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Wests Tigers v Dragons
Sydney Football Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

It’s incredible to think that for the first time in two seasons the Dragons will run onto the field outsiders this week! Their desperate mission will be to arrest the inexplicable, dramatic decline in their collective attitudes over the past fortnight that now threatens their hold on a precious top-four ranking and with it a home semi-final.

And the timing couldn’t be worse, coming up against a resurgent Wests Tigers still preening after reeling in the Sea Eagles with a withering second half to consolidate their spot in the top eight.

It was the Tigers, of course, who the Dragons bumped from last year’s premiership with a gripping 13-12 win in the preliminary final. Now they want revenge – and with the Dragons all but lying prone on the canvas following ridiculous second-half capitulations to the lowly Raiders (led by 12 points at halftime, lost by five) and the Rabbitohs last week (led by 14, lost by 10 – in Wollongong!) they’ll never get a better chance to inflict what could be irreparable psychological damage to the Red V.

The Tigers looked to be battling when they trailed the Sea Eagles 12-nil at halftime in Gosford last Friday before Benji Marshall stamped his brilliance with two sublime try assists and captain Robbie Farah chimed in with one of his own that saw the gold-and-blacks tally 14 unanswered points to clinch the victory.

While Newcastle’s 30-point winning margin over the Titans relegated Tim Sheens’ charges to eighth position, just eight points adrift of the Novocastrians on differential, the good news is that losses by the Panthers and Bulldogs mean the Tigers are two wins clear of the nearest chasers.

Meanwhile the premiers have now lost five of their past eight games, including a drawn encounter with Parramatta. In that time they’ve managed just one competition point in games against teams ranked 14th, 15th and 16th. Compounding their worries they must regroup and prepare with just a five-day back-up.

Ironically, the Dragons can trace their second-half woes back to Round 12, when they beat the Wests Tigers 24-18 but lost the second stanza 12-4.

With the exception of Lote Tuqiri and Simon Dwyer the Tigers are at full strength; their starting 13 remains unchanged from last week, with Wade McKinnon and Mitch Brown joining the 16 players who got the job done last week. Matt Groat has been named 18th man.

Meanwhile the Dragons welcome back hooker Dean Young after three weeks on the sidelines with knee tendonitis; he’ll play off the bench. Young’s return sees Kyle Stanley named as 18th man, while Mitch Rein completes their extended interchange.

This week’s venue won’t hold any fears for the Dragons – they’ve won their past four games at the SFS by a combined 102-26. And the expected big crowd should prove a bonus, even though it’s an away game – the Tigers have just a 7-8 record when playing front of more than 30,000, while the Dragons boast a 21-14 record.

It’s a big week for Tigers Bryce Gibbs and Keith Galloway, who play their 150th and 100th NRL games respectively.

The loser this week gets some cold comfort – five of the past six premiers lost in Round 22 of their premiership season.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: The Dragons gained early success with their trademark left-side sweeps last week, scoring twice in the opening 15 minutes. Given the Tigers’ right-side defenders have conceded 28 tries compared to 19 let in down their left, and given Dragons’ left centre Matt Cooper opened the scoring against the Tigers in Round 12, it’s safe to say Blake Ayshford, Robert Lui, Gareth Ellis and Matt Utai will be under siege from the get-go.

Getting a 20-nil lead so early was counter-productive for the Dragons last week; they seemed to go into their shells and abandoned the prolific offloading game that has served them so well in 2011. The Dragons rank third for offloads (13.3) yet offered just five last week – a season low. They made 16 in their Round 12 win over the Tigers.

Danger Sign: If Mark Gasnier (34 offloads), Ben Creagh (32), Adam Cuthbertson (31), Jason Nightingale (25) and Matt Prior (20) generate some risky plays early in the contest, and keep errors to a minimum, you’ll know the Dragons are intent on getting back their mojo.

