Grand Final Preview: Dragons v Roosters

Dragons v Roosters
ANZ Stadium
Sunday 5.15pm

The first all-Sydney NRL grand final in six years promises to deliver one of the closest-fought, most exciting deciders in recent memory.

Both the minor premier Dragons and Roosters camps are mostly fit, firing and raring to go. The Red V have smashed their tri-colour opponents almost exclusively over the past five years – but that will count for nought given the pressure cooker atmosphere at ANZ Stadium come dusk on Sunday.

The dour Dragons have plodded out four consecutive wins, their latest when fending off the brave Tigers last Saturday. Their victory and ascension to the decider was sealed only on the back of a Jamie Soward field goal seven minutes from time.

Roosters fans may still be pinching themselves, given their side’s miraculous escape over the Tigers in the sudden-death semi-final in Week One of the playoffs, delivered courtesy of a Shaun Kenny-Dowall 65-metre intercept try against the run of play in the 100th minute.

Dominant subsequent wins over the Panthers and Titans see them closing the gap for favouritism over the Dragons here.

But this grand final throws up so much more than just 34 combatants and two of the three most experienced coaches in the NRL. It also lays down myriad subplots and ironies that will ensure a fairytale ending for at least a few of the participants.

They include: Roosters coach Brian Smith gunning for his first premiership after three failed attempts – two with the Dragons in 1992-93 against the Wayne Bennett-guided Broncos and the other with the Eels in 2001; the Roosters aiming to become the first wooden spooners to win the following year since Wests in 1933-34; Todd Carney striving for a premiership ring in his first year back in the NRL after an incident-forced rehabilitation hiatus; Mark Gasnier aiming for the same prize after 18 months off the scene with French rugby union; Mitch and James Aubusson hoping to join an elite club of brothers to win a grand final; Wayne Bennett eyeing his seventh pennant after six with the Broncos; the Dragons desperate to avenge their forefathers for the 38-nil thrashing at the hands of the Roosters in their last grand final match-up in 1975; Jason Ryles out to best his former Dragons team-mates and notch the ultimate prize; Dean Young and Brett Morris hoping to emulate their dads Craig and Steve, who played in the last St George premiership win in 1979; and Mitchell Pearce trying to go one better than his dad Wayne who was runner-up in 1988-89.

Injuries have been kind to both sides. The Roosters lost back-rower Anthony Cherrington before the season even started but their playing roster is otherwise unaffected. The Dragons lost winger Peni Tagive and prop Dan Hunt early on but crucially managed to get back Nathan Fien for their remaining games after his recovery from a broken ankle in Round 1.

The Roosters remain intact from last game, while the Dragons will give bench prop Jarrod Saffy until the last moment to prove his fitness after missing last week with a quadriceps strain.

Watch out Dragons: We could sit here and run the stats numbers for both teams’ players for you all day, but nothing speaks louder than actions. With that in mind, let’s scrutinise what occurred when these teams met in Round 7 and Round 22...

There wasn’t much between them in the first half in Round 7. The Dragons led 4-0 with just seconds left – but then Mitchell Aubusson crossed in the right corner after Dragons winger Brett Morris was targeted by a pinpoint Mitchell Pearce kick. Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Sam Perrett converged on Morris, Perrett batted back the ball and Aubusson cleaned up the spoils.

In Round 22 Anthony Minichiello hurt the Dragons early with a benefit-of-the-doubt try under the posts. While the fullback was lucky to bag the spoils of a last pass that bounced forward off his knees for a simple grounding, the lead-up work was telling – it involved a Pearce drift across in front of posts, picking up a straight-running Frank-Paul Nuuausala on the inside who then passed to Minichiello inside again as he was falling.

Then Todd Carney dragged his side back into the contest with a drifting burst, looping behind Minichiello on the run-around before pushing through Morris to score.

It didn’t result in points, but a first-tackle Roosters shift to the right flank late in the game saw Kenny-Dowall explode into space; it was only a final pass that went to ground that prevented a miracle try and likely Roosters win.

Examining all of the above, let’s also throw in the two tries the Knights scored from kicks to Jason Nightingale’s left flank in the space of two minutes in the Dragons’ 26-18 win in Round 25. It really rattled the Dragons, who saw their comfortable lead evaporate to 22-18.

So… the key areas of vulnerability are Morris and Nightingale, who look dodgy under kicks – but not necessarily high ones, that give their team-mates time to run interference. Less height, a charging kick-chase… it may end up a bit of a lottery but if the Roosters can post points this way it will definitely rock the Red V. They are a confidence side and anything that doesn’t go according to script will not compute with their analytical approach to games.

