Dragons v Rabbitohs Preview

Dragons v Rabbitohs
WIN Jubilee Oval
Sunday 7pm

While the Dragons are safe at the top of the NRL ladder, having secured their second successive minor premiership last week, they still have some destiny in their hands.

The Rabbitohs will enter this 192nd and final scheduled clash of the 2010 season on Sunday night fully aware of whether or not they are still alive in the finals race.

Here’s how it pans out: if the Broncos beat the Raiders, they’ll be alive. Similarly, if the Raiders beat the Broncos and the Bulldogs post an unlikely win over the Sea Eagles – they’ll be alive, though possibly needing to win this game by a minimum ten points to punt the Sea Eagles from the finals zone. (They need only seven more points to overtake last season’s 566 as their most points scored in a year.)

Whichever way the cards fall, the Dragons’ performance will likely affect who finishes in what positions at the foot of the top eight – and which team they will play next game in Week One of the finals.

Their close victory over the Knights last week was pleasing in that they showed skill and composure by racing to a 22-nil lead after 40 minutes in front of the Newcastle ‘Old Boys’ crowd.

Then, a shocking ref’s decision to award Adam MacDougall, followed by two quick speculator tries, saw them wobbling at just 22-18 up and with 30 minutes to play. From there they could have run up the white flag, but they didn’t. They held firm, repelled wave after wave of Knights attack and iced the win with a brilliant long-range try to Jamie Soward in the closing minutes.

Their roster is bolstered this week by the return of Beau Scott after a fortnight off with a hamstring twinge; his inclusion in the back row shifts Matt Prior to the bench. Coach Wayne Bennett has named an extended bench including back-up hookers Nathan Fien and Luke Priddis, Trent Merrin, Jarrod Saffy, Nick Emmett, Kyle Stanley and Jon Green.

Priddis announced his retirement during the week, so we predict he’ll probably get some game-time in what could be his last NRL appearance.

Also, some big cheers are expected for Mark Gasnier, who dons the red and white for the 150th time.

Meanwhile the Rabbitohs stayed alive last week after outlasting the Eels in what, it must be said, ranked as one of the worst games of the year. Nil-all at halftime… 17 errors between the sides after 40 minutes – enough said.

They lost lock Jason Clark last week, but get back Eddy Pettybourne, who slots into the back row with Michael Crocker shifting to lock. Dave Taylor is pencilled in to start the game, pushing Dave Tyrrell to the bench.

They had a scare mid-week when halfback Chris Sandow dislocated his finger in a training mishap, although reports are he’ll be fine to take his place.

Watch out Dragons:
The impact of Issac Luke (1790 receives, fifth in comp) and Dave Taylor needs to be nullified.

Luke’s runs from dummy-half (185, second most in the NRL and the most by a hooker) are particularly effective and he will catch out any tiring Dragons defenders around the ruck. His offloads to supports can see the Bunnies make big metres on any given set, even from inside their half.

Taylor was a little rusty in the first 40 last week but then unleashed four stunning offloads to stamp his attacking prowess. He’ll be a threat on the left edge, where Mark Gasnier and Jason Nightingale will need to make good defence calls.

The Dragons also need to be wary of lapses that lead to momentum shifts. They leaked 32 second-half points against the Raiders and 18 against the Knights last week in what could become a worrying trend heading into next week if it’s allowed to continue here.

Watch out Rabbitohs:
While it’s well documented the Dragons have a potent left-side attack, scoring exactly double the 21 tries they’ve notched on the right, expect Gasnier and Nightingale to see more action on the right edge.

Gasnier needs a confidence-boosting, banner game heading into the finals and he may just get it here – the Rabbitohs have leaked 60 of their 92 tries from the centre of the park to their left corner post. Consequently, watch the Gasnier show-and-go get a workout.

Where it will be won:
In open play and the edges. Luke’s darts (eight dummy-half line-breaks, most in comp) and Chris Sandow’s back-up play guarantee this will be played at a frantic pace, which means there should be plenty of opportunities for the likes of Ben Creagh, Brett Morris (20 line-breaks, second in the NRL)  and Dave Taylor on the edges.

The Rabbitohs also need to be careful of one of their own. There’s no doubting the aggression Sam Burgess brings to the side, especially in defence (team-high 51 dominant tackles), but the Englishman is prone to getting carried away and conceding silly penalties.

Burgess has conceded a team-high 10 penalties (out of the side’s total 136 – the most by any side). Most of these have involved working players over, or flops. He needs to be on his best behaviour.

The history: Played 15; Dragons 12, Rabbitohs 3. The Dragons have won six of the past eight games, although the Bunnies have won two of the past four, including a 41-6 spanking at ANZ Stadium in 2009.

The Dragons limped home 16-13 in Round 19 courtesy of a last-minute Gasnier try set up by Neville Costigan.

Conclusion: The Dragons need to watch their discipline – they have a shocking record under ref Ben Cummins, having won just three of 12 games (one game and one loss this year). Any lapses could gift the red-and-greens penalties, from which momentum flows.

Still, the Dragons should have too much focus and brilliance. They have their eyes on the prize and, judging by the way they overcame the rush of points and crowd support in Newcastle last week, they have the mettle to tough it out should that be required.

We’ll predict a 12+ margin to the home side.

Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Russell Turner; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.