Raiders v Dragons
Every team has their bogy side – and boy, are the Raiders the Dragons’ nemesis! In fact, the crushing weight of statistics suggests the premiers might as well save their petrol money, forfeit and stay at home on Monday rather than make the three-hour trek south to the nation’s capital.
For starters, the Dragons have just one win in the ledger from their past 12 games against the Green Machine. And they haven’t won at Canberra Stadium since Cathy Freeman lit the flame to open the Sydney 2000 Olympics!
Want another pin for the Red V voodoo doll? Okay… three of the Dragons’ four losses this season have been inflicted by teams based outside Sydney (Broncos, Titans and Knights). And finally, prior to last week Canberra had been held scoreless five times since 1984 but threw form out the window to win the very next week. Coming off a 26-nil loss to the Storm, is that on the cards again?
However, omens and statistics aside, this appears a lopsided contest. Time has run out for the Raiders’ finals hopes in 2011; with just five wins all year they languish in 14th position on the ladder and their major task over the concluding seven weeks will be to avoid the wooden spoon.
Meanwhile the Dragons got their premiership campaign back on track with a stunning victory over the Sharks last Monday night. They looked sharp and precise after a worrying Origin period that saw them gain just three competition points from a possible 10. They still have a few injury concerns, with captain Ben Hornby (fractured hand) and his deputy Dean Young (knee soreness) still sidelined, although coach Wayne Bennett is hopeful of having both back on deck within a fortnight.
In team changes, Kyle Stanley returns from injury to wear the No.9 and control the ruck, with Mitch Rein benched. Beau Scott has overcome a viral infection and packs down along Blues’ Origin team-mate Ben Creagh in the second row, pushing Trent Merrin to the bench. Centre Matt Cooper has been handed the captaincy, while winger Brett Morris will make his 100th NRL appearance.
Meanwhile Canberra coach David Furner has retained the 17 players who fell to the Storm last week, although word has it boom second-rower Josh Papalii could be a late inclusion should he pass a late fitness test.
Watch Out Raiders: The Dragons look intent on perfecting their running game over the closing rounds. All their backs except for five-eighth Jamie Soward and halfback Nathan Fien made triple-figure metre gains against the Sharks.
Centre Matt Cooper, in his return after a month off with injury, was particularly dangerous – he made 152 metres, a line-break, two offloads and scored a determined try. On the other side of the field Mark Gasnier made 105 metres and shut out the opposition with 25 tackles. Brettt Morris scored a try, made a game-high nine tackle-breaks and matched Cooper’s 152 metres while fullback Darius Boyd made 113 metres and Jason Nightingale 100. That’s a huge concern for Raiders’ centres Joel Thompson and Danny Galea who miss 2.6 and three tackles a match respectively.
But they also showed some brute force from close range, with tries to forwards Michael Weyman (just his sixth ever), Jake Marketo (his maiden NRL four-pointer) and Jon Green (second ever).
Danger Sign: While the left-side shifts got a workout last week the Dragons may head right this game – the Raiders’ left-side defenders have conceded 30 tries in 2011, equal most alongside the Titans.
Watch Out Dragons: Hard to find too much to nit-pick about with the premiers… although they need to concentrate on keeping a good defensive structure close to their try line. They’ve conceded just 36 tries all year but 26 have been scored from inside 10 metres. The last thing they want this close to the semi-finals is to surrender a few soft tries from close range; it could leave them doubting their ability to muscle up when the true tests arrive.
You can bet Josh Dugan will be pumped for a special performance – the young fullback has made the most inroads against the Dragons by any player in history, with a personal record of 214 metres gained each time he takes the field against them, plus an average eight tackle-breaks. He can spark something special.
Danger Sign: Raiders lock Sean Fensom leads the NRL for decoy runs (101); he will be an important part of their attacking structure when they get close to the Dragons’ try line. The Dragons’ defenders need to shut out the distraction he creates and focus on good defensive reads inside their 10-metre zone.
Plays To Watch: Josh Dugan fielding Jamie Soward’s numerous clearing kicks and charging back at the Red V; Blake Ferguson making huge metres (averages 143 with 80 tackle-breaks); Sam Williams and Josh McCrone looking to put runners through close to the try line; Matt Cooper and Mark Gasnier giving the Raiders a lesson in centre play; Ben Creagh storming down the left fringe; Matt Prior’s Inspector Gadget-like reach close to the line.
Where It Will Be Won: The battle for territory. Although on paper it appears it won’t be much of a battle, with the Dragons churning out the most metres by any side every week (1453) while the Raiders manage just the second fewest (1269).
All the other stats are disheartening for Raiders’ fans too – they concede the most line-breaks per game (five), have the third-highest missed tackle count (36.9 a game) and make the third most errors (12.9).
The History: Played 19; Raiders 12, Dragons 6, drawn 1. The Raiders have won 11 of the past 12 games between the sides, with the Dragons’ sole victory in that period coming in 2007 when they thrashed the Green Machine 58-16 in Wollongong. They lost both matches last year but went on to win the premiership.
Conclusion: Despite their excellent record only a diehard Raiders’ fan would give Canberra much of a chance here. The Dragons look to have too much flair and muscle.
The Dragons by 12 points.
Match Officials: Referees – Brett Suttor & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Chris Butler; Video Ref – Steve Clark.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.
* Stats: NRL Stats