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Dragons v Panthers
WIN Jubilee Stadium
Monday 7pm

Origin, suspension and injury rob this top-of-the-table clash of some of its lustre, leaving fans with a long wait until September before they’ll be able to get a true gauge on the merits of the two competition hotshots squaring off – but that doesn’t mean Monday night’s game won’t be an absorbing contest.

For a start, Gaz is back! Yep, after 661 days in the rugby union wilderness, Mark Gasnier returns to the NRL in jersey no.20 on an extended Dragons bench.

Will he get any game time? You bet – we reckon 30 minutes at least, given the lack of availability of other Dragons.

Both sides have lost four key personnel to Origin III. The home-side Dragons lose Brett Morris and Beau Scott to Blues duty, while Darius Boyd and Neville Costigan will suit up for the Maroons.

Michael Weyman is out for a month for the Dragons as a result of his spear tackle on Wade McKinnon last week, while on the injury-front the Dragons remain without centre Matt Cooper.

Meanwhile the Panthers will be without captain and driving force Petero Civoniceva (Maroons), plus Luke Lewis, Michael Gordon and Michael Jennings.

Both sides receive a boost of sorts with Ben Creagh and Trent Waterhouse bumped from the Origin scene (Waterhouse will captain the Panthers).

But the biggest whammy will be felt by the visitors, with in-form playmaker Luke Walsh out with a hamstring strain… although sources close to suggest this could be a bit of a Matthew Elliott red herring, with the no.7 expected to take his place either in the run-on side or on the bench.

The squad reshuffles read this way:

For the Dragons, Jason Nightingale switches from wing to fullback, with Toyota Cup star Kalifa Fai-Fai Loa filling in for the Kiwi and Michael Lett substituting on Morris’ wing. Last week’s man of the match Matt Prior shifts from the pack to assume Scott’s centre spot, Ricky Thorby takes his spot at prop and Jon Green fills in for Weyman. Jeremy Smith starts in the second row for Costigan, while Michael Greenfield, Jake Marketo and Gasnier comprise an extended bench.

For the Panthers, David Simmons takes Gordon’s wing spot, while Brad Tighe switches from wing to centre. Sandor Earl makes his club debut on the other wing.

Travis Burns has been named at pivot, pushing Wade Graham into the no.7, while Nathan Smith will start for Lewis at lock. Joseph Paulo and Sam McKendry join the extended bench.

A lot depends on the outcome of this game – if the Panthers spring an upset, they’ll join the Dragons at the top of the ladder on 26 competition points, four points clear of the chasers. But if the Red V win they’ll skip four competition points clear of the Panthers in the race for the Minor premiership – with a crucial bye in hand next week.

Watch out Dragons:
The Panthers will lean heavily on mighty-mouse fullback Lachlan Coote, who is proving hard to stop around the ground – and in the air. He is the competition’s leading tryscorer and significantly, he leads the NRL this season for tries scored at away venues (eight).

Jamie Soward (most long kicks, with 52 per cent accuracy to open space) will need to aim his boot away from Coote, as he leads the NRL for kick-returns with 93 runs for a 1080-metre gain (17 runs more than next best Jarryd Hayne). Plus, Coote is averaging 131 metres a game.

Expect Soward to target the inexperienced Simmons and Earl instead.

Watch out Panthers: Oh dear. Panthers fans had better hope Luke Walsh does take the field, or points could be scarce for the Mountain Men – Walsh kicks have resulted in a whopping 23 tries for the Panthers in 2010. And with Jennings (10 tries) and Gordon (seven tries) also missing, that’s a huge chunk of their 68 tries scored.

But the really big danger looms in the form of Gasnier, who will presumably play at right centre off the bench. That will really test out Tighe and Simmons.

In his last season in the NRL in 2008, Gasnier made 11 line-breaks and nine line-break assists, and averaged 15 runs for 136 metres. He also was a prolific offloader (25). If he’s even 75 per cent fit he’ll deliver some razzle dazzle at some point in the game.

Where it will be won: The Dragons will look to exploit the Panthers’ inexperienced backs and score points out wide, while the Panthers’ hopes rest in their ability to dominate up front.

The Dragons have held their own in the engine room when missing stars to date, but the Panthers may be a whole new challenge. Certainly Tim Grant, Frank Pritchard and Trent Waterhouse will need to punch holes in the Red V defence if they’re a chance of victory.

Attitude will be all-important. Waterhouse, with the ‘C’ next to his name, will have a point to prove having been dumped from Origin – as will Creagh for the Dragons.

The history: Played 21; Dragons 15, Panthers 6. The Dragons have won seven of the past eight clashes between the sides. The Panthers haven’t beaten the Dragons since their 13-12 victory at WIN Stadium in 2006.

More worryingly, the Panthers have only ever won two matches at WIN Jubilee Oval – from 25 attempts!

Conclusion: The Panthers ripped the Sea Eagles to shreds last week, with Jennings scoring a hat-trick. But with a depleted squad it will be a different story against the Dragons. Unless they are truly burned by the Dragons, not too much should be taken out of a Panthers loss.

Conversely, although they too are under-strength, a loss would be cause for some concern for Wayne Bennett.

On paper, with Luke Walsh out and a likely lack of cohesion between Burns and Graham in the halves, the Dragons look the best bets of the shortened round.

Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Grant Atkins & Daniel Eastwood; Video Ref – Chris Ward.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.
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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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