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Bulldogs v Dragons
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.30pm

A couple of weeks out from the midpoint of the season the question has to be asked: is there a side in the 2011 competition with the strike-power to pierce the armoury of the premiership pacesetters St George Illawarra?

Before a ball was kicked the knockers predicted the Dragons would struggle in the depth department and also with their pack aggression following the departures of Jeremy Smith and Neville Costigan. But nope – in fact they’ve gotten stronger! Last season they conceded an average 12 points a game; this year through nine rounds they’ve conceded fewer than 10.

Their clinical demolition of the Cowboys at Kogarah last week was their seventh in a row and it was achieved with an under-strength outfit; Jason Nightingale, Nathan Fien and Jamie Soward were all missing after picking up injuries in Test and City-Country games and six key players were backing up. It didn’t matter an iota.

The Bulldogs enter this clash off the bye, having fallen 20-12 to the Broncos in an absorbing encounter at Suncorp Stadium in Round 8. They sit in sixth place with a 5-3 record, plus the bye. They’ve made two personnel changes from the Brisbane game, with Micky Paea starting at prop for the injured Grant Millington and Jake Foster joining the bench.

The Dragons have extensive changes. Darius Boyd’s hamstring has recovered sufficiently for him to be named to return at fullback, Jamie Soward has been pencilled in at five-eighth and Jason Nightingale, who missed the Cowboys clash with concussion, is back on the right wing. The dampener is that Mark Gasnier, who rolled his ankle late in last week’s game, is sitting the game out with a slight ligament tear (although indications are he’ll be fit for Origin I on May 25); he’s been replaced by ‘everywhere man’ Kyle Stanley.

With Nathan Fien out for a second week rookie Mitch Rein (73 receives and 34 tackles in 54 minutes last week) retains his bench spot alongside rejuvenated, headgear-less Adam Cuthbertson, Trent Merrin and newcomer Jack Bosden.

Aside from the last chance to stake Origin claims there are some records on the line here too – a Dragons’ win would equal their biggest winning streak of eight games, achieved in 2005, while the Bulldogs haven’t suffered the ignominy of six straight defeats at the hand of any opponent since their 1998 grand final loss to Brisbane.

Watch Out Bulldogs: Left-side centre Matt Cooper tore the Bulldogs to shreds in the Dragons’ 25-6 victory at the SCG just five weeks ago. On that occasion he scored two tries and made a game-high two line-breaks. Cooper has celebrated victories over the Dogs in his past four starts and has accumulated 12 tries against them (second most by any active player). And this year he ranks second in the NRL for line-breaks with 11.

Back-rowers Ben Creagh and Beau Scott were also damaging in Round 5. Scott punched out 148 metres with a game-high five tackle-breaks plus a line-break while Creagh nudged three figures in metres and offered a game-high three offloads.

When the pair get on a roll on the edges just watch their outside men Nightingale and Morris lap it up.

Danger Sign: If the Bulldogs’ defenders don’t wrap up Creagh’s right arm it will inflict damage – he has four try assists from offloads through nine games. This season has been quite a transformation for him – he’s gone from a no-nonsense pounder and prolific decoy runner to showing considerable flair, with 23 offloads ranking him third in the competition.

Watch Out Dragons: Origin-bound Aiden Tolman will wind up and just keep coming. The prop ranks third in the NRL for total runs (157) yet incredibly is yet to commit an error! He makes good ground also, clawing out an average 152 metres a game.

Fullback Ben Barba was kept quiet in Round 5 but it might be asking too much for a repeat here. The competition’s leading tryscorer (nine), and co-top line-breaker (11), Barba didn’t make a line-break against the Dragons at the SCG and was restricted to just 67 metres – way down on his 114-metre average. Jamie Soward will need to ensure he kicks to space to help his defensive line make a good kick-chase. 

Although Josh Morris missed lining up against his twin brother Brett last time out he will be confident of a good showing – Josh may have lost on the only two occasions he’s played against his former team but he has scored the third-most tries at ANZ Stadium (31 from 34 games) – and he’s finished a winner 17 of 22 times when crossing the tryline.

Danger Sign: Barba is a confidence player so if he’s able to slip past the Dragons early you can guarantee it won’t be the only time he does so on the night. The Dogs need him to inspire them – and force doubt into the psyche of an opponent not used to seeing their defensive line breached.

Plays To Watch: Jamal Idris winding up when given quick, long ball 30 metres out down the right edge; David Stagg attempting to better his game-high 56 tackles from Round 5; Tolman running at the Dragons’ defenders like a slimmed-down modern-day Martin Lang; Michael Ennis getting in the face of fellow Origin candidate Dean Young; Matt Cooper showing the ball in two hands before attempting to beat Idris all ends up.

Where It Will Be Won: Defence – the Dragons have now held five consecutive opponents to 10 points or less for the first time ever. At one stage in real time last week they repelled the Cowboys on their tryline for six minutes and 17 seconds, withstanding 45 consecutive passes and 37 attacking runs before Beau Scott stole an intercept and set up Brett Morris’ 90-metre try.

Incredibly, over the past two seasons the Dragons have permitted the third most runs within their 10-metre zone (1027) yet have conceded the least number of tries (just 37)!

In 2011 they’ve conceded just 15 tries; that’s four fewer than the Broncos and eight fewer than the Storm.

Meanwhile the Bulldogs have a fair defensive record, conceding 28 tries (sixth fewest).

The History: Played 21; Bulldogs 12, St George Illawarra 9. A pretty good record from the home team – although the Dragons have won five of the past eight clashes (and they were the most recent five). Clashes at ANZ Stadium between the two are even at four games apiece; although, the venue is like a second home to the premiers who have won 10 of their past 11 games there.

Conclusion: Structured attack has made no inroads against the Dragons this year – perhaps some off-the-cuff brilliance from Ben Barba could spark an upset here?

Honestly, only a lapse in the Dragons’ attitude (we doubt that will happen) coupled with some constructive Bulldogs play from an inordinate amount of possession and completions could prevent a St George Illawarra victory here. They seem in a league of their own.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials –Paul Holland & Steve Carrall; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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