NRL.com stats guru David Middleton gives his insight on Round 23 and says the struggling Dragons can defend their title - Wayne Bennett has done it before...
Broncos' love affair with the north continues
The Broncos continued their incredible record of success in Townsville with their emphatic 34-16 defeat of the Cowboys. The Brisbane men have now met the Cowboys 17 times at Dairy Farmers Stadium and come away losers only twice. Ironically, the Broncos have won only three from seven against the Cowboys at Suncorp Stadium.
Wests Tigers may not have been at the top of their game against the Panthers last Friday night but the fact that they scored first and were never headed was a rarity in their season. It was only the third time they have managed to achieve such a feat, following go-to-whoa wins over Canberra (Rd 3) and North Queensland (Rd 19). All three wins were achieved away from home.
Newcastle's Mt Smart hoodoo
Mt Smart Stadium has turned into a hoodoo ground for the Newcastle Knights, who once boasted a proud record at the Auckland arena. In their first nine trips across the Tasman (1996-2005), the Knights lost only once but since 2006 they have gone down every time. Last Saturday's 20-12 defeat was their sixth in succession at Mt Smart and has jeopardised their hopes of a finals berth.
Are Kearney's Eels the new Bears?
Parramatta's Stephen Kearney is the youngest coach in the NRL at 39 but he has aged before our eyes this season as his Eels' team have suffered a succession of narrow defeats to rival the losing streaks of the old North Sydney Bears. In the 1970s and 1980s, Norths were famous for finding imaginative ways to lose “unlosable” games and at times in 2011 the Eels have appeared to channel their spirit. It was a different situation on Saturday night when they had the opportunity to score a late try and potentially send their game with Manly to golden point, but fullback Luke Burt just failed to snatch a bouncing ball as the fulltime siren sounded. It was the seventh time since Round 12 that the Eels have lost a game by six points or less.
Melbourne equalled a club record established in 2006 when they achieved their 11th successive victory by downing the last-placed Gold Coast Titans 40-16 last Saturday night and they will go in search of 12 straight against the Dragons in Round 24. The last team to win 12 straight was the Bulldogs in 2002.
South Sydney pair Chris Sandow and Nathan Merritt are on track for a rare slice of history by becoming the first Rabbitohs' players in 84 years to top the seasons' list of try-scorers and point-scorers.
Sandow (175 points) has a 17-point lead over Warrior James Maloney as the leading point-scorer while Merritt (21 tries) leads the try-scorers by six over Canterbury's Ben Barba. The last South Sydney pair to complete the double was five-eighth Alf 'Smacka' Blair (94 points) and winger Benny Wearing (16 tries) in 1927. Sandow, meanwhile, is poised to become the first Rabbitohs' player since Eric Simms in 1970 to top 200 points in a season.
Write off the Dragons at your own peril
For those pundits prepared to write off the Dragons as potential premiers following their recent dose of the staggers, there is a startling parallel between this year's Dragons and the premiership-winning Brisbane Broncos of 2006. That year, Wayne Bennett's Broncos won only two games from nine starts between Round 14 and Round 23 and they dropped from first after Round 13 to fifth after Round 23. This year, Bennett's Dragons have fared only marginally worse, winning two games from 10 starts from Round 13 to Round 23. They too have fallen from first to fifth. In 2006, the Broncos won their last three regular season games to finish third. They lost their opening finals game (ironically to the Dragons), before recovering and going on to win the title. Who's to say Bennett's Dragons won't follow the same path?