Drifting plays also set the Dragons in two minds; they are a committed, well-drilled defence when players run at them. But add the element of uncertainty and they can make poor reads.

The confidence boost the Roosters will have taken from their Round 22 defeat is that this game was in the balance at 13-12 with less than five minutes remaining – when it really should not have been. The Dragons were all over the Roosters in every stats category except points scored – they trailed completions 56 per cent to 74 per cent, metres made (1049m to 1561m), errors (18 to nine) and missed tackles (44 to just 21).

Bridge the gap on those numbers and it will be game on!

Watch out Roosters: In Round 7, Matt Cooper exploited a poor defensive read by Kenny-Dowall and Perrett, gifting Brett Morris clear running from a scrum close to the Roosters line on the left edge. It showed a lack of trust and communication that the Roosters duo have largely remedied, but don’t be surprised if Cooper takes on the line more than he has in recent games.

In the same game Trent Merrin embarrassed four line defenders to muscle over from close range; Cooper scored off a left-side sweep variation, regathering a Darius Boyd grubber through the line; a Ben Hornby drift picked up Ben Creagh on the angle, with hooker Luke Priddis supporting close to the line; and Cooper was awarded a penalty try for a Kenny-Dowall pull-back after a Morris break down the left flank from over halfway.

In Round 22, a shift down the right side from close range yielded a try for Nightingale after a beautiful last pass from Mark Gasnier; Ben Creagh exploited a tired sliding Roosters defence midway through the second half, cracking them open near halfway to romp away; and Dean Young dashed over from dummy-half just a few metres out.

Key indicators here are that the Dragons scored three pretty much trademark left-side tries, while also showing some attacking versatility from close range and with inside balls.

But… big games call for big involvement from big names. And for the Dragons to guarantee their best chance at the title Mark Gasnier will need to improve his numbers. He had arguably his best game back in the Red V in Round 22, running 123 metres, offering a try assist and making 17 tackles. Here he marks up against 21-year-old Kane Linnet (a Dragons reject, no less!), who is playing just his 13th first grade game. You’d expect Gasnier to probe away at his opposite more than occasionally.  

Where it will be won: Attack, and whoever defends their weaknesses the best.

Since the midpoint of the season after Round 13, the Dragons have conceded the fewest points per game (12.9). Their opponents are the second tightest, conceding 16.1 a game. But the Roosters outscored the rest of the competition from that time, with a whopping 25.7 points per game.

The Dragons have conceded 12 points before halftime just once this year – and that came last week against the Tigers, when they were still good enough to recover.

They are the masters of patience – in their Round 7 win the Dragons trailed the Roosters 6-4 at the break before roaring away to win 29-6. In Round 22 the Roosters again held a narrow lead (6-4) but still fell 19-12.

Incredibly, 30 of the players who will take the field have yet to play in a grand final.

For the Dragons, Darius Boyd experienced the cauldron when winning with the Broncos in 2006, while Jeremy Smith bagged a (now disallowed) title with the Storm in 2007.

For the Roosters, Braith Anasta saluted with the Bulldogs in 2004 while Anthony Minichiello tasted success with the Roosters once in four appearances (2002).

Composure is worth points, and experience breeds composure.

Also, fatigue is likely to prove the Roosters’ biggest enemy, so expect Jamie Soward to keep turning the Roosters’ forwards around as the Red V plays the game back down the other end of the park.

The history: Played 23; Dragons 14, Roosters 8, drawn 1. The Dragons have won eight of the past nine games between the sides, including a comfortable 28-6 win at the SFS in Round 7 and a nail-biting 19-12 win at the SCG in Round 22.

The last time that sides with these jerseys clashed in a grand final was 35 years ago in the 1975 decider when the Roosters whitewashed their opponents 38-0.

Conclusion: Season trends suggest the score after the first 40 minutes will provide a great barometer to the outcome. The Dragons have never trailed by more than six points at the break and haven’t conceded more than 12 points in a first half, and that figure only once (last week). So if the Roosters capitalise on their lethal attack and rattle the Red V early, and can get up by two tries at the break, we’re prepared to say they’ll have one hand on the prize.

But if the Dragons play to their match plan and strangle their opponents through Jamie Soward’s long-kicking game, a dominant completion rate (they are at 78 per cent to the Roosters’ 72 per cent), low error rate and they force the tri-colours into attacking from long range, the Dragons will win.

It will be an absorbing contest. For all the hunches about the Roosters having more firepower and momentum at this stage of the season, it wouldn’t surprise us if this was the breakout game of the season for the Dragons, and they won with something in hand.

Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jeff Younis; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage of first grade from 4.30pm.  Fox Sports – check guides.