Dragons v Cowboys
WIN Jubilee Stadium
Sunday 3pm

As Wayne Bennett puts it, the silly season has begun – and sadly it has the potential to affect what is shaping up to be a cracker of a match on Sunday afternoon at Kogarah.

The top-ranked Dragons front the fourth-placed Cowboys – a match we should all be salivating about… but sadly the fact 10 Dragons and two Cowboys are involved in representative footy on Friday night could rob us of full-strength line-ups.

It certainly means the Dragons won’t be at their best – something we all saw for a pulsating 20 minutes in the opening half against Parramatta last week.

After taking care of the Eels 30-0 last weekend to make it six wins in a row, the Dragons certainly look even-money favourites to retain their premiership title this season.

They have named the same side from last week but need Brett Morris, Jason Nightingale, Jamie Soward, Dan Hunt, Beau Scott (likely to sit on sidelines as 18th man for Australia), Ben Creagh, Matt Prior, Nathan Fien, Adam Cuthbertson and Trent Merrin to get through Friday night first.

Consider that Kyle Stanley, Mark Gasnier, Dean Young and Michael Weyman were all likely to be picked but for injury and eligibility concerns and Matt Cooper and Ben Hornby were only overlooked as they have retired from rep footy and only one player in the Dragons 17 – prop Jon Green – isn’t classified as rep material at this stage… amazing stuff.

The Cowboys have also named the same side from last weekend that beat Manly to notch their fourth consecutive win and move them to a 6-2 record.

Halfback Johnathan Thurston and prop Matt Scott need to get through Australian team duties unscathed to play Sunday.

Amazingly Sunday marks a whopping 609 days since the Cowboys last played a daytime game of football… will the sun get in their eyes?

They have started to make believers out of many after a few years in the wilderness and a win here, regardless of the disruption to the Dragons’ camp would be another massive step forward.

Watch Out Dragons: Former Dragon now Cowboy winger Kalifa Faifai Loa is ready to return to Kogarah and prove he was worth holding on to. It comes as no surprise to the Dragons’ faithful that the speedster is doing well for the Cowboys, as the winger was almost unstoppable for St George Illawarra in Toyota Cup last year, setting a club record for most runs (19.3) and metres gained (186.7) in 20 appearances. He also scored 17 tries.

To highlight his consistent level of involvement, Faifai Loa has gained 100 metres or more in all levels of the game since August 2009. As for his NRL career at the Cowboys? In his six games he has averaged 134 metres, he has three line-breaks, three tries, a try assist and 34 tackle-breaks. Danger Sign: Faifai Loa likes to go looking for dummy-half runs – the Dragons need to be aware of his damaging scoots early in a set of six because if he gets wound up he’ll get the defence back-pedalling.

Watch Out Cowboys: While the Dragons need to worry about a Cowboys speedster, the visitors need to watch out for the Dragons’ speedster. Test winger Brett Morris has always performed brilliantly against the boys from up north and it could be just what he needs to crank up his try-scoring efforts this season.

Morris has seven tries from four appearances and he averages more metres (177.5) and line-breaks (1.5) against he Cowboys than against any other opponents. In his entire career at WIN Jubilee Morris has recorded 14 wins from 19 matches for a return of 13 tries.  

Danger Sign: The Dragons started hitting the left side a bit more often against Parramatta and it resulted in two more tries to Matt Cooper. If the Cowboys compress in on the centre he’ll get the ball to Morris and the tries will flow.

Plays To Watch: The ‘show-and-go’ will get a workout in this match from both Johnathan Thurston and Jamie Soward – assuming, that is, that they both back up; also watch for chip-and-chase from both sides and long, sweeping backline movements; and Cowboys fullback Matt Bowen will be a danger lurking centre-field.

Where It Will Be Won: Desire. It might sound clichéd but this is probably going to come down to who wants it more.

The Dragons’ line-up will not have had a single training session together during the lead-up, and they will be jetlagged and sore… they basically have a ready-made book of excuses.

The Cowboys also won’t train without their main man but certainly get a better run at preparing for the contest. If they really focus and play to their strengths they should be able to bring down the table-toppers.

The Dragons have proven to be unflappable in the past – they grind away games with ease – but can they really do it with so many tired bodies? It’s the forwards who are the key. Hornby, Gasnier and Cooper are all fresh out wide but only Beau Scott is likely to be fresh in the pack. Weyman and Young will need to try to play more minutes despite injury concerns. It’s time to see just how good this Dragons side can be.

It’s phenomenal to think they have performed so well – considering they have begun an attacking set in their opponent’s half less than any other team in the NRL, just 74 times! On the other hand the Cowboys have begun an attacking set in their opponent’s half more times than any team, with 139. If the Red V defend as stoutly as usual they can of course win and win with ease.

The desire level in the Cowboys needs to be high; they need to want to be in the contest. They need to want to go the distance with the premiers. If they lapse for even a second they will be on the end of a blitz, just like the Eels were.

The History: Played 20; Dragons 10, Cowboys 10. The Cowboys have won four of the past six games between the two clubs but the Dragons have actually won the last two in a row. North Queensland have not played at WIN Jubilee Stadium since June 2005 (lost 34-4). The two teams have met here just three times, with the Dragons forging a 2-1 advantage.

Conclusion: The Cowboys have a golden chance to knock off the competition leaders but we still wouldn’t advise putting your house on it. They need Thurston to play and be relatively fresh and they need Matt Bowen to exploit tired Dragons forwards.

With Cooper, Hornby, Scott and Gasnier still fresh for the home side, they still have an edge.

Match officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Badger; Touch Judges – Russell Turner & Adam Reid; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

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

* Statistics: NRL Stats.