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St George Illawarra Dragons v Wests Tigers
WIN Jubilee Stadium
Friday 7.30pm (AEDT)

Two sides that have mixed brilliance with blunders over the first fortnight of the new season will be looking to shake off their Jekyll and Hyde personas and regain some much-needed stability this weekend.

The Dragons were simply woeful against the Bulldogs last Saturday night, spiralling to just their second 20-points-plus defeat in the past three-and-a-half years. Meanwhile the Wests Tigers seemingly checked in their first-half form at the coat counter at Bluetongue Stadium last Friday night and forgot to reclaim it, resuming with a lacklustre opening to the second stanza of their clash against the Sea Eagles. Tim Sheens was livid the side surrendered their 8-2 advantage to trail 16-8 just seven minutes into the second half; that they stormed home to bridge the gap to four points was immaterial.

However, it’s the Dragons’ form sheet that looks most worrying. After largely impressing in their wins over the Rabbitohs in the Charity Shield and Knights in Newcastle in Round 1 they were monstered and utterly outplayed by the enthusiastic Bulldogs. While Josh Morris delivered some special payback on his former team-mates with a first-half hat-trick of tries, the Dragons unravelled in a mess of penalties and poor completions (just 66 per cent).

The Dragons celebrate 50 games at their WIN Jubilee Stadium ‘fortress’ this week, having won 31 games there to date.

They’ve made just the one team change, with Matt Cooper returning from injury which bumps Nathan Green from the side. Interchange forward Leeson Ah Mau is free to take his place after his early guilty plea to a shoulder charge citing last week.

Meanwhile Tigers coach Sheens has made just the one change, replacing injured winger Matt Utai with Joel Reddy. Sean Meaney and Matt Bell are the new faces on an extended interchange.

Look for Tim Moltzen to break a Tigers halfback hoodoo this week – no Balmain, Magpies or Wests Tigers No.7 has scored a try at Kogarah since Greg Cox crossed way back in 1977. Moltzen has scored twice in five career games against the Red V. If he does you can bet the Kogarah faithful will be baying for blood, given he reneged on a deal to join the Red V over the off-season.

Watch Out Dragons: Former right centre Mark Gasnier’s retirement has hit the Dragons like a sledgehammer and they appear to have no counter to opposition plays down the left side of the field. The Dragons have conceded seven tries in two games, with six scored against their vulnerable right-side defence. Four of those have been scored 10 metres in from the sideline – where defensive specialist Beau Scott has been handed the role of filling in for Gaz. Clearly their structures are suffering and if coach Steve Price can’t find a fix immediately, Benji Marshall, Chris Lawrence and Tim Moltzen will similarly tear them apart this weekend.

The Tigers crossed for two left-side tries last week, including a sublime second-man play for Adam Blair to score. It could get ugly for the Red V.

Also, Illawarra junior Beau Ryan has four tries from eight games against the Dragons. He crossed for an important double against the Knights in Round 1 and scored again last week. Ryan crossed for two tries the last time these sides met.

The Dragons should forget about focusing too much on Moltzen as a ‘get-square’ for fobbing them off – or else Marshall and others will pounce.

Danger Sign: If Marshall can isolate Dragons’ skipper Ben Hornby on the St George Illawarra left edge and gift Lawrence or Blair clean ball with team-mates’ bodies in motion, points will flow. Hornby was stood up by Timana Tahu in Round 1 and was given the run-around again by Josh Morris last week.

Expect plenty of decoy runs from the Tigers – four of their forwards rank in the top eight in the NRL for decoys, with Chris Heighington and Aaron Woods leading the way with 18 each.  

Watch Out Wests Tigers: The Dragons will target inexperienced Tom Humble after his moderate run-on debut in the No.1 jersey last week. Humble pulled off a couple of try saves but was also found wanting positioning himself in defence – and he really should have got a piece of Daly Cherry-Evans instead of falling for the Sea Eagle’s massive dummy on the way to scoring.

