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Roosters v Dragons
Sydney Cricket Ground
Sunday 3pm

It’s all blue sky for Brian Smith’s Roosters at the moment. They’ve shaken off the funk that saw them lose five from seven through the second quarter of the season and have now strung together five impressive wins, none more so than their 48-12 demolition of the Eels at Parramatta Stadium last round.

But Wayne Bennett? Every morning when he pulls back the curtains he sees nothing but overcast skies, drizzle and showers. After this game the forecast will change, either to heavy rain… or skies clearing. But which will it be?

Incredibly, a win by the Roosters and other results falling their way would see them push to equal first on the ladder, just relegated from the top spot by the Dragons’ superior points differential.

They have been devastating in wins over the Raiders, Rabbitohs, Bulldogs, Broncos and Eels. After this round they’re left with a draw that sees them oppose the Sharks (away), Titans (home), Sea Eagles (home) and Cowboys (away); obviously their minor premiership aspirations go on the line this week.  

The only change to their line-up sees Daniel Conn rejoin the bench, with Mose Masoe not named.

Likewise, this game is paramount to the Dragons’ chances of securing a second successive minor premiership. After this week they play the Sea Eagles (home), Raiders (away), Knights (away) and Rabbitohs (home). As we’ve seen from results in recent weeks, none of these games is what you’d call a “lock”.

Coach Wayne Bennett has tinkered with his pack this week. For starters, NSW Origin prop Michael Weyman returns after a four-week suspension; he’s partnered up front by Neville Costigan who shifts from the second row.

Luke Priddis has been named on the bench, with Dean Young back from injury to start at hooker.

Having started at lock last week to cover for Young, Beau Scott shifts to the second row, swapping jerseys with Jeremy Smith. Trent Merrin joins the extended bench.

Mark Gasnier started at centre last week in jersey no.19; this week he’s been named to start in his preferred no.3 jersey.

It’s a big game for Wayne Bennett, who celebrates 600 games as a head coach with his first ever game at the SCG.

Also, Dragons skipper Ben Hornby will notch up a minimum 20 appearances from eight of his past nine seasons.

Watch out Roosters:
The Dragons’ past month has been so quiet on the point-scoring front that they may be about to explode.

They’re certainly capable; prior to Round 17 they were averaging 23 points a game, which ranked them third in the comp. Also, they were fourth for tries scored, averaging four a game.

In their past four games those numbers have slumped – they’re now last in the NRL in each stat, with just 10 points scored a game and two tries on average. That’s an incredible turnaround for a side that’s still first on the ladder. And that’s the measure of how well the Dragons have been up to this point – despite their problems they are still setting the pace.

While Brian Smith will have looked at video of his opposition’s past four games to see how the Panthers, Rabbitohs (even though they lost), Titans and Broncos managed the Dragons’ lethal left-side attack, he’d also do well to hatch a plan to defuse attacking grubber kicks, such as the one Ben Hornby delivered against the Broncos that resulted in a long-range try to Brett Morris. Currently the Roosters are the fourth-worst side at defusing grubbers (73 per cent).

Watch out Dragons: The Roosters have struck key combinations that are rock solid.

Former Test fullback Anthony Minichiello is back in top form in the no.1; as well as a devastating running game (62 broken tackles, 292 runs) he’s adding a new dimension as a playmaker (four try assists).

Todd Carney is the form five-eighth in the comp (15 line-break assists ranks him 4th in the NRL); Mitchell Pearce is devious and punishing at halfback (12 line-break assists, 12 try assists); Lock Braith Anasta is relishing taking a back seat (12 try assists); and Jake Friend has found a home at hooker, providing good service and dictating with authority.

But perhaps the biggest beneficial change has been that the Roosters have finally found a solid centre pairing. As Big League magazine reports this week, Shaun Kenny-Dowall and rookie Kane Linnett have played just six games together – but already that is the fifth-most games of 16 different pairings they have fielded since the beginning of 2008.

Two weeks ago Kenny-Dowall (14 line-breaks) scored four tries against the Broncos; last week Linnett scored and also showed incredible skill and maturity to set up a 90-metre breakaway try for Phil Graham.

Importantly, it’s enabled coach Smith to shift Mitchell Aubusson back to the second row, where he’s become one of the most devastating fringe forwards in the comp (14 line-breaks, most by a forward).

Where it will be won:
Confidence. The Roosters have a cascade of it, having scored 14 tries in their past two games. The Dragons have barely a drip, with two tries over the same period.

You can bet the Roosters will turn up and throw the ball around from the word go, trusting their abilities to post points. The unknown factor is how the Dragons attempt to improve – do they stick with the no-nonsense formula that has gotten them this far? (And let’s face it, it’s not like they’ve been burned recently, losing by four, one and four points.) Or do they shake off the shackles and play upbeat, like we saw in the final 10 minutes last week when they needed to chase points?

They need to build confidence, so we suspect they’ll chase some points. And early.

The history: Played 22; Dragons 13, Roosters 8, drawn 1. The Dragons have won seven of the past eight games between the sides, including a dominant 28-6 win at the SFS in Round 7.

As a joint venture side, St George Illawarra hold a 1-0 advantage at the SCG – although the game marks 35 years since the 1975 Grand Final when the Roosters whitewashed their opponents 38-0.

Mark Gasnier is making less than seven metres a run since his return. His centre partner Matt Cooper is averaging eight metres. Those figures are simply not good enough when you consider the Roosters’ pairing of Kenny-Dowall and Linnett are making 124 a game each.

Flush with confidence, the Roosters have made the most line-breaks in the comp (104); more than half the Dragons’ 35 tries conceded have come from line-breaks. While they number only 19, up against a razzle dazzle outfit like the Roosters, the Red V could be in for a horror afternoon.

All the stats, recent trends… even gut feel… point to a Roosters victory. But the Dragons are the type of side that can come good overnight – and they’ll need to if they want to remain the 2010 premiership favourites.

Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Allan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Paul Holland; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.

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