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Broncos v Dragons
Suncorp Stadium
Sunday 3pm

Some chequered form will have both sides eyeing the prize in this blockbuster, with the Broncos hoping to right their ship and push hard into the top eight. Meanwhile the Dragons need a confidence boost to show they aren’t about to walk down the same perilous path that saw them firing blanks approaching the corresponding period last year.

Ivan Henjak’s Broncos have lost three of their past five and enter this game in ninth place on the ladder. They share the same number of competition points as the Rabbitohs (22) but have an inferior points differential. With the Eels also on 22 points, a loss would almost certainly snuff out their chance of securing a home semi-final through a top-four finish.

Last week they gifted the Roosters a 22-point lead with 30 minutes to play; they almost snatched that one out of the fire, rallying to seize the lead with 12 to play before succumbing to Shaun Kenny-Dowall’s fourth try inside the final 10.

The Dragons have lost two of their past three – but other results have been kind to them over the period and, incredibly, they maintain a four-point buffer at the top of the competition. But all that could change over the coming weeks, with the Red V staring arguably the toughest run home. After the Broncos they face the Roosters (a), Sea Eagles (h), Raiders (a), Knights (a) and Rabbitohs (h). Only one, or perhaps two, of those games look to be “locks”.

Last year the Dragons won just three of their last six games – if they match that in 2010 it will mean a return of just four wins from their final nine games. That’s an ugly statistic, so you can bet coach Wayne Bennett will have his side up for this one.

The Broncos have just the one change from their starting line-up from last week, with Ben Te’o (broken foot) replaced by Matt Gillett, with Scott Anderson joining an extended bench that includes former Dragons Lagi Setu and Ashton Sims.

The Dragons, who field an unchanged outfit from last week, will be happy to get away from playing at night for a change – they’ve won 11 of their past 14 day games, while Matt Cooper – denied a four-pointer by the video ref last week – still needs one more try for 100 in his career.

Watch out Broncos: The Dragons wingers Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale worry oppositions and the scoreboard more than any other side’s wing men. Combined, they’ve crossed for 26 tries (of the side’s 66), with Morris sitting third on the try-scorer’s list with 15.

But it’s not just close to the try line they shine – Morris is ranked second for line-breaks (16) and Nightingale 13th (12).

A bunch of those busts have come from Darius Boyd; the fullback ranks 6th for line-break assists (13). Scott Prince’s long-kicking game helped nullify his impact last week, and Peter Wallace and Darren Lockyer would do well to follow that example to give their side a great chance of applying pressure from close range, as well as shutting down Boyd’s options with the ball.

Watch out Dragons: “Izzy on the inside” is proving the Broncos’ pet play – late in the tackle count, on the right side of the field, Darren Lockyer will get the ball at second receiver and then throw a short pass to Folau to steam through the mid-ruck area.

Folau scored from the move last week and breached the Roosters’ try line a second time, with Nick Kenny grounding for a controversial try after the ball was stripped from the centre’s grasp by a trio of Roosters’ defenders.

Given the Dragons’ shaky defence from close range (see below), it’s a play that may again yield points.

Sam Thaiday will also need to be monitored. He’s in career-best form, as evidenced by his 153 metres and 36 tackles last week.

But Corey Parker is the Broncos’ linchpin, both in attack and defence. Similarly in the form of his life, Parker ranks fourth in the NRL for hit-ups (284) and 19th for tackles made (537). Last week he made 184 metres and 27 tackles – but it was his three offloads that promoted good second phase that really caught the eye.

Where it will be won: Defence, especially close to the line.

The worrying sign for Wayne Bennett is that the Dragons are proving particularly brittle inside 10 metres. While they’ve only conceded 33 tries in 2010, more than half of them (17) have come from this close range.

In their past three games against the Panthers, Rabbitohs and Titans they’ve conceded six tries – and five of them have been with “nothin’ doing”. Wade Graham waltzed through paper-thin defence to score for the Panthers; Roy Asotasi did the same for the Bunnies after being fed a pass from dummy-half and John Sutton scored from a flat-footed start inside the 10; and last week Anthony Laffranchi embarrassed them in just the third minute with a one-out effort.

It’s becoming clear to other NRL coaches that the way to beat the Dragons is to execute a good long-kicking game, peg them downtown and then chip away at their front line.

Last week Broncos’ hooker Andrew McCullough scored against the Roosters with a dummy and a dash from dummy-half – it could pay dividends against the Dragons too.

Conversely, although the Broncos have stiffened slightly in the past month, their 678 missed tackles for the year are the most in the NRL; the Dragons have missed the fewest (466).

The history: Played 24; Dragons 13, Broncos 11. The Dragons have won six of the past eight – although the home side have won two of the past three.

At Suncorp Stadium the Dragons hold a 6-2 advantage.

Conclusion: A walkover win by the Broncos would surprise, but not a hard-fought, tight victory.

If it’s a close contest, the home side has the edge in the goal-kicking department, with Corey Parker booting at 83 per cent compared to Jamie Soward’s 71 per cent – which ranks him third worst of recognised kickers.

Over the past couple of months the Dragons really haven’t shown much in attack to suggest they will worry too many defences, but that fact alone makes us wary that they could be due for a breakout exhibition.

Mark Gasnier has been quiet in his three games back; while we’re not predicting a man-of-the-match performance, it’s certainly time he started to show something, even if it’s just a line-break or a few good offloads.

Missed tackles could be the telling factor, which makes us lean to the Dragons.

Match officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Adam Devcich; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – delayed 6pm.
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