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Roosters v Dragons
Sydney Football Stadium
Monday 4pm

It’s been a truly devastating week for the Sydney Roosters in the lead-up to the 2010 grand final rematch with the Dragons, which also marks the 10th anniversary of the teams’ traditional Anzac Day clash at the Sydney Football Stadium.

Club-imposed suspensions for indefinite periods to Todd Carney and Anthony Watts have rocked the NRL and fans but, the individuals aside, no-one would be feeling the effects more than coach Brian Smith and the Roosters’ playing unit.

How they handle this adversity, facing a fourth loss that would surely plummet them further adrift of the top eight (they’re currently in 10th position with a -16 points differential) will likely determine their season.

Brian Smith’s sole line-up change is that Mark Riddell will start at hooker, with Jake Friend reverting to the bench. Tinirau Arona and Phil Graham join the pine on an extended bench. Even if he were tempted to make changes after the side’s disappointing 24-6 defeat to the Broncos in Gosford, coach Smith has smartly played the unity card in the hope it will galvanise his troops into some more committed performances… hopefully starting this week.

Meanwhile the premier Dragons are carefree and coasting. In one of the more physical encounters in recent memory, they stared down the focused and dedicated Rabbitohs last week to steal the competition points with a 16-10 victory, with two crucial tries in the final quarter of the match. Even more importantly, they held a dangerous opponent who probably would have put 30 points on some of the lower-end NRL teams, scoreless.

Wayne Bennett has elevated prop Michael Weyman to the starting side after a solid 28 minutes off the bench last week. Hooker Nathan Fien, a late dropout against the Bunnies with a hamstring complaint, has been named to start – although third-option rake Mitch Reins remains on an extended bench of 19.

The Dragons have won six of the nine Anzac Day clashes against the Roosters since the Anzac Cup’s inception in 2002.

Watch Out Roosters: There isn’t a ‘blind spot’ in the Dragons’ side but recent history suggests their backs will provide all the headaches.

Former Rooster Jamie Soward grows another leg when going up against the Roosters. Since being shown the door by the tricolours he is undefeated in six games against them and has scored 76 points (average 12.7 per game) – making them his most prolific opponent. With Todd Carney out of the picture for Origin, Soward has a realistic chance of snaring the No.6 jersey in the NSW Blues side and will be out to replicate the consistent form that has helped the Red V onto the front foot all season.

With 13 tries between them, fullback Darius Boyd (five – ranked third in the NRL), right winger Jason Nightingale (four) and left centre Matt Cooper (four) all figure high in the season’s top try-scorer’s list.

Nightingale is arguably the form winger of the comp. He has three tries in their past two meetings, including a double in the grand final, and last week ran for a game-high 173 metres against the Rabbitohs.

Meanwhile Cooper is in career-best form in attack and defence. He scored a double in their corresponding Round 7 Anzac Day win over the Roosters last year, and has four tries so far in 2011. He ranks second in the NRL for line busts (seven), fifth for tackle-breaks (23) and is averaging 21 tackles a game (fifth most by a centre) for less than one miss each 80 minutes.

Danger Signs: There doesn’t appear to be an easy way through the Dragons’ centres: they might be better-known for their attacking skills but Matt Cooper and Mark Gasnier are also the best defensive pairing in the NRL.

Gasnier is the benchmark, averaging nearly 22 tackles a game and missing just over one each game. And anyone who saw Cooper lift Rabbitoh Chris McQueen and drag him back into the field of play to prevent a try last week would have marvelled at the effort.

Watch Out Dragons: Cooper and Gasnier will need to be at their best defending against BJ Leilua on their right edge and Shaun Kenny-Dowall on their left. Although Kenny-Dowall is struggling for consistency he has still racked up 32 tackle-breaks. Ditto winger Leilua. That’s good enough to place both in the top 10 among best broken-field danger players.

With Carney missing a lot falls on the shoulders of halfback Mitchell Pearce, who will be keen to not lapse this close to Origin. To date Pearce has been a steady contributor. Ranked among fellow halfbacks he’s second for try assists (six), third for line-break assists (five), but just ninth for tackle-breaks (10). Pearce may look to catch the Dragons napping by running the ball more this week.  

Danger Signs: Bombs and cross-field kicks appear to be the only chink in the Dragons’ armour, defusing just 60 per cent and 50 per cent respectively. Six of their 12 tries conceded have come from kicks, so expect Braith Anasta and Mitchell Pearce to hoist plenty of high balls.

With the Dragons getting last week’s refs pairing of Jared Maxwell and Alan Shortall again this week, lock Matt Prior needs to watch his discipline. The whistleblowers lost patience with Prior’s dawdling around the ruck and in tackles against the bunnies – and pinged him three times.

Plays To Watch: Pearce’s long cut-out balls; Mose Masoe’s crunching hits in centre-field; Shaun Kenny-Dowall rampaging down the right; Jake Friend scheming to put a team-mate away up the guts; Mark Gasnier’s shimmy-shimmy-whoosh (it’s back!); Ben Creagh’s offloads (18 – 2nd in the NRL).

Where It Will Be Won: Through impact play – or a lack of it – and field position through kicks.

Braith Anasta is a talented footballer, but he doesn’t come anywhere near close to Todd Carney as an impact player. Last year the Roosters’ success could largely be attributed to Carney – he contributed a team-high 21 line-breaks, plus 19 line-break assists, 18 try assists, 29 offloads and a staggering 133 tackle-busts.

To date Anasta hasn’t made a single line-break, has just one try assist, two line-break assists, three offloads and just seven tackle-breaks. Those numbers will need to almost double in this one game if the Roosters are to get the cash.

In the kicking department it’s no contest – the Dragons top the league with 4331 metres so far (most from the boot of Soward) while the Roosters have gained the least territory of all 16 teams with just 2636 metres.

Oh, and an update – Brett Morris is now 768 minutes without a try for the Dragons. He must be due.

The History: Played 24; Dragons 15, Roosters 8, drawn 1. The Dragons have won six of the past eight NRL encounters, including the past five. But the Roosters hold an 8-7 advantage at the SFS.

Conclusion: This game could make or break the Roosters for 2011. On paper they appear horribly outclassed. But pride and passion against the odds has a funny way of throwing up the least expected result. And there’s no better occasion for reflecting on doing it for your mates than on Anzac Day.

But it’s likely to be too great a task. The Roosters haven’t put six points on the Dragons in second halves in their past five games. The smart tip is to put a tick in the ‘away’ column.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Adam MacFarlane; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live from 4pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.