Worryingly the Tigers aren’t showing a lot in attack so far apart from the odd burst of brilliant play and this will need to change if they’re to threaten often. So far they are averaging the third-fewest line-breaks (2.5), the sixth-fewest tackle-breaks (30) and the fourth-fewest metres overall each week (1271). Of equal concern is the fact that although they are middle of the pack for missed tackles, they are rock bottom for conceding line-breaks, averaging a whopping five a game.

Danger Sign: The Dragons will be desperate for Matt Cooper to slip back into gear after his injury-forced week off. Cooper finished 2011 ranked second for line-breaks and impressed in the season opener against the Knights with a try and a line-break. He’ll look for tandem support from winger Brett Morris who already is averaging 147 metres with a try, try assist, line-break and line-break assist und his belt down the left edge.

Ben Creagh v Gareth Ellis: This battle will go a long way to determining the amount of second-phase play each forward pack generates. These second-rowers are crucial to their side’s go-forward, both individually and as a creative spark. Creagh led the Dragons for offloads last year with 44, the third most made by any second-rower. He was also threatening when they last clashed, making two offloads and a game-high six tackle-breaks as well as 108 metres. Ellis made three offloads last time they met. Through two games in 2012 Creagh co-leads second-rowers for offloads (four) along with Ellis’ Tigers team-mate Adam Blair, while Ellis is close behind with three offloads.

Where It Will Be Won: Respecting the football – but also making the passes stick when spreading the attack. The Dragons appear to have somehow lost their discipline over the off-season. They finished 2011 with the fewest errors by any side (nine a game) but so far they’re averaging 14. And where they completed their sets close to 80 per cent of the time last year, to date they’re averaging 69 per cent. Meanwhile the Tigers are dropping even more of the football (15 errors) and are completing at a miserable 62.5 per cent – the worst in the league.

The History: Played 23; Dragons 12, Wests Tigers 11. The Dragons have won four of the past six encounters – but the Wests Tigers won the past two. The home side boast a 4-1 advantage at WIN Jubilee Stadium. If recent history is any guide this should be a close contest – the past four clashes have been decided by a combined 18 points.

The Last Time They Met: A second-half blitz saw the Wests Tigers reel in a six-point halftime deficit to run out convincing 21-12 winners in Week One of last year’s finals. The Dragons played a near-faultless first 40 minutes, completing 16 of 18 sets with Mitch Rein and Jason Nightingale crossing before the tide turned and all the possession flowed the Tigers’ way. The gold-and-blacks drew level when Beau Ryan finished off a clever movement to cross in the corner after being handed the ball by Blake Ayshford as the centre was being shepherded into touch. The game was sealed when Robert Lui sent lock Chris Heighington over in the 66th minute. The clash featured Benji Marshall’s incredible ‘dropped ball’ try, with Marshall nearly failing to make contact with a field-goal attempt in the fourth minute before regathering the ball as it rebounded off Dragons defender Beau Scott’s chest, then racing 33 metres to cross for one of the most bizarre tries of all time.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Dave Abood & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Paul Simpkins.

The Way We See It: Over the past three years the Dragons built one of the fiercest, most dependable defences in the NRL – but their efforts in 2012 have been meek. They’ve slumped from missing the second-fewest tackles (30) and line-breaks (2.9) to missing the sixth-fewest tackles and the eighth-most line-breaks (3.5). They’re also conceding the third-most offloads (13). That’s not to mention the embarrassment of conceding three offensive penalties for ineffective play-the-balls in the first half last week! Alarm bells are ringing.

The Tigers have problems of their own – but we’re prepared to dismiss their second-half capitulation as part lethargy after their Round 1 scorcher at Leichhardt Oval, and part Sea Eagles brilliance. They have more reasons to feel optimistic about a victory here. Wests Tigers by eight points.  

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW); delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 11.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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