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Dragons v Bulldogs
Sydney Cricket Ground
Sunday 3pm

The ghosts of 1979, 1985 and dare we say it 2009 will ensure an explosive Heritage Round classic at the hallowed Sydney Cricket Ground on Sunday.

Passions and talent collide head-on as the two rugby league powerhouses, currently co-leaders of the 2011 competition, lock horns. There’s more than just two competition points up for grabs, too; with the one-off Test match against New Zealand and State of Origin just around the corner, jostling for representative positions starts now.

As most pundits expected, the premier Dragons are sailing along nicely with a 3-1 record. However, they haven’t yet faced any of the competition’s big gun; in fact of their four opponents to date (Titans, Sharks, Warriors and Knights), only the Knights hold down a spot in the top eight.

Coach Wayne Bennett has his side playing the same grinding style that secured them back-to-back minor premierships and the major prize last year. There’s an acute focus on defence, as illustrated by their brave effort to withstand a late Knights onslaught last week. But aside from that, they hold no great surprises – except for the fact one of the game’s most prolific try-scorers, Brett Morris, has yet to cross for a four-pointer. Could it be opposition coaches have finally worked out how to shut down the lethal St George Illawarra left-side sweep?

They’ve retained the 17 who repelled the Knights last week, adding Michael Greenfield and Adam Cuthbertson to an extended bench of six.

Meanwhile the previously outright competition-leading Bulldogs are licking their wounds after Melbourne taught them a lesson in what happens when one NRL team completes their sets markedly more than their opponent does. The Storm completed at 82 per cent last Monday night to the Bulldogs’ 62 per cent. As a result, the home side made 25 per cent more runs (205 to 155) and ran for a total of 1616 metres to the Bulldogs’ 1158 metres. With the Dragons similarly a side that looks to capitalise on their opponent’s weakness, expect coach Kevin Moore to have drilled home the need for better ball control.  

The Bulldogs have just the one personnel change, with Micky Paea named to start and Sam Kasiano benched. Chris Armit is retained on an extended interchange.

The blue-and-whites head into this game facing their fifth consecutive defeat at the hands of the Red V; they haven’t lost five in a row against St George, Illawarra or the joint venture since 1967. And their last trip to the SCG in 1993 resulted in a 23-8 defeat at the hands of their opponents on Sunday.

Watch Out Dragons: Young Bulldogs centres Jamal Idris and Timoteo Lafai are bulldozing opponents out wide. Idris ranks second in the NRL for tackle-breaks with 29, while Lafai is averaging more than six a game in three outings.

Hooker Michael Ennis will again be a key player – his 409 receives ranks him the third most-involved player this season.

And interchange Corey Payne loves the SCG and will be primed for a big game against his former club; no Bulldog has more experience at the SCG (three games).

Danger Sign: If Trent Hodkinson and Kris Keating shift it wide early you’ll know the ’Dogs are keen to try their luck running around the Dragons. This may be punctuated by Ennis sending his troops (including Aiden Tolman, average 21 hit-ups) through the centre of the ruck. Consider it a one-two combination.

Watch Out Bulldogs: Last season the Dragons’ left-side attack reigned supreme – they posted twice as many tries down their left side than their right. That’s evened up so far in 2011, with six tries scored on each side. But factor in the following about left winger Brett Morris and left centre Matt Cooper: Morris has yet to cross in four games (he’s actually without a four-pointer from his past seven games, having scored 45 tries in 49 games in the previous two years) while Cooper has the all-time best record for a Dragon against their arch foe. The still-speedy veteran has played 16 games against the Bulldogs, scoring 10 tries.

Adding danger this week, Cooper (four line-breaks, fourth in the comp) is undefeated in his five outings at the SCG, with no active player bettering his five tries and 20 points at the venue. He scored a try last week and added 107 metres with 31 tackles, keeping Akuila Uate off the scorer’s sheet; even though Jamal Idris is the league’s top one-on-one tackler (12) he will have a difficult task getting through Cooper – and keeping him out.

Danger Sign: Brett Morris has just two line-breaks for the year. If he busts the line in the first 20 minutes, you can bet he’s in for a big game. It’ll either come from a poor Canterbury kick-chase –10 so far, the second most by any team – or from energised sweeps involving Brett Hornby and Darius Boyd.

Plays To Watch: Jamie Soward’s mini-bomb for Darius Boyd on the chase inside the Bulldogs’ 20-metre zone; the Dragons’ forwards launching mini-raids down the short corridors left and right looking to break up the disorganised Bulldogs defence; Darius Boyd in broken play; the physical and mental battle between hookers Dean Young and Michel Ennis; Jamal Idris’ powerful fringe running; Ben Barba looking to make amends for his below-average display last week.

Where It Will Be Won: With the forwards and backs likely to cancel each other out somewhat, it will fall to the kicking games of the respective halves.

The Bulldogs kickers find open space just 48 per cent of the time, which ranks them fourth worst in the comp. Add to that their poor chase record and open-play runners like Brett Morris and Darius Boyd might eat them alive.

Meanwhile the Dragons, led by the stoic Jamie Soward, are finding open space 62 per cent of the time.

It will be interesting to see whether the Dragons test out the Bulldogs’ strengths – they have successfully defused all six short attacking kicks booted their way, as well as all five bombs. The flanks would appear a better option however, with just 43 per cent of cross-field bombs defused.

The Dragons look susceptible to attacking kicks – they’ve defused just 43 per cent of cross-field bombs and 56 per cent of high balls.

The History: Played 20; Bulldogs 12, Dragons 8. Honours are shared four games apiece from their past eight clashes – although St George Illawarra have won the past four. Of course, this included the controversial 2009 Bulldogs last-minute no-try loss at WIN Jubilee Oval.

Conclusion: Not a lot of difference in the defensive records of these teams, with the Dragons missing an average 30 tackles a game to the Bulldogs’ 33.5. The Bulldogs’ misses are putting them under greater pressure – they’ve had to pull off 20 try-saving plays so far – the third most in the NRL. By comparison the Dragons have needed just two, easily the fewest.

Passions are bound to flare at some stage of this game, so it’s likely to be the side with the better discipline that prevails. That points us towards the Dragons by the narrowest of margins.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Gavin Reynolds; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.