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Dragons v Warriors
WIN Stadium
Sunday 2pm

Tick, tick, tick, tick… time is running out for the reigning premiers to get their campaign back on track as they meet a determined Warriors outfit that has just found a home in the top four.

Some are saying the Dragons did ‘right the ship’ in their close 8-6 loss to the Storm last weekend… but the same people said as much after the close loss to the Wests Tigers and the Red V fell to a depleted Roosters, at home, the week after.

They have now lost five in a row and won just two of their past 11 games to fall to seventh on the ladder. Shudder.

The Bulldogs’ loss to Manly last weekend means they can’t miss the finals (actually mathematically if they lost both games by very heavy margins and this week the Knights beat the Bulldogs and the Rabbitohs beat the Broncos, before next week the Rabbitohs and Knights slugged out a 90-minute draw, they could miss out…) but they could still fall as low as eighth and then possibly face a sudden-death trip to Melbourne.

Last week was their 11th loss in a row in the Victorian capital, a city they haven’t won in since the 1999 finals.

If they win they’ll jump to at least sixth place, overtaking the Warriors, and could potentially even get as high as fourth again if both the Wests Tigers and Cowboys lost.

The Warriors moved to fourth thanks to a nice win over Penrith. If they win they’ll likely remain in the top four but a loss could see them back to seventh, such is the logjam. They can earn a home final with two wins and have set their sights on just that.

The good news for the Dragons is the Warriors have never beaten them in Wollongong… but it had been a long time between drinks for the chooks in the ’Gong, too…

Mark Gasnier and Brett Morris are due back in the side after Gasnier missed the Storm clash through injury and Morris was granted personal leave to be present at the birth of his baby girl.

This means Bronx Goodwin is out (he would’ve been anyway due to his tragic knee injury) and Matt Prior moves from centre to lock. Dean Young now starts at hooker and Mitch Rein joins the bench.

Adam Cuthbertson has been added to the reserves list, which numbers six members.

The Warriors have been hit with a body blow coming into the clash, with blockbusting winger Manu Vatuvei out with an injured wrist. Krisnan Inu is his replacement.

Other changes are just cosmetic, with Jacob Lillyman to start at prop for Sam Rapira and Feleti Mateo to start in the second row for Elijah Taylor. The side was named this way last week before pre-game switches, so don’t be surprised if this occurs again.

Lewis Brown has been added as an 18th man.

Watch Out Dragons: When the Warriors were at their best in the early 2000s they played a scintillating brand of football. Offloads here, there and everywhere… attack from all corners… it was fun to watch unless it was your team getting pummelled. This year’s model might not be quite so expansive but they do have a great knack for scoring long-range tries and the Dragons have to be wary of it. They’ve scored 17 tries originating from within their own half (second in NRL) compared to the Dragons who have 11. In the Dragons’ favour, however, is the fact they are the best team in the NRL in terms of limiting long-range efforts with just four conceded against them.

Danger Sign: The Dragons should keep an eye on rookie half Shaun Johnson. He is personally responsible for six of the Warriors’ 17 long-range tries. From only 11 appearances NRL Stats informs us he has already posted seven of the 14 longest runs by any half at the club over the past decade. His support running numbers aren’t big at all, so it would appear he knows where to be at the right time.

Watch Out Warriors: ‘B Moz’ is back! Okay, granted he’s not the most dangerous player in the comp. He’s not even the most dangerous player in the Dragons’ line-up… but what he does bring is a brilliant combination with centre Matt Cooper, one that was sorely lacking against the Storm. It’s no secret the Dragons’ pet play, and sometimes only play, is to head left. It has helped them to 22 tries on the left sideline, more than any other team in the NRL. If you were trying to count on your fingers and toes how many times Kyle Stanley couldn’t get a neat pass on the left wing last week, you would have had both shoes off and would’ve been asking your neighbour for help! We are in no way trying to blame Stanley – some of the passes to him were abysmal – but the sixth sense between Cooper and Brett Morris has been built up over time. It will serve the Dragons well this week.

Danger Sign: The Warriors will know when it’s coming. It’s no secret. The ball will get to one of the halves, Ben Creagh will steamroll through as the flat running option, Darius Boyd will curve around the back on the sweep, Cooper will be hoping for an ‘outball’ to get himself outside his man and then when the winger comes in to help he’ll pop the ball to a flying Morris. Easy to predict… but it’s very difficult to stop.

Plays To Watch: The Dragons letting kicks bounce (they shouldn’t, don’t ask us why they are, but they are!); Kevin Locke’s kick returns; Feleti Mateo’s offloads; Mark Gasnier’s dummy-half runs.

Where It Will Be Won: Confidence. Sounds simple, right? Almost stupid? But the fact is the Dragons have been playing without it for weeks now and their results speak accordingly. If the Dragons can get their attacking mojo flowing and back it up with their renowned defence (unlike a few weeks back against Souths) then it is possible they could put a big score on the Warriors. But if the Warriors turn up with all the confidence garnered from their recent form, they can keep the Dragons down in the gutters.

It might sound weird but this game could be won and lost when the teams run onto the pitch. If the Warriors look and feel intimidated to play the premiers on a patch of turf they’ve never won at, then they are almost inviting the Dragons to find their fire again. But if they come out pumped and ready to rip and tear and show the Dragons little respect, the home side might continue to play the flustered style that has plagued them in recent months.

The side that can get the ebbs and flows heading in their direction, and then make the most of the possession swing, should prevail.  

The History: Played 17; Dragons 13, Warriors 4. The Dragons have won seven of the past eight matches including the past five in a row against the Warriors. The last came earlier this year when the Red V got up 25-12 in Auckland. At WIN Stadium the Dragons hold an impressive 7-0 record against the Warriors; the visitors haven’t won in Wollongong since 1996 when they defeated Illawarra 30-20.

Conclusion: Call us clairvoyant, as there is no real form to see this actually happening, but we are going to predict the rebirth of the Dragons. They’ll defend like last week but have more polished attack with Gasnier and Morris back and it will frustrate the Warriors into errors.

If this doesn’t happen and the Dragons don’t get something rolling again, you can almost say goodnight to their chances in September. Momentum and confidence are the keys to the finals. For the premiers, that has to start now.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.