Dragons v Knights
The Dragons’ senior members returned to reclaim their reputation as the side to beat in 2011 with a benchmark defensive effort that blunted the normally dangerous Sea Eagles out of the contest last Monday night – but now they’re forced yet again to hand the torch to their inexperienced brigade as the draining Origin period draws to a close.
After a worrying period that saw the premiers bank just one competition point from a possible six and tumble to third on the ladder St George Illawarra answered the challenge in Wollongong in what was in many people’s eyes the game of the season. The Sea Eagles turned up to play and pounded the Dragons’ line repeatedly in the first 40 – they completed six full sets inside the Dragons’ red zone but could not come up with a way of breaching their committed defence.
It was typical Dragons’ play: out-enthuse, out-tackle and outlast the opposition. It certainly put to rest any doubts their form slump may linger beyond Origin.
But this game looms as a red flag in their bid for a third straight minor premiership. They know if they can safely negotiate the Knights they can rest up with their second bye next week before knuckling down to face a relatively easy trio of games against the Sharks, Raiders and Rabbitohs. But a loss here would stall their momentum and afford the Storm, who have their second bye, further breathing space.
The Knights know they’ll never get a better opportunity to take down the Red V. They went agonisingly close at home against a full-strength Dragons unit in Round 4; trailing 20-4 shortly after halftime they steamed home to just fall short, 20-18. Even without captain Kurt Gidley and Akuila Uate the bus ride south won’t hold any qualms – especially given the last time they ventured to Wollongong, in 2006, they put the Dragons to the sword by 54-6, earning their biggest win over the joint-venture side.
It’s a pivotal week for the Knights. Three wins from their past four games, including a did-just-enough win over the Roosters last week, have elevated them to sixth place – but they know a loss here and likely other outcomes would see them drop a place and worse, sit perilously alongside five other teams on 18 competition points, battling for the bottom three positions in the top eight.
The Dragons lose six players to Origin this week (originally it was seven but NRL.com can reveal that in somewhat of a shock prop Trent Merrin has been released from the Blues’ camp and is free to play against the Knights). With Darius Boyd suiting up for the Maroons Jason Nightingale shifts to fullback with Reece Simmonds getting a call back to help out on the right wing. Ratu Peni Tagive substitutes for Brett Morris on the left wing, while Alex McKinnon, who scored two tries on debut against the Titans three weeks ago, takes Mark Gasnier’s No.3 jersey. Nathan Fien (who escaped suspension for his high shot on Brett Stewart last week with an early guilty plea) shifts to five-eighth for Jamie Soward, with skipper Ben Hornby back on deck at halfback after three weeks out with injury. Dean Young will start at hooker, with Mitch Rein moving to the bench. Adam Cuthbertson and Michael Greenfield are the new starting second-rowers, with David Gower, Jake Marketo and Jack Bosden (and Merrin) the new faces on an extended interchange bench.
For the Knights, James McManus returns on the left wing, with Peter Matu’utia shifting to the right flank to cover for Blues rep Uate. In an interesting shift, coach Rick Stone has asked Ryan Stig and Tyrone Roberts to swap jerseys; Stig will play halfback this week, with Roberts at pivot.
In a massive blow, injury prevents Neville Costigan from suiting up against his former club; Joel Edwards has been promoted from the bench to partner Chris Houston in the second row. Cameron Ciraldo and Marvin Karawana are the new faces on the interchange.
Watch Out Dragons: Newcastle are among the most aggressive runners of the football in the NRL, ranking just a hair’s breadth behind the Cowboys in second position for average line-breaks made (4.9), while they rank third for tackle-breaks with 39.5 made a game. That could be a concern for the Dragons, who surprisingly concede the third-most metres by any side (1396 a game).
Former Dragon Wes Naiqama, who signed a new three-year deal this week following a tug of war between the Knights and Dragons for his services from next year, will be out to deliver his punishing best. Naiqama has 54 tackle busts and eight line-breaks so far. Last week against the Roosters he ran 155 metres and set up a try for Junior Sa’u with a wonderful, delayed pass. Against the Dragons in Round 4 he tallied a game-high 165 metres. Given the disruption to the Dragons’ backline he’ll present a major threat. Plus, he played eight games at WIN Stadium for the Dragons, winning six and scoring 32 points.
Reece Simmonds’ lack of height and Ratu Peni Tagive’s shaky hands under the high ball leave the Dragons vulnerable on the flanks. Errors from this pair saw the Titans and Broncos score from bombs in recent weeks.
Evarn Tuimavave and Matt Hilder each managed four offloads the last time these teams met; they’ll need o be contained.
Danger Sign: If the Dragons don’t wrestle their opponents to the ground at the first attempt the Knights will roll downfield and place pressure on the makeshift Dragons to reset their defence.
Watch Out Knights: Alex McKinnon is a star on the rise. In a losing side against the Titans he scored two tries, ran 133 metres and made game-highs in line-breaks (three) and tackle-breaks (nine). He’s a powerfully built individual who boasts a wonderful right-foot sidestep; he’s sure to test out his more experienced opposite Junior Sa’u.
At fullback this week Jason Nightingale represents a huge threat. Last time out against the Knights he scored a try, made 20 runs and contributed three offloads.
Danger Sign: Against the Titans minus their Origin contingent the Dragons weren’t afraid to chance their arm from long range and swept the ball through the hands even when deep in their own half. The Knights will need to be wary, given the Dragons have posted 10 tries from longer than halfway so far, second most behind the Bulldogs’ 13.
Plays To Watch: Dean Young and Mitch Rein having a crack from dummy-half – the Knights have conceded four tries from dives from the ruck to date, the equal second most in the comp (Rein scored this way against the Sea Eagles last week); Jason Nightingale keeping the play going with an offload after a kick return; Ben Hornby probing for weaknesses up the centre with Nightingale supporting; Michael Weyman continuing to bend the opposition line; Junior Sa’u testing out rookie Alex McKinnon; Wes Naiqama testing out wingers Tagive and Simmonds; Matt Hilder’s offloads.
Where It Will Be Won: Turning half chances into scoring plays – whichever side makes the most of their opportunities will come out on top. The Knights have made 29 half-breaks to go with their 68 line-breaks – that’s the second most ‘mini’ chances made behind the Wests Tigers’ 34. The Dragons have tallied 23 half-breaks to go with their 62 line-breaks.
The side that forces the pass and makes it stick could end up the winner.
The History: Played 23; Dragons 15, Knights 8. The Dragons have won five of the past eight including a gutsy 20-18 win at Ausgrid Stadium in Round 4. The record in Wollongong is tied one game all – but it was the venue for the Knights’ biggest ever win over the Red V.
Conclusion: This game will be all about confidence. If the Knights can get on the scoreboard early – in particular by exposing flaws in the games of some of the Dragons’ replacements – it will provide them a huge advantage. But if the Dragons can weather the rough periods they still have the troops to get the job done.
There won’t be a repeat caning in Wollongong for the Knights this time around. The Dragons by six points.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Alan Shortall; Touch Judges – Luke Potter & Steve Chiddy; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.