Rabbitohs v Dragons preview

Rabbitohs v Dragons
ANZ Stadium
Monday 7pm

How glad are the Dragons that Wayne Bennett announced midweek that he was headed to the Knights from 2012 rather than the Rabbitohs! Just imagine the ‘welcome’ that would have awaited them this Monday from the red-and-green faithful and their fired-up players out to impress the incoming master coach.

Instead, St George Illawarra head to league headquarters to take on a dispirited, out-of-sorts Bunnies outfit still trying to pull a rabbit out of their hat when it comes to their coaching options from 2011. (Although ex-Storm assistant Michael Maguire seems their target.)

Worse, the wheels on their premiership wagon already look a little shaky after they were mauled by the under-strength Wests Tigers last week, plummeting to 12th place with an unflattering -28 points differential (we’re already talking about this in Round 6… trust us – it’s going to count for all teams come the end of the season).

The Dragons continue to tick boxes with their play so far, despite losing some key premiership winners to other clubs and injury. They sit at 4-1, equal leaders but third on points differential behind the Storm and the Broncos. Their victory over then co-competition leaders the Bulldogs last week was classic Dragons: adapt to the conditions (wet) and still complete at 77 per cent, don’t make any silly mistakes (40 per cent fewer errors) and make sure your tackles count (just six ineffective tackles to the Dogs’ 24).

Meanwhile the Rabbitohs continue to have to deflect criticism of their suspect defence – a severely damaging aspect of play that is taking all the attention away from their truly brilliant attack: they’ve now scored the second-most points in the NRL (118) but have leaked by far the most points (146, with Parramatta next worst at 128).

Personnel-wise for the Rabbitohs, Sam Burgess shifts from second row to start at prop in place of Luke Stuart, with Michael Crocker locking the scrum. Nathan Peats is the new addition to the bench.

Meanwhile the Dragons have retained their victorious 17 from last week.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: Defence is a major worry for the Bunnies, who are leading the league for missed tackles with 40 a game. They were only better with 36 misses last week, but if major offenders Chris Sandow (33 – most in the NRL), Issac Luke (26 – second most) and Dave Taylor (21 – 10th most) keep getting shrugged off – like Benji Marshall shrugged off Luke when scoring his solo try last week – the Dragons will feast on Rabbit stew.

Dragons centre Mark Gasnier is warming to the task now Origin is around the corner – he ran for a game-high 182 metres in the wet against the Bulldogs, his most metres since returning to the game last year. He also added 24 tackles. His partnership with left-side centre Matt Cooper (two tries, two line-breaks and 99 metres) ensures the Dragons have massive strike-power on both sides of the field.

Danger Sign: Brett Morris is now 688 minutes without a try – and rising! Is anyone game enough to back against Morris – no better than a $6 chance as first scorer any game last year – crossing on the left edge on Monday night?

Watch Out Dragons: With only Rhys Wesser (145) and Roy Asotasi (105) topping triple-figure metre gains in 2011, it’s clear the Rabbitohs are most dangerous inside the opposition’s danger zone (they’ve scored 60 per cent of their tries from closer than 20 metres).

Meanwhile 10 of the Dragons’ 12 tries conceded have originated from close range. If the Rabbitohs match the Dragons for completions (currently 73 per cent to 75 per cent) and gain good field position, Chris Sandow, John Sutton, Dave Taylor (four try assists) and Greg Inglis (four try assists) will get the chance to weave some magic.

Expect a big game from Sutton in particular – he’s yet to register a try assist in 2011 after finishing with a team-high 16 in 2010.

Danger Sign: Dismissing fullback Rhys Wesser as a threat would be dangerous – Wesser was a standout last week with 19 runs for 196 metres, adding six tackle-breaks and a line-break to the equation. Any lazy Dragons inside defenders could be found out when he chimes into the backline from close range.

He’s also more than pulling his weight in defence, leading the league for tackle saves (six) and try saves (six) – but that’s a further indication that the rest of his teammates aren’t muscling up.

Plays To Watch: Dave Taylor hitting the left edge and offloading close to the line; John Sutton ramping up his passing game with some deft assists; Roy Asotasi hitting hard in defence; Greg Inglis taking on Mark Gasnier; Mark Gasnier taking on Greg Inglis; Beau Scott’s offloads; Ben Creagh testing out the defence.

Where It Will Be Won: Up the guts. The Dragons’ forwards will fancy their chances at puncturing the Rabbitohs, and they’ll seize their opportunities when they sense the red and greens are drifting out of the contest – as is their habit of late.

Benji Marshall scored a ridiculously easy try from a scrum on halfway last week; it came simply because Rabbitohs five-eighth John Sutton positioned himself too wide of the scrum base, which forced Marshall back inside. Trouble was the Rabbitohs forwards were too slow to ‘shut the gate’ and Marshall waltzed through.

Expect the Dragons to keep hitting the line, with captain Ben Hornby (23 supports) and Jamie Soward bobbing up often in the centre of the ruck trying to spot a hole.

The Rabbitohs have conceded more than a quarter of their tries between their 20-metre line and halfway, so the Dragons will fancy their chances any time they push over halfway.

Discipline will count for much – the Dragons have given away just nine penalties in first halves this season.

The History: Played 16; Dragons 13, Rabbitohs 3. The Dragons have won six of the past eight NRL encounters, as well as easily bagging the Charity Shield in mid-February. The Rabbitohs’ last victory was in 2009 when they walloped the Red V 41-6 at ANZ Stadium – while it was their biggest win over the Dragons it remains their only win over them at ANZ Stadium from four attempts.

Conclusion: The Rabbitohs are capable of beating any side in the NRL – but that won’t happen consistently until they start putting in for the whole 80 minutes and stop taking their feet off the accelerator at various stages of games.

They cannot afford a single lapse against the Dragons. Unfortunately, on what they’ve shown so far in 2010, lapses are just a matter of time coming.

The Dragons should get the opportunity to go top of the table after Round 6 with a decent improvement to their points differential here.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Clayton Sharpe; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live from 7pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.