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Broncos v Dragons
Suncorp Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Even this far out from September you can mark this game down in your diary as a turning point in the race for the minor premiership. Should the fifth-placed Broncos take down the competition front-runners they’ll rocket to just a win away from the top mark at the end of Round 15. But a win by the premiers would consolidate them at the top and consign last week’s defeat to the Titans as simply minor turbulence in their long haul to a possible back-to-back title.

Broncos coach Anthony Griffin knows how important Friday night’s clash is – he’s abandoned his pre-season plan to rest all his Test and Origin stars, in particular captain Darren Lockyer, the week after representative duties and has named a full-strength squad.

While the Broncos’ five Origin representatives will back up after Wednesday night’s bruising clash, and Justin Hodges makes a welcome return after five weeks off the scene, the Dragons are in disarray. While Darius Boyd, Mark Gasnier, Jamie Soward and Trent Merrin will play, second-rowers Ben Creagh and Beau Scott are dropouts with injury. So too is winger Brett Morris who was originally named to return from a hamstring strain. Adam Cuthbertson will shift from the bench to take one starting back-row spot, with Nathan Fien promoted to hooker and Dean Young slotting into the back row. Ratu Peni Tage is Morris’ replacement.

The Broncos had a lucky escape at home against the Raiders last week, leading 22-nil with 30 minutes of play remaining but scraping home courtesy of a Peter Wallace field-goal in the third minute of extra time. It was their second win in a row after a hat-trick of losses to the Storm, Panthers and Sea Eagles that had a few doubters raising their eyebrows. Given their other recent win was over the hapless Sharks, and given the nature of last week’s win (albeit with an under-strength side), they still have some points to prove.

Ditto the Dragons, who escaped with one competition point from their draw with the Eels a fortnight ago before the Titans overpowered their youthful but inexperienced team of back-ups with a flurry of tries in the second half last Friday.

There are plenty of player movements in both teams.

For the Broncos, Justin Hodges’ return sees Dale Copley shift to the wing, replacing under-20s fill-in Dane Gagai, with Jharal Yow Yeh backing up on the other wing, shunting Shea Moylan.

Corey Norman hits the bench for Darren Lockyer, Ben Hannant slots back at prop with in-doubt Nick Kenny (bruised shoulder) benched, Sam Thaiday is back in the second row (for Dane Carlaw) and Corey Parker pushes Jack Reed to an extended bench that numbers 20 players.

Meanwhile the Dragons welcome the return of Kyle Stanley (for two-try debutant Alex McKinnon) from a hamstring strain. Stanley will play left centre, with Matt Cooper sidelined for a few more weeks.

The game marks the second match-up between five-eighths Darren Lockyer and Jamie Soward in two days; Soward’s bragging rights from Origin could prove a decisive confidence boost. 

Watch Out Broncos: This is an entirely different attacking side to the one Brisbane might remember from their last clash in Round 21 last year (won 10-6 by the Broncos).

For starters, whereas the Dragons scored twice as many tries down their left edge as they did on the right side of the field, that imbalance has basically been evened up in 2011 (19 left, 16 right).

But the significant change has been in their attitude to second-phase play. Last year the Dragons averaged just 10.6 offloads a game – the third fewest in the comp. This year they are the offload kings, averaging 14.4 a game. Spelling big trouble for the home side is the fact they concede the fifth-most offloads (12.5 a game). They’ll need to better that mark if they’re to inhibit the Dragons’ roll forward.

They also need to watch for a counter-attack should they turn over possession with an error – the Dragons have scored four tries on breakaway plays, second only to the Cowboys’ five tries scored. 

Danger Sign: Dangerous offloading Dragons include Mark Gasnier (25), Jason Nightingale, (20) and Adam Cuthbertson (19). If they are allowed to promote the play often it could hurt the Broncos, especially given they have three key forwards backing up from Origin who will be prone to fatigue at some stage. 

Watch Out Dragons: Brisbane love hitting the edges and have equal amounts of success both left and right – but a shock tactic could gain them huge results. The Broncos have scored just one try in centre-field – the fewest by any side – while the Dragons have let in seven around the goal posts. The Broncos have scored 14 tries from kicks, the third most in the comp, so maybe hoisting the ball high in front of the posts might pay dividends. For the record, the Dragons defuse just 71 per cent of all centre-field bombs, the third-lowest rate of all teams. If the Dragons’ defence out wide holds firm early, we say it makes sense to give it a go.

Danger Sign: If Peter Wallace and Darren Lockyer go to the air as the preferred fifth-tackle option you’ll know the Dragons’ back three are in for a torrid evening. Cross-field bombs are a weakness for the Red V too – Nightingale and co. have defused just 58 per cent sent their way. Overall the Dragons have let in 12 tries so far, the third most by any side.

Plays To Watch: Darius Boyd sizing up the kick chase before looking left or right for Morris or Nightingale to return fire; Gasnier looking to stand up Gerard Beale; Soward’s short kicks behind the defensive line; Yow Yeh testing out Tagive’s defence; Hodges testing out Kyle Stanley with his trademark right-foot step, Lockyer fossicking for gold down extremely short corridors; both forward packs fighting fire with fire.

Where It Will Be Won: Both packs are well-drilled units that should mostly overcome the fatigue factor, so they should basically cancel each other out. Which leaves some individual match-ups in the backlines as the focus: Yow Yeh on Tagive, Beale on Gasnier, Hodges on Stanley, Lockyer on Soward. A moment, or a few moments, of brilliance from these guys will turn the game.

The History: Played 25; Dragons 13, Broncos 12. The Dragons have won five of the past eight games between the sides, although the Broncos have won three of the past four. The Dragons have a remarkably good record at Suncorp Stadium, winning six of the nine games fought there.

Conclusion: The Dragons have a lot of pride in their defensive record, conceding an average of just 12 points each game (fewest by any side) and will be hell-bent on limiting the Broncos any opportunities. They haven’t conceded 20 or more points in consecutive games since the Broncos booted them out of the 2009 finals series. (And good luck if you want to have a bet on that occurring here.)

Meanwhile the Broncos’ defence is the fourth best in the comp, conceding just 16.6 points each match.

Had Creagh, Scott and Morris taken their place the Dragons would have started slight favourites. But with the trio missing the Broncos assume almost strong favouritism. It will be a battle to the death but the home side has the edge.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials –Russell Turner & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

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

* Stats: NRL Stats