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Dragons v Titans
WIN Jubilee Stadium
Friday 7.45pm
Wholesale changes to the Origin-ravaged Dragons present the Titans with a golden opportunity to wipe the perpetual frown from their coach John Cartwright’s face and push off the lowest rung on the 2011 premiership ladder.

It will be left to a core group of regular first-graders, bench players and rookies to protect St George Illawarra’s record 10-match unbeaten streak, which went oh so close to being shattered by the enthusiastic Eels last week.

The Titans will be without key forwards Ashley Harrison and Greg Bird who will suit up for the Maroons and Blues respectively next Wednesday night.

As for the myriad Dragons changes… some of them sound like Wayne Bennett wrote a bunch of names and positions on pieces of paper, placed them in two hats and drew for luck. Except we know there’s canny thought behind Bennett’s selections. You ready for this? Deep breath and… go: Jason Nightingale moves to fullback for Darius Boyd, with 31-year-old Reece Simmonds set to play his first game for the Red V since 2006 on the right wing. (Simmonds has been knocking around in the Carlton League down in the Illawarra for the past few seasons.) In another major surprise, 19-year-old Toyota Cup back-rower Alex McKinnon will make his NRL debut partnering regular first grade lock Matt Prior in the centres. Nathan Fien shifts to the unfamiliar role of five-eighth to cover for Jamie Soward. Jack Bosden and Michael Greenfield slip into the second row for Ben Creagh and Beau Scott. Adam Cuthbertson shifts to lock. Jon Green, David Gower, Daniel Penese, Jake Marketo and Mitch Rein comprise the extended bench.

That’s seven regular first-graders… and a total of 33 first grade games in 2011 spread among the other 11 players, with McKinnon and Penese on debut while Simmonds and Marketo are playing first grade for the first time in 2011. 

Meanwhile the Titans will be looking to arrest the bumbling ways that have seen them register just three wins all year and just one win from their past six games. They were miserable again against the Panthers at home last week, well in the fight before capitulating with 26 missed tackles in the second half.

This week Joseph Tomane is back in the centres, pushing Bodene Thompson to the bench. Preston Campbell shifts from the bench to five-eighth to cover for Greg Bird. Anthony Laffranchi is a welcome return in the second row after nine weeks out, with Luke O’Dwyer to start for Harrison at lock. Ben Ridge and Brenton Lawrence are the new players on the bench.

However, the Titans have won only one of their past seven away games.

Here’s an idea for a raffle: guess which Dragon will score the side’s 200th try at WIN Jubilee? They sit on 199…

Watch Out Dragons: With no Jamie Soward in the Dragons’ line-up Scott Prince won’t get a better opportunity to break the shackles and bounce back to form. The Titans’ success over the past few years has revolved around Prince’s deep kicking game. Last year he booted to open space a remarkable 61 per cent of the time; under pressure this year that’s dropped to a run-of-the-mill 49 per cent.

Prince also gets the chance to send some runners through the inexperienced Dragons’ defensive line. Last year Prince finished the year ranked third for try assists, with 15. At this point in the comp he’s ranked 40th with just three. We can’t see him not adding to that tally in this game.

Former Dragon Luke Bailey will be fired up to show his old side he’s still got it. Not that he has to. Bailey has played the third-most minutes of all front-rowers in 2011, accruing the third-most metres (129) with a substantial 32 tackles a game. (Last time he played at Kogarah, in Round 20 last year, he made a career-high 56 tackles.)

Danger Sign: Scott Prince is averaging fewer than eight runs a game so far – if he runs the ball to the line four times in the opening 25 minutes (and we think he will) you’ll know he’s switched on.

Watch Out Titans: Up against this inexperienced opposition errors and lack of concentration loom as the biggest problems for the visitors. If the Titans can limit their mistakes and build pressure they can steal this game. Currently they make 14.8 errors a game – the worst in the comp – so they need to focus.

Danger Sign: The Dragons’ right edge will be significantly under-manned in defence. If the likes of Bailey, Minichiello and Laffranchi get the opportunity to charge hard and often at Fien and newcomer McKinnon, while testing out Simmonds, the Titans may garner easy points. 

Plays To Watch: Jason Nightingale returning kicks with a mix of cunning and dash; Ben Hornby dummying and running near halfway; Dan Hunt and Michael Weyman taking control of the ruck; Adam Cuthbertson playing a more expansive attacking role with plenty of offloads; Preston Campbell scheming for holes at five-eighth; David Mead’s speed; Prince upping his involvement; Minichiello trying his luck from close range.

Where It Will Be Won: Desire and territory. It all boils down to who wants this one the most. On the one hand, the rag-tag Dragons have their pride on the line, looking to protect their unbeaten run. On the other the Titans have pride on the line too, looking to avoid what some might construe an embarrassing defeat given the calibre of the opposition, even despite the Titans’ lowly rank on the ladder.

The depleted Dragons will have a real challenge matching the go-forward of the Titans. Even with their best side the Red V concede the fourth-most metres to oppositions (1380) while the Titans concede the fourth fewest (1267).

Then there is the huge territory the Dragons will miss off the boot of Jamie Soward, who has punted the ball more thant six kilometres to date, helping the Dragons to a healthy 1400-metre lead in kicking metres over the next most prolific kickers Parramatta.

The History: Played 9; Dragons 7, Titans 2. The Dragons have won six of the past eight games but the Titans have won two of the past three, including a thrilling golden-point victory at Kogarah last year. The Dragons beat the Titans 25-16 in Round 1.

Conclusion: The Titans have been awful all year – but despite that they have still been well in the mix in most games. Here they come up against as unorganised a side as you could wish for, so they have a huge chance of taking the premiers down.

Of course, it wouldn’t be any surprise to see the Dragons take the two points. But on balance, we see their unbeaten run ending here. The Titans by eight.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats