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Wests Tigers v Dragons
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.45pm 

Junior Passes get into Sydney Finals for Free
Public Transport included in Finals Tickets

The timely return to form of the defending premiers, the red-hot streak of the Wests Tigers, a rematch of that epic, pulsating preliminary final from last year… this one has all the ingredients of being one of the most exciting and hotly contested preliminary finals in recent memory (well – since that amazing 100-minute match between the Tigers and Roosters last year anyway!)

It’s hard to believe now but it’s not that long ago the Tigers were in the doldrums, suffering a mid-season slump that saw them score just one try per game over three consecutive losses. The third of those, a 22-6 capitulation at Parramatta, was their last loss this year as they went on to finish the regular season with eight straight wins that has many tipping them as the team to watch in the finals series.

Meanwhile the Dragons at one point lost eight games in 10 starts, including five losses in a row, before bouncing back with consecutive (and confidence-boosting) wins in Rounds 25 and 26. The Red V were unbackable favourites for the minor premiership after winning 10 from their first 11 games, but they came unstuck badly during the representative period. Wayne Bennett seems to have steadied the ship just in time, having his troops back to their ominous best last week against the Panthers.

It’s impossible to look ahead to their clash this week without casting an eye back to the last time these two met in a finals series. In front of more than 70,000 fans at ANZ Stadium the Tigers led twice against the Dragons but spent most of the second half locked at 12-all, before a Jamie Soward field-goal five minutes from time denied the Tigers a spot in the decider.

Another sub-plot here is the head-to-head battle between two of the most experienced, successful and well-regarded coaches in the NRL. Tigers coach Tim Sheens last tasted premiership success with the Tigers (who he has coached ever since) in 2005, while Dragons mentor Wayne Bennett is the reigning champ, having last year notched his first premiership win since leaving the Broncos – the club where he won a record six titles.

Bennett has this week named the same team he named last week, with Jon Green added to a five-man bench (although against the Panthers Bennett elected to start Mitch Rein at hooker in place of regular rake Dean Young, who started that game at lock with Matt Prior shifting to the bench).

The Tigers will be reinforced by prop Keith Galloway and winger Beau Ryan (who were both late withdrawals last week) while centre Chris Lawrence makes his return from a hamstring injury. Those three push Aaron Woods, Mitch Brown and Matt Utai respectively back to a huge seven-man bench, which also features Andrew Fifita. Despite hopes he may return prop Todd Payten has not been named, and hooker Robbie Farah will take his place despite finishing up last week with his elbow on ice.

The defending premiers will have to break some records if they want to win back-to-back titles – no team has won a premiership from outside the top four since the McIntyre System was introduced in 1999. Meanwhile the Tigers should be safe for a second bite at the cherry if they lose – no third- or fourth-place finisher has so far been knocked out in the opening week under the current system.

Watch Out Tigers: The Dragons’ left-side attack has been prolific in 2011. Left centre Matt Cooper has 14 tries (fifth in NRL) and 19 line-breaks (second in NRL) with left-side winger Brett Morris just behind him with 10 tries and 17 line-breaks. It’s a combination that has burnt the Tigers already this year with the pair combining for three tries against the Tigers in their two previous match-ups. They also combined for three tries last week against Penrith, and with Soward looking back in ominous form that left-side attack is a real danger zone for the Tigers.

Danger Sign: Dragons five-eighth Jamie Soward is a master of spotting the overlap, and he uses his deceptive turn of pace and bullet-like cut-out pass to get opposition backlines caught in no-man’s land. By the time defenders realise the play is on Cooper is already scything through them and with noted speedster Morris on his outside Cooper’s one-handed flick pass becomes lethal in putting Morris into open space.

And although Soward may have gone a bit quiet after Origin, he put the competition back on notice last week with one try, two try assists, a line-break and two line-break assists.

