Dragons v Wests Tigers
WIN Jubilee Oval
Sunday 3pm

Beware the wounded Tiger! While they did manage to scrape home against the Panthers last week coach Tim Sheens stuck a rocket up the black-and-golds post-match, banning the traditional singing of the team song and suggesting a similarly insipid effort this week would see them “lapped” by the Dragons.

It’s hard to argue, even allowing for the unknown factor, i.e. the eight players the Dragons will rely on – fitness permitting – to back up from a fierce opening State of Origin clash.

On top of that, the Tigers head to Kogarah facing a double whammy. In their four games there they’ve conceded an average 39 points (and that includes a win!). And this week the Dragons are aiming for their sixth consecutive victory at the venue, a first in their history as a joint venture.

The Dragons are simply on fire approaching the midpoint of 2011, with only a surprise Round 2 loss to the Sharks blotting their copybook. They weren’t at their best against the Bulldogs a fortnight ago but their defence hung tight and protected their 15-10 lead to the final siren. They sit four competition points clear of the field.

Ominously for the Tigers this week the Dragons have named their strongest squad all season – 24 players in all. It features the returns of Mark Gasnier at centre and hooker interchange Nathan Fien on the extended bench (which also boasts Jon Green, the rejuvenated Adam Cuthbertson, Origin bencher Trent Merrin, Kyle Stanley, Jack Bosden and Mitch Rein).

Meanwhile the seventh-placed Tigers continue to splutter on three cylinders. Last week’s last-gasp win over the Panthers was just their third in the past six weeks. In that time they’ve mixed victories over the Rabbitohs, and Raiders with losses to the Titans, Broncos and Rabbitohs (in a return-bout thrashing in Round 10 the week after their bye).

Continuity seems a problem, as do errors – or rather the lack of them in their past three losses. Last week they displayed scant respect for the football, making 18 mistakes (way up on their season average 12.6). But they still won. Yet in their three most recent defeats they committed just 11 errors each game. What are we to make of this? That the Tigers lose their mojo when shackled? Possibly…

Coach Sheens has made just a couple of changes from last week; Bryce Gibbs is to start at prop with Andrew Fifita reverting to the bench, while enigmatic Beau Ryan extends the interchange to 18.

Watch Out Dragons: With so many players on the back-up from Origin the Dragons could end up their own worst enemies. The players need to be honest about how much gas they have in the tank – especially forwards Ben Creagh, Beau Scott, Dean Young and Trent Merrin.

One of the biggest problems they’ll face comes off the back of their new ‘cleanskins’ reputation. They’re conceding fewer penalties for silly indiscretions around the ruck (an NRL-low 39) – but as a result oppositions are making huge inroads. Incredibly, the premiers have conceded the fifth most metres to all oppositions (1369) – so expect Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall to run them ragged. Add in Origin fatigue and they could be ready to crack.

Danger Sign: The Dragons make the fewest errors in the comp with just 10 a game. If the balls go to ground early it could be a sign of weariness – and watch the Tigers get some added spring in their step as a result.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: Mark Gasnier is the bogy man – he’s scored a massive 20 tries in just 14 games against the black-and-golds. He’ll be sure to test out Tim Moltzen on the Tigers’ defensive left edge. While Matt Cooper has been getting all the tryscoring accolades (seven) on the left side of the field (including 11 line-breaks), right-side attackers Gasnier and Jason Nightingale have been creating migraines for opposition defences. They’ve combined for a whopping 38 offloads and seven tries, while Gasnier ranks fourth in the comp for line-break assists (eight).

The Dragons may well target opposition halfback Robert Lui. He was a weak link last week, badly missing Masada Iosefa one on one to concede a soft try, then being on the spot but allowing Lachlan Coote to field a bomb unopposed to score. He’s a talented playmaker (four try assists, five line-break assists) but he needs to get more consistent in defence (17 misses in seven games) or the Dragons will dine out.

Danger Sign: If Gaz gets away a few offloads in the opening 10 minutes (he has 21 for the year) you’ll know the Dragons will be out to humble Moltzen and Mitch Brown.

Plays To Watch: Brett Morris looking to spark something out of dummy-half; Jamie Soward taking on tired Tigers ruck defenders late in the first half; Mark Gasnier introducing Tim Moltzen to his shimmy-shimmy-whoosh; Wade McKinnon testing the Dragons’ kick chase; Benji Marshall’s no-look flat balls in the Dragons’ ‘red’ zone; Robbie Farah scheming from close range too; Andre Fifita, Bryce Gibbs and Keith Galloway looking to assert dominance over the Dragons’ Origin forwards.

Where It Will Be Won: Not where, but when – in the second half.

As we’ve said, post-Origin fatigue could prove costly for the Dragons. While their defence is the best in the comp, yielding just 1.7 tries on average, analysis of when they concede these tries, coupled with the strengths of the Wests Tigers, bears close examination.

The Dragons have conceded just 17 tries so far through 10 games – but of great concern to coach Wayne Bennett would be the fact that 13 have been scored in the second 40 minutes of matches.

The Wests Tigers have scored 39 tries to date – a whopping 23 have come after oranges. And in the past four games they’ve averaged almost three four-pointers in the second half. Coach Tim Sheens will be counting on his players’ energy levels to remain high all game.

The History: Played 20; Dragons 11, Wests Tigers 9. Honours are shared four games apiece from the past eight encounters, although the Dragons have won the past three in a row. The home side boasts a 3-1 advantage at WIN Jubilee Oval.

Conclusion: If ever there’s a good time to come up against the Dragons, this is it.

But it all boils down to which troops emerge unscathed from Origin, and whether or not coach Bennett opts to field them all. The Dragons have shown excellent depth over the past six weeks, so there should be no fears about any substitutions.

The Wests Tigers are certainly capable but they’ll need to have had a massive attitude about-face in the space of a week if they’re to steal the competition points at Kogarah.

Although this game has upset written all over it we can’t waver from the home side.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

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

* Statistics: NRL Stats.