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Dragons v Sea Eagles
WIN Jubilee Oval
Monday 7pm

Des Hasler has a chance to do all 2010 premiership aspirants a favour and slap the confidence out of the table-topping Dragons on their home turf. Such a win would have huge ramifications for this year’s title race.

For starters, a Sea Eagles victory could see them rise to third on the ladder, on the same number of competition points as second place but lagging slightly behind on points differential – while a loss could leave them as low as ninth (depending on other results) with three rounds to go.

But a Dragons loss would be their fourth in six outings (and their third in a row at Kogarah!); just when they appeared back on track in mastering the Roosters last week, it would have them again questioning their ability when it matters most.

The Sea Eagles were clinical in disposing of an out-of-sorts Melbourne side at Brookvale Oval last week, bouncing back after a pathetic shock loss to the Knights in Round 21. But the win came at a cost, with prop Josh Perry out for at least four games with a knee dislocation. That sees Brent Kite start at prop, with Matt Cross elevated to the bench.

William Hopoate has again been named at fullback, although whispers to suggest he may have a hamstring twinge that could see a backline reshuffle.

The Dragons silenced their critics in emphatic fashion against the Roosters last week, showing an intensity lacking from their previous month of football.

While Dean Young started the game hooker, the return of Nathan Fien added a new dimension to the Dragons’ attack. And Mark Gasnier showed some of his old spark – he looked confident in his surroundings, something he has not looked since his return to the NRL in Round 17.

Their side is intact from last week, although Luke Priddis, who didn’t play last week, has again been included on the bench in the 19-strong squad.

A telling stat: while the Dragons will be looking for their first victory at Kogarah since Round 16, the Sea Eagles haven’t won there since March 1997!

Watch out Dragons:
Good completions and low error counts have been the foundation stone of the Dragons’ year, but those facets of play haven’t guaranteed them points. So it’s worrying for them to discover that over the past month the Sea Eagles have been the benchmark side for recording the fewest errors (36) and the most line-breaks (24).

Last week every backline player standing outside five-eighth Kieran Foran registered a line-break – no mean feat against the Storm. Winger Tony Williams showed his strength to demolish Billy Slater one-on-one and this spells danger for Dragons’ left-side winger Brett Morris, who has let in two soft tries one-on-one from close range in the past two weeks, against the Broncos (Israel Folau) and Roosters (Todd Carney).

Also, the Dragons should not underestimate back-rower Shane Rodney, the only member of the Sea Eagles pack to not have played representative football. Last week Rodney was tireless, making 198 metres from 24 hit-ups – plus a line bust.

Watch out Sea Eagles: While Manly have been good at busting the line recently they have the job ahead of them to breach the Dragons’ defence. Prior to last week the Roosters had made the most line-breaks in the competition (104) but the Dragons bent them backwards all afternoon, allowing them through their defensive wall just twice.

Meanwhile the Dragons made six line-breaks, with the returning Michael Weyman bulldozing through in the second half and back-rower Ben Creagh notching two, including a 48-metre runaway try.

You could sense the confidence rippling through them at the SCG, and it showed on the stats sheet: Weyman made 135 metres in 42 minutes; Darius Boyd carried the ball back without concern for his physical well-being to tally 182 metres; and Creagh made 174 metres.

With the side making huge gains Ben Hornby was allowed to dictate terms one off the ruck – he again looms as a danger man.

Where it will be won: Defence. These sides are pretty close in the majority of stats categories but the glaring anomaly is their points conceded – the Dragons are letting in just 10 a game (to rank no.1 while the Sea Eagles leak double that number with 20 (incredibly that ranks them the fourth best).

The history: Played 15; Dragons 10, Sea Eagles 5. The Dragons have won five of the past eight games between the sides – although the Sea Eagles won the last encounter 24-6 (Round 9) at Brookvale Oval. The Dragons hold a 2-0 advantage at WIN Jubilee Oval. The sides haven’t met at Kogarah since 2007 when the home team scraped home 26-22.

Conclusion: The past three games between these sides has resulted in winning margins of 18, 30 and 32 points, so a blowout is entirely likely. But given the Dragons’ defence (just 511 missed tackles compared with the Sea Eagles 615) it’s unlikely they’ll succumb to a huge loss.

Watch for a fiery confrontation out wide as Sea Eagles enforcer Steve Matai looks to blunt Mark Gasnier out of the game. With Matai’s no-prisoners shoulder hits it’s unlikely the Dragons will be sending too many troops through the corridor between the midfield and sideline, lest they risk costly injuries, so expect plenty of lateral movement.

Perhaps the swaying argument is the fact that the Sea Eagles have allowed oppositions to make more metres against them than they have been able to carve out themselves (1326 metres to their 1320). That’s bad news given the Dragons lead the NRL for average territory made with 1406 metres every game.

It will be close at times but now the Dragons have their confidence back, don’t expect them to slip up with the finals around the corner.

Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Steve Chiddy; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.
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