Raiders v Dragons Preview

Raiders v Dragons
Canberra Stadium
Sunday 2pm

Any other team facing a do-or-die finals face-off would rush to put up their hands for an assignment easier than taking on the table-topping Dragons – but given the Green Machine’s record against St George Illawarra over the past decade, maybe it’s the Dragons who will have the pre-game jitters.

Incredibly the Dragons have won just one game since 2004 and have lost the past seven straight in the nation’s capital. But while that will give coach David Furner and his team great heart, they know they need to build on that record if they are to keep their 2010 title dream alive.

The Raiders have won five of their past six, including stirring wins over the Sea Eagles and Panthers, stumbling only to the Storm in Melbourne in Round 21. They got behind on the scoreboard early against the Bulldogs last week but looked snappy reeling in the 14-4 deficit before running away 28-14 winners.

Key to their recent successes has been consistency within their starting side; this week they suffer a minor hiccup with hooker Travis Waddell out injured but it paves the way for the starting recall of captain Alan Tongue.

Glenn Buttriss returns on the bench, joining an extended reserves list including Shaun Fensom, Dane Tilse, Scott Logan and Geoff Daniela.

After being stuck in a rut post-Origin, the Dragons’ season stocks soared dramatically in just eight days. First they climbed over the top of the much-rated Roosters at the SCG before they received a pointscoring boost with a 32-10 win over the Sea Eagles at Kogarah last Monday.

Given other Round 23 results, the win was particularly significant – it maintained their four-point buffer at the top of the minor premiership race and avoided any demoralising effect a third consecutive loss at WIN Jubilee might have had.

Captain Ben Hornby is back after being a late withdrawal with a virus last week. His spot at no.7 was capably filled by Nathan Fien, who has been named on an extended interchange bench along with Luke Priddis. Of course, it was Priddis who made the no.9 his own all season following Fien’s absence with a broken leg after Round 1, but who looks most likely to not participate for the rest of their campaign now the former Kiwi rep is back.

It’s a benchmark game for Dragons back-rower Ben Creagh, who suits up for his 150th game for the Red V.

Still, the Raiders hold bragging rights, having beaten the Dragons 22-14 in Round 11; both sides were under-strength due to Origin and injury but a win is still a win.

Watch out Raiders:
Now the Dragons have a taste for points, look out.

The worrying sign for Wayne Bennett since Round 17 has been the inability of his side to muster points, with their scoring averages dipping by 50 per cent in a four-game period. But they showed better intensity against the Roosters in Round 22 before last week blowing away the cobwebs and laying on some enterprising, free-flowing attack.

Jamie Soward returned to his best, showing more initiative and running the ball more (a line-break, a try, a try assist). Soward tends to play conservative and within his shell when he gets the sense the defence has him covered. But when he gets a sniff of disarray or defensive complacency – he’s off.

The Raiders need to compress their defence to ensure Soward doesn’t see any gaps out of the corner of his eye; this will also force him to step back into the big Canberra forwards, where he’s likely to go to ground with the ball.  Or else he’ll keep shifting wide (51 receives last week for just eight selective runs), in which case the Raiders have to slide effectively.

Elsewhere, Beau Scott is an under-rated threat. He’s in the best form of his career since shifting back to the second row and is relishing an increased, physical work rate. He was our man of the match last week (a team-high 16 hit-ups, 221 metres, 31 tackles).   

Watch out Dragons:
The young Raiders backline isn’t afraid of any opposition and loves to chance their arm whenever they can. Last week against the Bulldogs the team made a whopping 1510 metres, with their back three (Dugan 134, Vidot 144 and Monaghan 123) all hitting triple figures in metres gained, while centre Jarrod Croker carved out a team-high 170 metres.

Five-eighth Terry Campese will again be central to their chances, with his ability to feed supports and set up tries (two assists last week) crucial. Much will fall on Campo’s shoulders, especially given stats that show the Dragons have conceded 30 of their 39 tries inside 20 metres, with 18 coming inside 10 metres. While this is a high percentage it’s also a low number overall, showing how tough the Red V are to crack. So Campese (11 try assists, 12 line-break assists) will be primed to deliver.

The Dragons also need to be careful not to let Dugan and co turn defence into attack – the Raiders lead the comp on kick-return line-breaks (eight), while surprisingly the Dragons have tallied the most poor kick chases (28).

Where it will be won: Defending the unpredictable.

The Dragons have been a highly structured unit all season; consequently their recent struggles in attack might be put down to other sides working them out. But against the Sea Eagles they threw out some surprises; Soward dummied and scored a long-range solo try, Nathan Fien dummied and sliced straight through from close range, Beau Scott scored from some quick counter attack and Luke Priddis created a try for Michael Weyman.

Meanwhile the Raiders have one of the best ball-playing back-rowers in Bronson Harrison, whose 49 offloads ranks him 3rd NRL. Watch for Dugan and Campese to stick with him like a sucker fish on a shark.

Another risky play the Raiders like to employ is the short attacking kick; they’ve tallied 29 for the year (third most).
 
The history: Played 18; Raiders 11, Dragons 6, drawn 1. The Raiders have won seven of the past encounters, the sequence punctuated by a sole Dragons’ thrashing (56-16 in Wollongong in 2007).

The Raiders hold 7-2 advantage at Canberra Stadium.

Conclusion: Don’t expect the Raiders to fall into the trap of a grinding struggle in this game. They need to play to their strengths rather than try to stop the Dragons from playing to theirs. Consequently this game should end up a high-scoring affair.

But contrary to recent history, the Dragons should get one back on the Raiders here. They are injury-free, Mark Gasnier and Soward are working back to form, and they may even have the luxury of a surprise three-man dummy-half rotation (Dean Young, Fien and Priddis). They should prove too slick.

Match officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.