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Broncos v Dragons
Suncorp Stadium
Saturday, 6.45pm

Who would really want to be in Wayne Bennett’s shoes this week? The St George Illawarra coach has the unenviable task of not only trying to guide his team – underdogs despite being the defending premiers – to a win against the rampant Broncos, he will be doing so knowing that if he is successful he will be also be ending the first grade career of his former star pupil Darren Lockyer.

The pair shared countless successes at Brisbane, with Lockyer playing a starring role in four of the six premierships Bennett earned at the club – but this Saturday they face off from opposite sides of the field. If Lockyer is successful then Bennett will have coached his last game for the Red V; if Bennett brings Lockyer’s Broncos undone then the champion five-eighth will have officially played his last NRL game.

But both men are professional enough to focus on the task at hand. That task is a crucial semi-final; the prize a preliminary final berth against the Manly Sea Eagles. The business end of the season is well and truly upon us; there are no more second chances. Neither Brisbane’s crushing victory over the Warriors, nor the sorry second-half capitulation of the Dragons against the Tigers will count for anything once these sides run out onto Suncorp Stadium.

That said, it is clear the home side will go in with superior form and momentum. They have now won seven straight matches, meaning debutant coach Anthony Griffin has now won 19 matches this year, surpassing predecessors Ivan Henjak and Wayne Bennett for number of wins in his first season. And although he would love to have injured fullback Josh Hoffman and suspended second-rower Sam Thaiday available Griffin will be delighted with the way his charges brushed aside the losses of those key players in a dominant win last week, and the Broncos will line up with an unchanged 17 from the team that downed the Warriors.

Bennett has also named an unchanged 17 this week, although Nathan Fien will start at hooker in place of Mitch Rein and Adam Cuthbertson has been added to a five-man bench. If they can’t get up here the Dragons won’t be able to use injury as an excuse – the only injured Dragon who could potentially force his way into this side would be Kyle Stanley, whose season was ended by a shoulder injury.

The Broncos have a chance to notch nine consecutive wins at Suncorp for just the second time – they won 10 in a row here in 1990-91. They have also won both their previous semi-finals against the Dragons: the most recent of those was in 2009 when minor premiers St George Illawarra lost their qualifying final to Parramatta and had to travel to Suncorp to face the Broncos, who had finished sixth. 

It’s also important not to forget that another famous name is potentially playing his last game: Mark Gasnier will retire at the end of this season, meaning that either Lockyer or Gasnier will leave the field for the final time at the end of this game.

And believe it or not, Wayne Bennett will be looking to notch his first ever finals win as coach at the venue!

Watch Out Dragons: The Broncos sounded a warning to the remaining teams with a ruthless demolition of the Warriors last week. Anyone predicting the forward pack would lose impact in the absence of Sam Thaiday would have been disappointed as the Broncos’ young guns really stood up to be counted. In particular, Alex Glenn (165 metres and eight tackle-breaks) and Josh McGuire (189 metres) were standouts while Matt Gillett and Ben Te’o covered Thaiday’s absence admirably in the second row.

The loss of star fullback Josh Hoffman was also glossed over as Gerard Beale ran for 197 metres with six tackle-breaks, scoring a try and setting up two others.

Danger Sign: Prop Josh McGuire has raised his game to another level recently – he averages around 100 metres per game in 2011 but has run for a phenomenal 178 metres per game over his last three outings, and his explosive contributions in the opening stanzas have been key to the Broncos’ early dominance. Matt Gillett has also provided the X-factor off the bench, creating problems with his awkward running style and regularly breaking tackles (13 tackle-breaks in his past three games). In a crucial play last week just before halftime he broke through several defenders and offloaded for Lockyer to score.

Broncos Plays To Watch: One of the most successful plays for Brisbane this year has been the Lockyer high kick out to the right edge for a flying Jharal Yow Yeh. Yow Yeh is the club’s leading tryscorer with 13 four-pointers this year, and Lockyer leads the club try assist tally with 24 – plenty of each have come about via this play. Tireless lock Corey Parker is one of the most consistent players in the NRL; his 56 offloads and 137 running metres per game have been vital in helping the Broncos roll downfield. You can count on Parker for a quality hit-up in virtually every set the Broncos have in possession. Centre Justin Hodges is capable of using his one-hand grip on the ball and big fend to put his outside winger Yow Yeh into space. He’ll be up against the game’s best defensive centre in Matt Cooper here, which will make this a battle to watch out for.

Watch Out Broncos: The Broncos have plenty of class in their backline but they’ll need to be on their game against what is possibly the best 1-5 line-up in the NRL. Much has been made of the red-hot form of the Dragons’ left side, and Matt Cooper in particular – but over on the right side, Mark Gasnier is easily the competition’s leading centre in terms of offloads (43) and line-break assists (14). Jason Nightingale is also the equal leading winger for offloads with 30, and all that second-phase play creates headaches for opposition and opportunities for the players around them.

Danger Sign: The Dragons’ backs are amongst the busiest in the league and are always looking for work in both attack and defence. Five-eighth Jamie Soward knows what an asset they are and regularly uses his passing or kicking game to get the edge players involved – he did this to perfection last week against the Wests Tigers when making an angled run and delivering the pass for Nightingale to score. The right side combination between Soward, Beau Scott and Gasnier was a cornerstone of the club’s success in 2010 but has been less utilised this year. If Soward elects to go that way to target the Broncos’ less experienced left-side pairing of Jack Reed and Dale Copley, Gasnier’s classy footwork and offloads could wreak havoc.

Dragons Plays To Watch: We’ve seen it thousands of times over his career: Gasnier steps around an opponent and into space, then uses the right-arm offload to link with an inside supporting player like Soward or fullback Darius Boyd, or puts on a flick pass to put his outside winger in the clear. Nightingale’s nine tries this year have been boosted by Gasnier’s eight try assists and clever passing.

Star fullback Darius Boyd has again been a key player in the Dragons’ backline, and although he hasn’t been quite as dominant as he was last season he has still set up 11 tries while scoring eight himself, while running for a club-high 136 metres per game. He is capable of immersing himself in any attacking raid and putting in a kick behind the line to force a repeat set or create scoring opportunities.

In the forwards the likes of Beau Scott, Ben Creagh and Matt Prior love to run wider angles, cutting back in through defensive structures.

Justin Hodges v Matt Cooper: Two of the form centres of the competition, Hodges is an automatic selection for the Australian side when fit, while Cooper’s retirement from representative football seems to have sparked a resurgence to some of the best form of his career. Both men have slick footwork and are incredibly dangerous close to the line because they can find a way to step through defenders, or attract multiple defenders then flick an offload to put their outside winger over. Cooper has 19 line-breaks and 14 tries from his 19 games, and Hodges 10 line-breaks and seven tries in 14 games.

The History: Played 26; Broncos 13, Dragons 13. It’s neck and neck overall and they’re also four apiece over the past eight meetings. Dragons’ fans can take heart from the fact that playing in Brisbane doesn’t count against them – the Dragons actually have a winning record at Suncorp Stadium, with six wins from their 10 games there. The Broncos have been clawing that record back however – they’ve won their past three home games against the red and whites.

Last Time They Met: The Broncos edged out the Dragons 21-14 back in Round 15 at Suncorp Stadium on the back of a 4-1 penalty count in their favour, in a match where St George Illawarra halfback and skipper Ben Hornby suffered an ankle injury and was only able to play 40 minutes. The Dragons missed 46 tackles in that match against 33 for the Broncos, which helped the Broncos win the line-break count 5-3. Brisbane finished up with a slight advantage in possession (52 per cent) and running metres (1421 metres against 1261 metres for the Dragons).

Conclusion: The Broncos certainly have the inside running: they’ve won seven straight while the Dragons have only won two games over that period; they were much better last week than the Dragons, who had a terrible second half against the Tigers; and the Broncos will be on their home patch. 

But the Dragons are the defending premiers and you can never write off a team coached by Wayne Bennett, so expect a much-improved showing from the Red V this week. It’s a tough one to call but we’ll tip the Lockyer fairytale to roll on for at least one more week.

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

Televised: Channel 9 – Live from 6.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.