Brisbane Broncos v St George Illawarra Dragons
Friday 7.30pm (Qld time)
Two in-form sides lock horns looking to rekindle their competitive rivalry, with the Dragons focused on avenging their 2011 semi-final defeat when Darren Lockyer’s dramatic extra-time field goal ended their premiership dream in their last outing with Wayne Bennett as coach.
Now with Steve Price at the helm, the Dragons hit Suncorp Stadium in solid form, sitting in fourth position after three wins with their 26-point drubbing at the hands of the Bulldogs in Round 2 the only blip on their radar. Over the past fortnight they’ve accounted for the Wests Tigers and premiers Manly at home at Kogarah – but know they’re in for a litmus test in front of a parochial Brisbane crowd that will cram every nook of the stadium.
Brisbane have been sailing along nicely themselves and sit in third position on the ladder, 22 differential points separating them from their opponents this Friday. Like the Dragons they’ve got the better of Wayne Bennett’s new club Newcastle; they opened their account with a win over the Eels and last week dug deep to overturn a 12-4 halftime deficit to run away from the Rabbitohs with 16 unanswered second-half points in Perth.
The game shapes as the best of the round, pitting the two most resilient defences (the Dragons miss the fewest tackles of all sides, the Broncos the second fewest) against one another, as well as the premiership’s two dominant forward packs – with the Queensland front row pair of Petero Civoniceva and Ben Hannant, plus Josh McGuire, out for bragging rights over New South Wales hopefuls Trent Merrin and Michael Weyman.
The Broncos have made two changes this week: Dale Copley has been drafted in to replace injured winger Jharal Yow Yeh and Matt Gillett has been handed a starting role at lock, with Ben Te’o benched.
Meanwhile the Dragons will again be without star centre Matt Cooper, with a recurrence of his ankle injury expected to keep him sidelined for a fortnight. Beau Scott shifts to the centres as cover and Jack De Belin joins the interchange.
Watch Out Broncos: In his past two games Brett Morris has averaged exactly 200 metres in his new role at fullback, adding a new dimension to the Dragons’ attack. (And his 77 runs are second most in the comp behind Paul Gallen.) With Darius Boyd in the No.1 the Dragons relied heavily on left-side sweeps; now they are presenting a more balanced offensive unit, targeting the centre of the ruck as well as the right side of the field. They’ve scored nine tries in the past fortnight – six near the goal posts, two in the right corner and just one in the left corner. That spells bad news for the Broncos who have conceded eight of their 10 tries in the region between their goal posts and their left edge.
Prop Trent Merrin has his eye on a New South Wales jersey and will be looking to test his game against Maroons Ben Hannant, Petero Civoniceva and Sam Thaiday. Merrin’s speed and strength have propelled him to 134 metres a game – the second most by an interchange – and he’s added a new string to his bow with six offloads, the equal most by a front-rower.
Danger Sign: If the Dragons get on a roll and get tackles up their sleeves close to the Broncos’ try line you can bet hooker Mitch Rein will have a go from dummy-half. The 21-year-old Wollongong junior scored in just such a fashion against the Wests Tigers and the Broncos have conceded a try from marker already. Plus Rein is proving a capable runner and playmaker: he leads all hookers for tackle-breaks (10) and it was his precise pass that sent Michael Weyman away to score last week. The Broncos can’t afford to treat him lightly.
Watch Out Dragons: Just as fullback Morris is vital to the Red V, so too is Josh Hoffman for the Broncos. The 23-year-old is in stellar form, averaging nearly 160 metres a game. Last week he cut the Rabbitohs to shreds with a try, two line-breaks and a game-high nine tackle busts. His 376 kick-return metres are the most in the NRL while his 635 running metres are the fourth most. Needless to say, give him room to move and he’ll make you pay.
Peter Wallace is thriving calling the shots in 2012 and his raids need to be kept in check. Wallace is running the ball more than any No.7 (8.2 runs a game for a 42-metre gain). He has three line-break assists and three offloads, plus two try assists – including a lovely offload for Hoffman to score last week.
Danger Sign: Broncos right centre Hodges, playing without the hindrance of the niggling injuries that have dogged his career, is warming to a truly awesome season: he’s made 13 offloads so far, the most by any player, and will look to exploit any inexperience from Dragons’ new left winger Daniel Vidot. If Hodges runs a diagonal line towards Vidot he’ll be focussed on sucking in the winger before offloading to an unmarked support.
Justin Hodges v Beau Scott: Scott’s mission will be to shut down the Brisbane Test centre. Aside from his offloading skills Hodges leads all centres for metres gained (140), try assists (three) and line-break assists (three). Scott has four tackle saves and two try saves from just three games. In addition to defence his combination with fullback Brett Morris and new left-side winger Daniel Vidot will be key to the Dragons’ attacking thrust. Scott has made four offloads and if he can straighten the attack and hold up the defence he’ll look to promote some dangerous second-phase play.
Where It Will Be Won: Keeping their eyes on the prize. The Broncos seem to have lost concentration with the ball in hand – their 13.8 errors a match are the sixth most. And while they appear to have maintained their good defensive structures they are actually conceding more line-breaks than last year (four, eighth most compared to three a game in 2011). Likewise the Dragons need to avoid releasing the pressure valve through dropped balls – they are averaging 11.2 a game, up from nine last year. These sides made just nine errors apiece the last time they met in a classic golden-point semi-final (see below); whichever team respects the pill more will prevail.
The History: Played 27; Broncos 14, Dragons 13. The Broncos have won five of the past eight games. The Dragons hold a 6-5 advantage at Suncorp Stadium – although the Broncos have won the past four in a row at home.
The Last Time They Met: The Broncos knocked the Dragons out of the 2011 premiership race when Darren Lockyer’s last career touch of the football yielded a field-goal and a 13-12 victory in the second minute of extra time in their Week Two semi-final at Suncorp Stadium.
The Broncos led 6-nil at halftime when Ben Te’o was gifted a try from close range after a lovely Lockyer assist, before the Dragons got back into the contest when Adam Cuthbertson barged over following an unlikely Michael Weyman offload on the Broncos’ try line.
Dragons winger Brett Morris broke his leg 14 minutes into the second half.
The Broncos went further ahead when they isolated the Dragons’ outside backs for Dale Copley to score in the left corner for a 12-6 lead with 67 minutes gone but Corey Parker’s missed conversion attempt left the door open for the Red V. They drew level when Darius Boyd chimed in on a sweep down the left side with just two minutes remaining, with Jamie Soward nailing the high-pressure conversion.
The Dragons got first use of the Steeden in golden point but a poor clearing kick by Soward saw the Broncos advance from their 30-metre line on tackle one. Five tackles later the ball was snapped to Lockyer whose ugly, low drop-kick just managed to sail over the crossbar for an historic victory.
Broncos fullback Gerard Beale, ironically linked to the Dragons from next year, carved out 280 metres for the home side while Adam Cuthbertson was the Dragons’ best with 136 metres, a line-break and three offloads.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Clayton Sharpe & Michael Wise; Video Referee – Russell Smith.
The Way We See It: The Dragons have the better momentum but the Broncos were impressive in overturning a significant early deficit last week. With Cooper sidelined it’s likely the Dragons will direct a lot of their attack through the centre of the ruck, just as they did to great effect against the Wests Tigers in Round 3. But the Broncos will be much tougher nut to crack. It’s a difficult game to tip – we’ll opt for Brisbane on the back of their excellent home record. Broncos by four points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports 2 – delayed 1am Sat.
• Statistics: NRL Stats