20 competition points) have shown a combination of grit and flare in compiling four straight wins. Some consider they were lucky to gain the result over the Raiders at Leichhardt Oval last Sunday, but in the end they maintained their composure, pulled out a special play and escaped with the points. That’s what identifies the contenders at this stage of the season.

Personnel-wise they retain the same 17 from last week, although Keith Galloway has been named to start at prop. Todd Payten drops back to the second row, bumping Mark Flanagan to the bench.

The clash marks the 300th first grade game, including finals series, played by St George Illawarra since their inception as a joint venture in 1998.

Also, Jamie Soward needs just one goal for 600 career goals. He’ll be “in the pink” and primed for the occasion, resplendent in pink V jersey (like all his team) and pink headgear to mark the NRL’s Women in League Round.

Watch out Dragons: Wests Tigers hooker Robbie Farah will leave nothing in the tank in an effort to force his way back into the NSW side for Origin III, with selectors scheduled to announce the squad on Monday Night.

Farah’s biggest strength is his ability to read a game and make the telling play when it’s required. He’s a good runner from dummy-half, but certainly not as prolific (75 runs ranks him sixth in the comp) as in recent years. But his real value is in knowing when to run, and when it will result in an attacking opportunity – hence his four dummy-half line-breaks (second in the NRL).

Watch out Wests Tigers: Their biggest hurdle isn’t a Dragons player but rather the atmosphere of the opposition venue – in their past three games at WIN Jubilee Oval the Wests Tigers have been outscored 120-48.

Coach Tim Sheens acknowledged the Tigers’ fans were largely responsible for helping them to a scrappy win last week, but given it will be a sea of red (well, pink) and white at Kogarah, he’s been drumming into his side the importance of shutting out distraction and executing their plays the best they can.

They’ll need to up their average 72 per cent completion rates here. Sheens knows the Dragons (79 per cent) will give his side nothing but scraps, so the importance of completing sets and gaining good field position becomes paramount.

Where it will be won: The Dragons need to slow down the pace of the play-the-ball and also shut down Benji Marshall (12 try assists, fourth in the comp; 11 line-break assists).

Meanwhile, the Wests Tigers need to bring their best kicking game (currently 72 per cent to open space, ranked fourth in the comp) and hem the Dragons deep in their territory, forcing them to kick on the last tackle rather than initiate one of their trademark left-side scoring sweeps (31 scored left to just 12 on the right).

With Farah calling the shots at dummy-half the Dragons defenders need to win the wrestle and give their line time to reset before the next play-the-ball.

The Dragons have only had to make 308 tackles at marker, but Sheens may train his men on the ruck and see what it yields, given no side has had great success against Wayne Bennett’s side in 2010 and their marker tackles tally is the sixth fewest made by any team in 2010.

Expect a big game from Ben Creagh, who we feel has been unfairly targeted following the Blues’ loss in Origin II. What the stats don’t show (or rather, they do if you care to look at the right ones) is his tremendous work rate off the ball in attack.

Creagh’s 63 decoy runs are the most in the comp. Given he’s a devastating edge runner capable of busting the defence close to the try line, this makes him even more of a danger. Expect him to be more go-to man than decoy in this encounter.

The history:
Played 18; Dragons 9, Wests Tigers 9. The Wests Tigers are a bogey side for the Dragons; they’ve won three of the past four, and six of the past eight clashes between the sides – although the Dragons hold bragging rights after a 21-10 win at the SFS last year.

The Dragons hold a 2-1 advantage in games at Kogarah.

Conclusion: The Dragons should have their opposition’s measure in the backs, although they’ll need to be mindful of letting winger Lote Tuqiri getting away into space (eight line-breaks).

It all comes down to whether or not they can nullify the Tigers and get on top in the first 20 minutes – latest stats show that the Dragons are the best in the game at strangling teams out of the contest after building an early lead. To date, they’ve led on six occasions after 20 minutes, for six wins.

The Tigers aren’t as dependable, winning five times after leading after the first quarter on seven occasions.

A tough game to pick, but should you opt for the Dragons you won’t lose too much ground in your tipping comp should the Tigers prevail.

The last word: if you’re thinking of having a flutter consider plonking some cash on a field goal being kicked – the Wests Tigers have five for the year while Jamie Soward has kicked three for the Dragons.

Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Jason Robinson; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.