Dragons Plays To Watch: The Dragons have combinations all over the park – Ben Creagh is a damaging ball runner inside of Matt Cooper on that lethal left edge. He can just as easily run a decoy for Soward to shift the ball wider to Cooper and Morris to create that sweeping left-side play inside the opposition 20-metre zone that has been so fruitful for the Dragons all year.

Beau Scott performs a similar role on the right edge inside Mark Gasnier, who has shown he is still capable of that huge step and fend which he has used to great effect this year in helping to set up tries for his outside man Jason Nightingale.

Adam Cuthbertson has been a key man in the forward pack and one of the unsung heroes this year – his offloading ability when injected off the bench has been crucial to helping the Dragons generate second-phase play.

Watch Out Dragons: The Tigers have now won eight in a row and look like they may be building to something special. Five-eighth Benji Marshall put in possibly his best performance of the season in Round 25 as he obliterated the Titans with four line-breaks and 187 running metres, scoring a try and setting up two more. And despite Wests Tigers’ reputation as a free-flowing attacking side they are actually the second-most dangerous side in the NRL from inside 10 metres – they have scored 52 times from inside their opponents’ red zone with the help of their attacking forward pack.

Danger Sign: Much of their attack comes back to Marshall but it starts with Farah, who is responsible for delivering quality ball to Marshall when he calls for it but is also the master of knowing when to run himself or putting the ball on the chest of a forward running through, enabling them to hit the opposition line at pace.

The Tigers clearly favour the right side where centre Blake Ayshford (11 tries) has excelled. It’s also the side where Liam Fulton specialises in running angles back in through the defensive line, a particularly lethal play inside the opposition’s red zone.

Wests Tigers Plays To Watch: Unpredictability is part of what makes Wests Tigers such a crowd favourite, and fans always hope to witness one of those pieces of Benji magic – a round-the-back flick pass, a giant sidestep to run through opposition lines and into open space, or an audacious cross-field kick. But there’s also plenty of routine hard work, particularly from the forwards, that’s gone into getting the Tigers a home final. Liam Fulton and Chris Heighington (five tries each) and Gareth Ellis (three tries), are among the most mobile and durable back-rowers in the competition and are capable of creating havoc with their angled runs back inside to cut through the defensive line. Ellis in particular really stings in defence but the damage all three can create close to the line in attack is a key part of Wests’ success in 2011.

Robert Lui v Ben Hornby: They may not grab as many headlines as their respective five-eighths but the professional way these two each go about their business is what allows their fellow playmakers to garner the attention they do. Each halfback provides their side with a genuine third kicking option and does the little things well to take the pressure of the other playmakers. As captain Hornby provides leadership and a steadying influence to the Dragons, and while Lui is still a junior member of this Tigers’ side he adds vital continuity to a role that Wests have struggled to fill since their 2005 premiership.

The History: Played 22; St George Illawarra 12; Wests 10. In the past eight meetings it’s four apiece, although until the Tigers’ Round 22 win at the Sydney Football Stadium the Dragons were on a four-match winning streak against the Tigers. The last time the sides met in ANZ Stadium was also the last time these sides met in a finals series: in the second preliminary final last year, which the Dragons held on to win 13-12 and move into the season decider.

Last Time They Met: The Tigers snatched a late win in a low-scoring arm wrestle at the SFS back in Round 22. A Jamie Soward penalty goal opened the scoring just before halftime, then Darius Boyd scored the first try of the match shortly after the break. The Tigers took the lead with two quick tries but it looked like the Dragons had done enough when Morris went over. A 75th-minute try to Beau Ryan put the Tigers back in front 16-14, although the Tigers still had to negate a Dragons’ scrum on their own line in the dying moments.

Conclusion: This is an incredibly tough one to pick and there is certainly no home ground advantage for the Tigers – the Dragons have won their past six matches at ANZ Stadium while the Tigers are on a four-match losing streak at the venue. The Dragons have done enough in the past two weeks to re-emerge as a genuine threat but it’s hard to tip against consistent form. Tigers in a thriller!

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Paul  Holland & Daniel Eastwood; Video Refs – Russell Smith & Chris Ward.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats