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Dragons v Sea Eagles
WIN Jubilee Oval
Sunday 4pm

After decades of heartbreak and a recent history of disappointing campaigns, could the planets finally be aligning for a St George Illawarra premiership?

You can guarantee all in the Red V camp breathed a little sigh of relief when the Bulldogs got up against the Sea Eagles last week, thus elevating the Dragons’ bogey team, the Raiders, to seventh place and a date with the Panthers in Week One of the finals.

That also meant the Dragons would face-off against the Sea Eagles once they accounted for the Rabbitohs.

The sighs turned to gasps of delight when Manly centre Steve Matai and prop Jason King whacked opponents around the chops to earn suspensions this week.

The Dragons came through their 38-24 win over the Rabbitohs unscathed – plus they get back a bunch of players this week after Jamie Soward, halfback and captain Ben Hornby, lock Jeremy Smith and hooker Dean Young were given breathers.

Consequently, their eight-man bench boasts Nathan Fien, Trent Merrin, Matt Prior, Jarrod Saffy, Nick Emmett, Kyle Stanley (so impressive in the No.6 last week), Jon Green and Luke Priddis.

Meanwhile, the Sea Eagles are reeling from the events of the past few weeks that have seen Matai and back-rower Glenn Stewart suspended for the rest of the season, King out for this game and Shane Rodney sidelined with injury until 2011.

Fullback Ben Farrar takes Matai’s place at centre, with boom rookie William Hopoate thrown in at the deep end to play finals footy in just his fourth game in the NRL.

Of their wounded, skipper Jamie Lyon is struggling with an ankle injury, Anthony Watmough has a recurring ankle injury, hooker Matt Ballin was concussed against the Bulldogs, prop Brent Kite has a collarbone knock, Joe Galuvao has a groin injury and Farrar has a niggling shoulder injury.

Also, early reports were that five-eighth Kieran Foran (shoulder) was out for the season. But Foran and all the injured players have been named to play. How many of them actually take the field remains to be seen.

So much for coach Des Hasler’s preferred preparation of “flying under the radar” – they’re a big blip on the screen, but for all the wrong reasons.

Watch out Dragons: It would be too much to ask skipper and Dally M Centre of the Year Jamie Lyon to carry his side on his own.

He’ll need assistance, and it will have to come from back-rower Anthony Watmough and winger Tony ‘T-Rex’ Williams.

Watmough has been playing “busted” for a while now – but even carrying injuries he’s still capable of a killer game. And last week he still managed 19 runs for 129 metres (he’s been their leading metre-eater all year, averaging 112 a game), plus four tackle-breaks and a line-break and 22 tackles in the full 80 minutes.

Williams, who scored three times in Manly’s 24-6 win over the Dragons in Round 9 at Brookvale, has been a wrecking ball on the left wing and will test out his smaller opposite Jason Nightingale (33 missed tackles for 79 per cent effectiveness).

Williams leads the Sea Eagles for line-breaks (16), tries (16) and tackle breaks (128) – each effort placing him in the top 15 in the NRL.

Going to the air could be a sensible option, and mixing up the depth of cross-field bombs could yield points – as it did in Round 23 when a kick directed at Dragons centre Matt Cooper was knocked back for Williams to scoop up and score.

Plus, Nightingale conceded two tries in three minutes to the Knights a fortnight ago; doubt must still be playing on his mind.

Watch out Sea Eagles: With punishing left-side centre Steve Matai suspended, you can guarantee Mark Gasnier will feel a lot more comfortable about running the ball. That’s not to say Gasnier would be reluctant to get his hands on the pill if Matai were playing, but the last thing you want in your comeback season is to be put out of action by a rash or careless hit (which is unfortunately a feature of Matai’s game).

But squaring off against Ben Farrar (who has a team-low 52.8 per cent tackle effectiveness with 38 tackles made and 28 missed!) should see Gasnier improve on his current figures of just two line-breaks, two try assists, three line-break assists and three tries, plus an average 99 metres, in nine games. In fact, he could double his season line-breaks and try assists in this one game…

Lack of space stops us listing all of the Dragons’ strengths but Ben Creagh rates a special mention, especially after his try hat-trick last week. Creagh is particularly tough to stop from close range, even when defenders get into good position to make the tackle. This is because he leans forward into the defensive line, with a low centre of gravity, enabling him to poke his nose through and extend his arms, Inspector Gadget-style, to reach the try line. The Sea Eagles need to bottle him up in numbers, while stopping the offload (he has 19 for the year).

Where it will be won: For the Sea Eagles, it boils down to passion and coaching nous. For the Dragons, it’s about pride in performance and discipline.

This really is the last roll of the dice for the Sea Eagles. If they’re to post an unlikely win it needs to come on the back of a blitzkrieg of points early in the game. Their best chance will be to minimise errors, complete their sets and take all of their chances when inside the Dragons’ 10-metre zone.

St George Illawarra have been the benchmark defensive side (just 12.5 points against per game), but they are still susceptible from close range, having conceded exactly half their 52 tries against from inside the 10. Coach Hasler just needs to ram home the message of playing the game up the other end of the park at all costs.

While the Dragons are long odds to lose this game, the reality is they simply can’t afford to, even though they would get a second bite at the premiership. They’re a confidence side, and a loss would burst their balloon.

Coach Wayne Bennett will be looking for plenty of points again after a good yield against the Rabbitohs. Significantly, that was done without the usual halves pairing, which gives him a good fallback position later in the finals should they lapse into their “pointless” ways of late last year and the middle of this season.

The history: Played 16; Dragons 11, Sea Eagles 5. The Dragons have won five of the past eight games, including a 32-10 win in Round 23. That game was at Kogarah – where the Dragons hold a 3-nil advantage. The Sea Eagles beat the Red V 24-6 at Brookvale in Round 9.

Conclusion: We won’t ramble on with maybes or what ifs. The Dragons to win. Comfortably.

Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Jason Robinson; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 4pm.
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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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