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Dragons v Sharks
WIN Jubilee Stadium
Monday 7pm

Can lightning strike twice? Sharks’ coach Shane Flanagan will be hoping it’s possible. But it’s unlikely the Dragons will approach this must-win game with anything less than total commitment after they were badly burned 16-10 by the Shire boys in an intriguing, physical Monday night encounter in Round 2.

That defeat and the huge motivation of two never-more-valuable competition points as they battle to stay in the race for a third straight minor premiership will ensure the Dragons turn up switched on.

Meanwhile the Sharks, the surprise packets of the past month, will fancy their chances of inflicting more pain on the Red V. Consecutive wins over the Bulldogs, Titans, Rabbitohs and Raiders has trampolined them off the bottom of the ladder into 10th position on 18 competition points – on level pegging with the 8th-placed Panthers but third of four sides on 18 points based on points differential. A win and other results falling their way would see them leave the field on Monday in 7th position. But a loss and poor outcomes elsewhere would drop them a spot to 11th.  

It will be 12 days since the Dragons’ jaded Origin contingent last played, giving them plenty of time to recover from any niggling injuries – although in a huge blow captain Ben Hornby is out with a fractured hand picked up in the loss to the Knights.

It will be an emotional evening for the Dragons’ players given star centre Mark Gasnier’s announcement that he will retire at the end of 2011. If the Dragons don’t qualify for a home semi-final, this will be his swansong at Kogarah HQ. Talk about added incentive…

The Dragons didn’t handle the representative period at all well, dropping crucial games to the Titans and Knights – the latter viewed as a likely win at home given Newcastle were missing Akuila Uate and Kurt Gidley. In fact, they’ve managed just three competition points from the past five games to seriously jeopardise not only their minor premiership claims but also their vice-like grip on a top-four spot. We’re about to see whether they still have the drive and belief that earned them a premiership last year.

It’s a vastly different Dragons squad to the one that fell to Newcastle. Centre Matt Cooper makes his return from injury in the centres, displacing Kyle Stanley. Darius Boyd returns in the No.1, pushing Jason Nightingale (playing his 100th NRL game) to the right wing and Ratu Peni Tagive out of the squad. Mark Gasnier returns for Alex McKinnon, Brett Morris for Reece Simmonds. Jamie Soward slots back in at pivot, with Nathan Fien moving one position closer to the scrum to cover for Hornby.

In the pack, Dean Young returns at hooker, pushing Mitch Rein to the bench – Young has also been handed the captaincy. Ben Creagh and Beau Scott occupy the second row with Adam Cuthbertson and Trent Merrin benched.

Meanwhile the Sharks are as per last week’s program, with the addition of Johnny Mannah on an extended bench.

Watch Out Dragons: Kade Snowden, Luke Douglas and Paul Gallen will be homing in on the Dragons like guided missiles, just like they did in their upset victory in Round 2. The trio put their bodies on the line and smashed the Red V into submission. By the time the Dragons recovered late in the game the match was gone. The trio will be out to make shock waves again.

But they’ll also be intent on punching holes in the St George Illawarra defensive line: Gallen is averaging an NRL-high 182 metres a game, with 61 tackle-breaks, while Snowden is averaging 129 metres with 34 tackle-breaks and Douglas 102 metres and 41 tackle-breaks.

The Sharks are proving difficult to contain of late due to their excellent second-phase play – overall they rank fourth for offloads (13.4 a game). Anthony Tupou leads the way with 38 (fourth most), with Gallen contributing 35. Dragons centres Mark Gasnier and Matt Cooper will need to be at their defensive best as the Sharks pair of Colin Best and Ben Pomeroy are creating a heap of opportunities out wide, with 28 and 20 offloads respectively.

Danger Sign: If the Sharks rush up quickly and monster the Dragons in numbers, with brutal front-on hits and shoulder charges evident in the opening 15 minutes, you’ll know they’re out to give the premiers a dose of Round 2 déjà vu.

Watch Out Sharks: Despite being off the scene for more than a month Dragons centre Matt Cooper retains third spot in the season rankings for line-breaks. The 32-year-old has run into space 12 times in 11 games. He’s in career-best form.

Expect Jamie Soward to relish getting his hands on the football more and guide the Dragons around the park after being the victim of a disjointed New South Wales game plan during Origin. No player is better than Soward at turning oppositions around – he’s gained the most metres off the boot of any player in the comp (6908), averaging more than half a kilometre every game! And if the Sharks rush up too quickly, Soward can make them pay – he loves to change the point of the attack, either with a long pass or a run himself. He has 13 try assists and six line-breaks so far.

Danger Sign: If the Sharks are over-enthusiastic in their defence it could backfire, with Soward looking to exploit any defender who hasn’t run up with the rest of his team-mates, or cover defenders who haven’t drifted across to ‘shut the gate’ on the Dragons’ attacking sweeps.

Plays To Watch: Reigning Dally M Fullback of the Year Darius Boyd looking for action after a quiet Origin series; Ben Creagh and Beau Scott making impact on the fringes; Mark Gasnier and Matt Cooper asserting dominance in the centres; Jamie Soward chip-kicking for Gasnier on the fly; Sharks forwards ripping in; Jeremy Smith giving it to his former team-mates; Nathan Gardner’s whippet-like pace.

Where It Will Be Won: The side that completes more of their sets with fewer mistakes will win.

In their four losses and draw the Dragons have pretty much been on the wrong side of the completions ledger. The Sharks built their 16-10 victory in Round 2 around a dominant defensive game that bustled the Dragons into mistakes. That night they won the completions a whopping 85 per cent to 70 per cent. They also forced the Dragons into missing 38 tackles.

In the Dragons’ 14-all draw with Parramatta in Round 13, the Eels held their own, completing at 77 per cent to the Dragons’ 78 per cent. In Round 14, the Titans’ 28-14 victory was built around an 85-72 per cent completion dominance. The Broncos won 21-14 in Round 15 with a 74-71 per cent completions ‘victory’ – also forcing the Dragons into a season-high 46 missed tackles. And in Round 17, the Knights won 14-10 after managing an even possession split of 80 per cent completions.

If the Dragons win the completions battle it’s unlikely the Sharks will win this time around.

The History: Played 27; Sharks 14, Dragons 12, drawn 1. Results between these sides tend to run in streaks. The Sharks won a fierce battle at Toyota Stadium in Round 2. Before that the Dragons won four in a row… and before that the Sharks won three in a row. The Dragons hold a 4-2 advantage at WIN Jubilee Stadium.

Conclusion: The Sharks’ season goes on the line in this game, so they’ll be pumped. But getting over the top of the Dragons at Kogarah, where they’ve won just five games in the past 30 years, is a tough ask.

If the Dragons lose this game they can kiss goodbye to the minor premiership… and their grip on a top-four spot would be loosened considerably. However, against Manly we saw what they’re capable of when they field a full-strength side. They’re not premiers for nothing and will be ready to go. Dragons by eight points.

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & David Munro; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats