Warriors v Dragons
Mt Smart Stadium
Sunday 2pm (NZ time)
Are the Warriors, previously thought to be serious title contenders in 2011, in reality just a smoke-and-mirrors outfit? And with a scrappy win over the Titans and a crunching loss to the lowly rated Sharks, are the Dragons a shadow of their 2010 premiership-winning team?
What’s certain is that one of these sides gets the chance to notch a morale-boosting win, while the other will be consigned to some serious soul-searching should they lose.
Both teams have sketchy form lines. The Warriors were monstered by the Eels at home in Round 1, although they surged late to make things respectable with a 24-18 losing score line. Last week they matched motors with the Wests Tigers in the first half, heading to the sheds locked at 6-all, but ultimately their 41 missed tackles in the second stanza told the story as they slumped to a 20-12 loss.
On the plus side, James Maloney returns from his one-week suspension, with Isaac John making room for him at pivot. The rest of the Warriors’ squad remains intact, although promising 21-year-old utility Elijah Taylor joins the extended 18-man bench.
The Dragons won easily enough against the Titans in Round 1, although coach Wayne Bennett would have been concerned at the two late tries they conceded that saw the score line blow out to 25-16. He’d also be a tad concerned given the Titans then were blown off the park by the Storm in week two – while his side were never in the contest against the Sharks at Toyota Stadium last Monday night.
More worrying for them is the loss of prop Michael Weyman, who irritated an existing groin complaint that saw him go under the knife in the off-season, and the loss of forceful second-rower Beau Scott to suspension after his unnecessary contact (chicken wing) charge from Monday night’s game.
Former Wests Tiger David Gower has been named to make his Dragons debut at prop for Weyman, with Bennett likely to elevate Nick Emmett to the starting squad for Scott. Kyle Stanley, who scored a good try when a late inclusion last week, looks certain to get more game time as their second ruck dictator behind Nathan Fien.
Lance Hohaia and Jerome Ropati will have added incentive to cross the stripe at Mt Smart – both sit on 49 NRL tries heading into this clash.
Watch Out Warriors: The home side could be a little vulnerable out wide, where replacement wing pairing Kevin Locke and Krisnan Inu have been ineffective in defence a worrying 65 per cent and 70 per cent respectively. Add to that the fact fullback Lance Hohaia has missed 25 per cent of the tackles he’s attempted and their last line of defence looks a little brittle.
While the Dragons will miss Michael Weyman, fellow bookend Trent Merrin’s early season form is encouraging – last week he was easily their best, making 18 runs for 141 metres, with 35 tackles, three tackle-breaks and two offloads in New Zealand-like conditions. He needs to be contained.
Danger Sign: Expect Dragons No.6 Jamie Soward to pepper the flanks with well-directed attacking kicks, both in the air and behind the line. Soward has four try assists so far.
Watch Out Dragons: Last season the Dragons were a formidable attacking outfit. They averaged 3.7 tries a game. They made five line-breaks a game (4th in the NRL) and provided the third most tackle busts (38.7). There are worrying signs early for Wayne Bennett – they’ve made the fifth-fewest tackle-breaks (55) and rank rock bottom for line-breaks, with just three through two rounds (and none against Cronulla). Brett Morris – second in the category in 2010 – hasn’t punctured the opposition once. Ditto Mark Gasnier (just a 54-metre territory gain) and Churchill Medal winner Darius Boyd.
Flair took the Dragons a long way last season. It could well be that opposition coaches have worked hard over the off-season, coming up with the solution to counter the premiers. In any event, Gasnier, Morris, Cooper and Boyd need to get more involved and build some confidence in their abilities to beat their man. Any more substandard efforts and their self-belief may start to wane.
Danger Sign: If the Warriors are able to take a leaf out of the Sharks’ book and make the Dragons’ attackers prop and hesitate as they meet them at the defensive line, they’ll minimise the impact of the wide-running Red V players.
Plays To Watch: Short attacking kicks from James Maloney; Feleti Mateo’s offloads; Krisnan Inu’s unpredictability; Shaun Berrigan getting busy when he hits the paddock; Simon Mannering’s involvement (27 tackles, two tackle-breaks, a line-break and try last week); Ben Creagh running plenty of decoy supports and occasionally getting the ball himself out wide to the left; Brett Morris looking for long breaks out wide; Kyle Stanley taking on the line himself – coaches haven’t worked this talent out as yet and are focused on the other big-name Dragons so expect him to provide plenty of impact for the Dragons.
Where It Will Be Won: The side that manages the football best will win. By that we mean errors and completions. There’s not much between the two sides to date – the Warriors have a 73.5 per cent completion rate and are averaging 12.5 errors, while the Dragons are completing at 72 per cent, with 12 errors a game.
Missed tackles are a different story – the Warriors re averaging a shocking 35.5 misses to the Dragons’ respectable 17.
One of these sides will pull away with a much better completion rate, and they’ll get the competition points.
The History: Played 16; Dragons 12, Warriors 4. The Dragons have won seven of the past eight, with the Warriors’ sole victory in that time a 44-16 thumping at Mt Smart in 2007. The Warriors were unlucky not to win last time out, succumbing 22-20 last year after appearing to have to Dragons on the ropes throughout the game. The record in Auckland is 5-3 to the Dragons.
Conclusion: The Warriors’ record against the Dragons is a lot better than it appears on paper. In fact, although the Dragons have won eight of their past nine games against the Kiwis, four of them have been by the margin of a converted try or less.
Unfortunately their reliance on Manu Vatuvei continues – they’ve won just one of their past 12 games without him on the field. That could be the telling statistic here. The Dragons in a close one.
Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Henry Perenara; Video Ref – Chris Ward.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 12pm (NSW time).
* Statistics: NRL Stats.