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Dragons v Panthers
WIN Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Altogether now, Dragons’ fans: exhale one huge sigh of relief. With their horror streak finally behind them the Red V will be looking to build a little momentum and endeavour to take a two-game run into the finals by overcoming the middle-of-the-road Panthers at home.

Somewhat incredibly, the Dragons can still nab fourth position on the ladder should they defeat the mountain men, the Sharks upset the Wests Tigers and the Warriors roll the Cowboys in Auckland. While a home semi-final is their best-case scenario, another debilitating loss could see them finish the scheduled rounds in seventh place, where they’d likely meet the Sea Eagles in Week One of the finals. Their motivation is clear: finish as high up the ladder as possible to avoid the possibility of ending one of the two lowest-ranked losers after the first week of the finals.

The Dragons got off to a nervous start against the Warriors and trailed 10-nil after just 10 minutes and 16-10 at halftime before a rare second-half surge saw them home 26-22 winners. They executed their attack well on both sides of the field but defence was an issue – they missed 38 tackles, well up on their season average of 30.

Meanwhile the Panthers scraped home in a lacklustre encounter with the Raiders in Canberra; Luke Walsh’s field goal in the 68th minute was the difference, ultimately securing them the competition points to leave them 11th on the ladder and two wins adrift of the finals zone. (What might have been…)  

In Dragons’ team changes this week Dean Young has been named to start at hooker, with Matt Prior assuming the starting position at lock and Adam Cuthbertson rejoining their bench after recovering from injury. This sees Mitch Rein drop out of the 17, although he has been named 18th man.

Meanwhile Petero Civoniceva and Trent Waterhouse have each played their last games for the Panthers after picking up injuries against the Raiders last week. Civoniceva’s starting position has been assigned to Matthew Bell, while Nathan Smith will cover for Waterhouse in the second row.

However, in a huge boost, NSW Origin representative Luke Lewis returns at lock after three weeks off the scene.  

The game also marks Steve Georgallis’ last game as Panthers’ coach before he hands over the reins to Ivan Cleary; Georgallis will take up an assistant’s role at the Wests Tigers from next year.

Watch Out Dragons: Halfback Luke Walsh was at his probing best last week, contributing 10 kicks and two try assists, as well as his first try since March 2010 and the match-winning field-goal. If the Dragons’ defenders don’t get up into Walsh’s face quickly the under-estimated playmaker can cause them some bother.

Winger David Simmons has been a solid contributor to the Panthers’ cause all year – he leads their ranks for most runs (362, fourth most in the comp), metres gained (2923) and tries (12). But most important heading into this week is the fact he has been on the winning side on six of the past seven occasions he’s suited up against the Dragons (for Penrith and before that Cronulla).

Danger Sign: Expect Luke Walsh to target the sidelines with some well-directed cross-field bombs – both Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale have been a little shaky under the high ball in 2011, defusing little more than 50 per cent of kicks sent their way.  

Watch Out Panthers: Retiring star Mark Gasnier received a fairytale send-off in his final game at WIN Jubilee Oval when the Dragons rolled the Sharks in Round 19 and you can bet the side will be similarly focussed on giving him a positive farewell in Wollongong.

Gasnier has a stunning record at WIN Stadium, accumulating 25 wins from 42 games and tallying 18 tries (including a crucial one last week). Importantly, five of Gasnier’s tries at the venue have originated inside his own half; the Dragons have scored 11 from over halfway this year, while the Panthers have leaked nine from the distance.

Darius Boyd and Brett Morris, two Dragons struggling for fluency and form of late, showed signs of improvement last week. Boyd was more decisive in his approach and Morris more committed in his running. Boyd laid on a superb pass for Morris to score against the Warriors, with the winger’s graceful and pinpoint dive over the line one of the best finishes in 2011.

Also, Morris showed strength to bust seven tackles during the game and Boyd scored a try when on the spot to capitalise on a Warriors’ mistake of his grubber kick. Centre Matt Cooper also ran strongly for 117 metres.

Danger Sign: While there’s no doubt Mark Gasnier has lost a lick of pace since his return to the NRL he has cannily made up for that by boosting his value as a playmaker – he has made 37 offloads to date, the most by any centre in the competition. Junior Vaivai and David Simmons need to secure the ball when called on to defend against him or else supports including Jason Nightingale and Beau Scott will have a field day feasting out on the spoils.

Plays To Watch: Jamie Soward’s trailing supports through the centre of the ruck; Matt Cooper busting the line down the left edge, either off a Darius Boyd assist or else outright; Ben Hornby dummying and scything through the centre; Trent Merrin’s charges and offloads; Luke Lewis creating opportunities from nothing with kicks and passes; Lachlan Coote’s kick returns; Luke Walsh’s huge playmaking work rate.

Where It Will Be Won: The Panthers need to defend stiffly out wide, while the Dragons can expect a barrage of force up the guts.

First though, both sides will be looking to lay a platform off the boot – this game brings together the leading long kickers in the competition, with both Jamie Soward and Luke Walsh heading the list with 275 apiece.

The Dragons will enter the arena with a positive mindset, intent on fine-tuning their attacking sweeps both to the left and right sides of the field. They scored a cracking right-side try last week when the ball passed through six pairs of hands before Jason Nightingale scorched over in the right corner. (Incredibly it was just their sixth try down the corridor all year, compared to 23 on the left!) They’ll be out to gain confidence in execution heading into the finals and will look to target either wing, knowing the Panthers aren’t strong defending either flank (conceding 34 tries right, 31 tries left).

Meanwhile the Panthers have had an inordinate amount of success targeting the centre of the field – and the Dragons’ recent defensive lapses close to their goal line in front of their posts should give them great heart. The Panthers have crossed for 19 tries up the middle and are most dangerous from between 10-20 metres out – 21 of their tries have originated here, the most by any side in this zone.

The History: Played 22; Dragons 15, Panthers 7. The Dragons have won six of the past eight matches – but the Panthers won 12-8 the last time they met, at Kogarah in Round 17 last year. The Dragons hold a 4-1 advantage in Wollongong, a venue where the Panthers have sung their victory song just once in the past 20 years (2006).

Conclusion: With no Civoniceva and no Waterhouse the Panthers will struggle to contain a semi-finals-bound opponent focused on ramping up their effectiveness. Dragons by plenty.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Russell Turner; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 9.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am Sat.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.