Mark Gasnier has crossed for 21 tries from 15 games against the Tigers, with four hat-tricks – Blake Ayshford (49 missed tackles – second most by any centre) needs to muscle up.

Watch Out Dragons: The Dragons conceded five tries down their left side last week, taking their season tally to 23. They let in just one down Mark Gasnier’s right side, at the death, making it just 14 for the year down that corridor. Clearly Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah will probe for openings on the right fringe and edge, looking to capitalise on the low confidence of Matt Cooper, captain Ben Hornby and left winger Brett Morris. It’s certainly a strong point for them; the Wests Tigers have crossed for 35 tries on the right side compared to just 15 on the left.

Jamie Soward’s goal-kicking is a major concern. He’s booted just two goals from nine attempts in his past two games. The effect this is having on the team – scoring tries but failing to pull away from the opposition – can’t be understated. He kicked seven from seven against the Sharks three weeks ago. Clearly something is amiss.

Liam Fulton has scored five tries in nine games against the Red V, is undefeated against them in two games at the SFS – and the Tigers boast a 20-4 winning record when he’s crossed for a try.

Tim Moltzen gets the chance to show his team-mates from next year what he’s capable of – he averages nine metres on kick returns but is sure to get plenty of opportunities to bolster that fielding Jamie Soward’s clearances.

Danger Sign: If the Tigers can camp downfield and are able to force some repeat sets the Dragons may crack. Worryingly, 40 of the 46 tries they’ve conceded have come from inside 20 metres, including all six last week. One of those was from dummy-half – and the Tigers have crossed for six tries from dummy-half so far, the second most behind the Cowboys’ seven. You can bet Robbie Farah will have a dig at some stage.

Plays To Watch: Benji Marshall’s flicks and no-look passes; Chris Lawrence’s surges down the left (he made a career-best 17 runs and 161 metres last week, plus six tackle-breaks); Robbie Farah’s grubber kicks into the in-goal; Keith Galloway’s go-forward (198 metres from 21 hit-ups in 63 minutes against Manly); Liam Fulton and Gareth Ellis running angles on the right and left fringe respectively; Robert Lui’s busts (11 line-breaks – from a halfback!); Matt Cooper and Brett Morris combining to expose Blake Ayshford and Matt Utai down the Dragons’ left side; Soward looking to get the Dragons on the front foot after a rare loss in the battle of the boot against the Rabbitohs (548 metres to 722 metres); Mark Gasnier and Jason Nightingale looking to bamboozle Beau Ryan.

Where It Will Be Won: In the first half. The Dragons have yet to overcome a halftime deficit to win (they’ve recorded two losses and a draw in the three games they’ve been behind on the scoreboard after 40 minutes).

Of greater concern is that in four of the five losses over the past seven games they’ve led at halftime yet were outscored in the second half.

And in five of their 12 wins they’ve led at the break but have been outscored by their opponent in the second 40. Clearly if the Wests Tigers can make it to the sheds with their nose in front it could be too much for the fragile Dragons to overcome. 

The History: Played 21; Dragons 12, Wests Tigers 9. The Dragons have won five of the past eight, including the past four.  The Tigers hold a 3-1 advantage at the SFS. Conclusion: We said last week’s game was a must-win clash for the Dragons if they wanted to cement a home semi-final. Now it’s pretty much do or die; a loss here and they’ll almost certainly kiss goodbye to a top-four spot.

It’s a funny game; two weeks ago no fan would have foreseen the massive momentum shift in these teams’ fortunes. The Tigers were queries to make the top eight, the Dragons still alive in the race for the minor premiership.

That’s what makes this game crucial. Momentum and redemption are at stake. We wouldn’t be surprised if the winner of this battle went on to make the grand final. It’s that important.

On the strength of what they’ve shown against the top sides when they’ve needed to, we’re giving the Dragons one last chance.

St George Ilawarra by six points.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Daniel Eastwood; Video Ref – Chris Ward.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats