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Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v St George Illawarra Dragons
ANZ Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm (AEDT)

Two new coaches and a perfect scoresheet set the stage for an enthralling contest between bitter rivals at Homebush.

The Des Hasler era at Belmore clicked into gear with a scrappy victory over the Panthers last Saturday with the competition points in doubt until the closing 10 minutes. Meanwhile Steve Price’s Dragons weathered a spirited Knights comeback in a high-quality contest in Newcastle to snatch victory in sudden death in the first game of the 2012 season last Thursday.

Coach Hasler wouldn’t have been at all impressed with the Bulldogs’ play against the Mountain Men – he knows they were lucky to escape with the win after completing their sets at a woeful 64 per cent with 15 errors. That saw them compete with 11 full sets fewer than the Panthers! You can bet he’ll have barked instructions for improved discipline against a Dragons side that completed their first-half sets at 82 per cent last week.

Still, there were positives – five-eighth Josh Reynolds showed skill in just his 11th NRL game, running to the line strongly and offloading with deception; English recruit James Graham matched huge attack with a massive defensive work rate (51 tackles); and Ben Barba found the try line, auguring well for another season of high-fiving in the opposition in-goal.

Meanwhile the Dragons merely snatched the competition points despite appearing a 10-point better team. Their left-side attack operated smoothly without Darius Boyd – perhaps even smoother than at times late last season – and they showed a willingness to attack the right side as well.

Rookie Jack De Belin showed promise, new prop Jeremy Latimore revealed good footwork at the line and Ben Hornby mixed things up, running the ball more than last year.

The Bulldogs have a forced change from their starting 13 from last week, with second-rower Frank Pritchard suspended for one game for his high shot on Panthers winger David Simmons; it’s expected David Stagg will shift to the back row with either Corey Payne or Greg Eastwood to wear the No.13. Also, Kris Keating and Martin Taupau have been added to the extended bench which numbers six at this stage. 

The Dragons have just one change, with Dean Young to start at lock and Jack De Belin reverting to the bench. However, centre Matt Cooper is no certain starter due to the ankle injury he picked up in last week’s clash with the Knights – reports are Cooper hasn’t trained with the squad all week. Chase Stanley is the contingency.

The Bulldogs have retained their starting 13 from last week, although Kris Keating and Martin Taupau have been added to the extended bench which numbers six at this stage. However, Frank Pritchard will need to beat his high-tackle charge at the NRL judiciary on Wednesday night if he’s to take his place in the second row.

The Dragons have just one change, with Dean Young to start at lock and Jack De Belin reverting to the bench.

The Bulldogs will be focused on arresting a worrying trend – they haven’t lost seven straight to any St George, Illawarra or Dragons outfit since 1967.

Meanwhile Steve Turner is on the brink of his 100th career victory and if he gets over the try line he’ll draw alongside former Cowboy Paul Bowman for most tries against the Dragons (11).

Watch Out Bulldogs: They’ll have to do better with the ball in hand after struggling for territory last week. The ’Dogs scrapped out a meagre 1051 metres, the fewest by all sides – and this week they go up against the NRL benchmark Dragons who finished with 1484 metres in Newcastle. That was 57 metres more than their average mark last season when they finished the year as the leading metre-eaters.

The Dragons’ wingers will torment their opposites given their good history against the Bulldogs. Right winger Jason Nightingale will hand Bryson Goodwin a torrid time. The jack-in-the-box Kiwi flanker made 150 metres last week and added 147 metres last time they clashed, while left winger Brett Morris scored a try last week and made 202 metres last match-up.

Danger Sign: Matt Cooper looks to have picked up where he left off last year when he made the second-most line-breaks behind Ben Barba. The veteran centre scored a try, added a line-break and a try assist and was solid in defence with 24 tackles. Should he make the field he’ll target his inexperienced opposite Johnathan Wright who is playing just his 12th NRL game. Cooper scored in his last game against the ’Dogs.

Watch Out Dragons: Ben Barba is d-a-n-g-e-r-o-u-s! He trailed through for a trademark try last week and ripped the Dragons apart with 10 tackle-breaks last meeting. Watch for him to follow the likes of Corey Payne, Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds looking for opportunities.

Des Hasler will encourage left centre Josh Morris to sound out Dragons opposite Beau Scott after his patchy game against the Knights last week. Normally a dependable defender Scott cost the Dragons a try when he botched his marker play and allowed Jarrod Mullen to streak away from dummy-half. Plus he uncharacteristically missed two tackles and was pressured into error.    

Danger Sign: Trent Hodkinson will target fullback Kyle Stanley with grubbers and high balls after he made two errors last week, one of which resulted in a try to the Knights.  

Certainly the Bulldogs will grow in confidence if they can force their opposition into error. Last year the Dragons made the fewest mistakes each game (just nine) but after one round they are making the ninth most (13).

James Graham v Trent Merrin: Graham showed what a huge boost he’ll be to the Doggies with a bustling 16 runs and 115 metres last week, adding a massive 51 tackles to shore up the ruck area. Plus he showed skill to offer a line-break assist; the Dragons will need to watch his charges through the centre. Meanwhile Dragon Merrin looked like he had a point to prove up against fellow NSW Origin candidate Kade Snowden last week – his 25 hit-ups were the most all weekend and his 183 metres in 51 minutes were the third most by any player. Merrin made 152 metres in just 42 minutes last time these sides met.

Where It Will Be Won: The Bulldogs need dramatic improvement in their kicking game if they’re to press the Dragons. Last time they met the ’Dogs booted 686 metres – with Soward booting 630 metres for the Dragons on his own. Last week Soward kicked 571 metres, with seven kicks to open space (the most by any player in Round 1) as the Dragons punted 730 metres in total. Meanwhile the Bulldogs tallied 350 metres from three kickers all night against the Panthers!

The History: Played 22; Bulldogs 12, Dragons 10. The Bulldogs may hold a slender advantage in the head-to-head stakes but the Dragons have been dominant in the past few years, winning the past six clashes straight. Their current streak commenced with a 30-nil whipping at ANZ Stadium, their biggest win over the Doggies yet. In fact, the Dragons boast the better record at Homebush (5-4).

The Last Time They Met: It was a tale of two halves when the sides locked horns in Round 10 last year. The Dragons dominated the first section, racing to a 15-nil lead at halftime on the back of two tries in the opening 26 minutes. But the Red V were battered blue and white after the break, with the ’Dogs reeling off 12 unanswered points to fall agonisingly short of a stunning comeback victory. Incredibly the Dragons completed 10 sets more than their rivals, but still the Bulldogs – who tallied a whopping 40 missed tackles – kept coming. Brett Morris ran 202 metres for the Dragons while Ben Barba was unstoppable with 10 tackle busts.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.

The Way We See It: The form from last weekend definitely has us leaning towards the Dragons. They showed they have the focus to overcome an ‘away’ home crowd and there isn’t too much rust about their plays. The same can’t be said about the ’Dogs at this stage. We’ll wait until they show a little more before jumping on their wagon. Dragons by six points.  

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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