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Dragons v Sea Eagles
WIN Stadium
Monday 7pm

The game of the season thus far is upon us. Bold statement? Maybe… but many predict this is a grand final preview, as the second-placed Sea Eagles front up against the third-placed Dragons in what should be a battle of epic proportions.

The last time the two met was in the finals last year when the Dragons were clinical in a 28-0 shutout in the first step to ultimate glory.

Forget the talk of players sitting out. Forget the concerns of dinner suits being worn by Origin-selected stars. The reality is that those who step foot on the field Monday night have a point to prove.

The Dragons have built their past few seasons on pride and passion – and their pride has taken a few blows over the past few weeks.

The Sea Eagles prefer to fly ‘under the radar’ – but six straight wins with an average 26-8 scoreline in your favour and a move right up the ladder to equal first make it hard to do so.

So now the Dragons have a unique opportunity to wrest the ascendency back, while the Sea Eagles have the opportunity to put scatter some more seeds of doubt on the premiers’ home turf.

The showdown is set – what a time for Wollongong’s WIN Stadium to open back up for play.

As the start of an immortal Illawarra song goes… “Come on mighty Wollongong”… your team is back in town and need you to help arrest a mid-season blip in form.

It will have been a mammoth 400 days since the Red V played competitively on the venue, as construction took centre stage. But now they return, having not won since late last month.

Brett Morris is due to return from hamstring trouble on the wing, pushing Ratu Peni Tagive out of the side. Dean Young returns at hooker leaving Nathan Fien back on the bench. Ben Creagh is also slated for a return, starting in the back row for Michael Greenfield.

For the Sea Eagles – the fact the game is in Wollongong does make the task a little tougher. They have won just once there against the Dragons, way back in 2003.

But they come into the match full of confidence. Tony Williams is out and so too is his named replacement in the second row Joe Galuvao. No word yet on who might start but Jamie Buhrer is an early favourite. Darcy Lussick and Daniel Harrison were due to fight it out for a lone bench spot, but perhaps now both will play.

Winger Michael Robertson will make his 200th NRL appearance while co captain Jamie Lyon is notching up game number 100 for Manly.

And after nine seasons in the big time, Dragons prop Michael Weyman will finally mark his 100th NRL match.

Some big names from both clubs we’d have loved to see here – Matt Cooper, Beau Scott, Will Hopoate, Brent Kite… but nonetheless this will be massive.

Watch Out Dragons: They are products of Wollongong who have always felt a little jilted by the Red V so the Stewart brothers will be in for massive games here.

Growing up playing for the Wests club, just a 10-minute drive away from WIN Stadium, Glenn and Brett used to idolise the Dragons. But when the local club only wanted Brett, claiming Glenn wouldn’t cut it in first grade, Manly saw an opportunity and pounced. No-one knows for sure if the Sea Eagles thought Glenn would actually blossom into the fully fledged star he is today or whether they just knew Brett would be worth paying the price of two contracts… whatever their thinking, it turned out to be genius. Both are genuine stars now.

Brett was back to some of his best last week against Parramatta, scoring a try, setting up another, adding seven tackle-breaks, three line-breaks and 103 metres. Glenn had 34 tackles and two line-break assists. The Dragons know they need to limit the pair’s involvement.

Danger Sign: Brett invariably sniffs out a hole in a defensive line, particularly up the middle of the ruck so someone has to be watching him closely all night. If a half chance is on offer, you can be sure Brett will be close by. Interestingly enough though he has never scored at WIN Stadium – the ground he would have imagined doing so on time and again as a kid. It, along with AAMI Park and Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, are his only fruitless venues.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Last year the Dragons loved going left… this year they are coming right more often and with Mark Gasnier in the ranks, why not?

The Dragons have scored 13 tries on the right fringe so far this season; their most prolific tryscoring area, while Manly have conceded 10 tries in the same place, their weakest part of the field.

It was Gasnier who cracked open the semi-final last year with a long-range try – might we see more? He has scored five tries in five games against the Sea Eagles.

Danger Sign: As is often the case it’s the work done off the ball that allows the Dragons to unleash Gasnier. The back-rowers, usually Beau Scott but probably Matt Prior this week, run great decoy lines allowing Soward or Darius Boyd to give Gasnier space one on one against his opponent. (Do yourself a favour and for one set or two, watch the action off the ball and get an appreciation for the skill of decoys.)

Plays To Watch: Both sides will sweep to the sidelines with fullbacks chiming in; Manly will kick back to the posts looking for Stewart to chase; either Dean Young or Nathan Fien will have a crack at the line from dummy-half at some stage; Glenn Stewart will ball-play before the line.

Where It Will Be Won: Defence. Surely you knew this already? Both sides have built their form around it. Both teams love to get amongst it. And both teams, if they are to win this premiership, will do so on the back of it.

The Dragons were flying just a few weeks ago, giving up just 10 points a match and being talked about as one of the best defensive units of all time. But blow-out scores in the last fortnight now mean they are at 12.6 a game – and in fact lost the best defensive tag to Melbourne after last round.

As stated earlier the Sea Eagles are averaging just eight points against them in their past six games – awesome stuff. The side that muscles up in the defensive department will win this game.

Let’s have a look at some defensive numbers: Manly have notched 262 (2nd in NRL) dominant tackles this year, the Dragons have 309 (NRL best). Manly have tallied 30 ‘big’ hits to rattle oppositions and lift the crowd – the Dragons 19. Manly have missed 371 tackles, the Dragons have missed 424; and the Sea Eagles have 193 ineffective tackles to the Dragons’ 256. Percentage-wise the Dragons are making effective tackles 87.3 per cent of the time but Manly are doing better at 88.3 per cent.

The History: Played 17; Dragons 12, Sea Eagles 5. The Dragons have won four of the past six against the Sea Eagles including two impressive wins last season. Both came at WIN Jubilee Stadium, the first a 32-10 hammering before the 28-0 clinic in the first week of the finals – the last time they met. At WIN Stadium in Wollongong the Dragons lead 3-1 in clashes there, with Manly’s only win coming way back in April 2003.

Conclusion: This game is one that looks set to go against current form. The Sea Eagles have been going great but you get the sense the Dragons are ready to snap out of their lull and re-open WIN Stadium with a great performance. Most of their stars are back and if they can get the Origin match out of their minds they may just scrape home.

Manly shouldn’t be friendless though… they’ve been waiting for a crack at the best and want to leave, win or lose, showing they’ll be ready come September. Buckle up all!

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Badger; Touch Judges – Paul Holland & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.