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Dragons v Rabbitohs
WIN Stadium
Sunday 3pm

This time last week the Dragons were shrugging off hoodoos as nonsense but you can bet they’ll be hoping their rock solid record against the Rabbitohs in Wollongong will be the omen they need to get their spluttering premiership defence back on track – the bunnies have just one win in 12 games at WIN Stadium dating back to 1989.

The Dragons capitulated with a timid second half at Canberra Stadium last week, allowing the Raiders to snatch victory at the death – their 12th over the Red V in their past 13 outings. More, it maintained their winning streak against the premiers in the nation’s capital, with St George Illawarra’s last win there coming back in 2000.

It was the Dragons’ fourth loss from their past six games and worryingly they have banked just five competition points since May 29! They sit third on the ladder on 29 points but just one point ahead of the Cowboys and Broncos. Whereas heading into last week they might have been hopeful of contending for the minor premiership the Canberra loss now places their claim to even a top-four finish in jeopardy.

Meanwhile the Rabbitohs sit in 12th position after their feeble 48-16 loss to the Warriors at home last week. They are just two wins away from the finals zone but even if they were to rally with six consecutive victories to close the scheduled rounds it’s likely their woeful points differential (currently -94) would come back to haunt them.

In a major boost for the Dragons they’ll head into this clash at near full strength for the first time in several months, missing just Dean Young from their roster. Captain Ben Hornby is back having recovered from the fractured hand that kept him sidelined for the past two games, while Dan Hunt will start at prop after being a late withdrawal last week (he pushes Trent Merrin to the pine). Nathan Fien returns to hooker, with Mitch Rein reverting to the interchange. Jon Green and Kyle Stanley round out the extended bench with David Gower and Jack De Belin missing.

The Rabbitohs welcome back their captain this week too, with Michael Crocker set to play lock and pushing Ben Lowe to the bench. Jason Clark will start in the second row with Dave Tyrrell benched.

Milestone trivia: the Dragons need 17 more points to register 10,000 scored at WIN Stadium.

Watch Out Dragons: The Dragons looked shaky defending their line last week. They’ve now surrendered 34 of 40 tries from 20 metres or closer (29 from just 10 metres out). If the Rabbitohs can limit their errors (currently 12.3, fifth most) and get some repeat sets they can make the Dragons (and their fans) sweat.

Right-side winger Nathan Merritt looks to be the go-to man for the Rabbitohs. Merritt has crossed for 12 tries to rank second on the tryscorer’s list.

Rhys Wesser can make inroads; he ranks third for kick-return metres (973), averaging 12.2 each run. He has 11 line-breaks too – look for him to chime in down Matt Cooper and Ben Creagh’s sector of the ground, where the Dragons have surrendered their most points (11 tries).

Centre Greg Inglis will be licking his lips at the thought of going head to head with Mark Gasnier – the Maroons’ centre has a career seven wins from nine games against the Dragons and has crossed for four tries.

Danger Sign: Greg Inglis is due a breakout game. Time’s running out so this could be it.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: When the Rabbitohs clock off in defence, they really clock off. Last week they surrendered nine tries – the most by any side in a game in 2011. And they’ve leaked seven tries three times, most recently against the Sea Eagles in Round 18.

Consequently it’s no surprise to see them ranked No.1 for missed tackles, averaging a whopping 39 a game. Chris Sandow and Issac Luke are the standout culprits, ranked No.1 and No.2 for tackle misses with 97 and 82 respectively. If the Dragons isolate the pair and send traffic their way close to the try line the scoreboard attendant will have his work cut out for him.

Limiting the Dragons’ inroads will be paramount and one opposition player who is really hitting his straps is Blues’ representative Trent Merrin. After Dan Hunt’s withdrawal last week Merrin made the most of his starting role at prop, gaining 177 metres from 19 runs with two offloads and 33 tackles in a polished and busy 61 minutes. With Hunt back this week there will be no let-up for the Rabbitohs in the centre of the park when Merrin is injected off the bench.

Danger Sign: If the Dragons’ forwards start popping offloads their speedy backs will have a field day. The Dragons rank No.2 for offloads, averaging 14.1 a game, while the Rabbitohs are the side most susceptible to second-phase raids, conceding an NRL-high 14.2 offloads a game. 

Also, the Dragons will fancy their chances of adding points approaching halftime – the Rabbitohs have conceded six tries in the five minutes before the break (equal most).

Plays To Watch: The Dragons’ repetitive left-side sweeps with either Brett Morris the recipient of a final pass or Ben Creagh crashing through on the fringe – the Rabbitohs have leaked an NRL-high 38 tries on their right side; Jamie Soward’s left-foot cross-field chip kick into the in-goal for Mark Gasnier; Adam Cuthbertson’s offloads; Greg Inglis taking on Gasnier down the left side; Chris Sandow and Issac Luke trying their luck from close range after Josh McCrone’s solo success last week; Sandow probing for his fifth 40/20 of the year.

Where It Will Be Won: The battle for territory. In their Round 6 win over the Rabbitohs the Dragons tallied the most runs (213) and metres (1858) made by any side in a game this year. That’s a huge concern for the Rabbitohs, who currently concede the second most metres a game (1429).

But… the Rabbitohs can take heart from the Raiders’ performance last Monday night. Canberra make the second-fewest metres a game (1269) but forced the issue, clawing out a whopping 882 metres in the crucial second half and limiting the Dragons to just 660 metres. They won the second half 18-1, showing that no matter how solid the Dragons’ defence might appear, it is still vulnerable if made to back-pedal.

Hooker Issac Luke can play a major role in getting the Rabbitohs on the front foot. He’s made the most runs out of dummy-half by any player (190) and with the Dragons’ markers  showing a preference for letting players run rather than concede penalties by getting involved when they are not square, Luke can make huge metres here.

Of course the Dragons will be intent on making as much territory as possible, which would limit their exposure to any roll-on by the Rabbitohs. Currently the Dragons make the most territory in games, notching 1453 metres. But they also yield 1382 metres, the fourth most.

The History: Played 17; Dragons 14, Rabbitohs 3. The Dragons have won six of the past eight, including a 16-nil win in Round 6. The Rabbitohs’ last victory was their biggest over the Red V, a 41-6 pasting at ANZ Stadium in 2009. The Dragons hold a 4-1 advantage in Wollongong.

Conclusion: This is a must-win game for the Dragons in their quest for a home semi-final. They have some key men back in key positions so there will be no excuses if they fail to flatter.

The Rabbitohs are certainly capable of scoring points quickly but their record shows they are unlikely to sustain it for the full 80 minutes. (Still, that’s what everyone thought about the Raiders last week…)

We’re predicting the Dragons will get back on track by eight points. 

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats