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St George Illawarra Dragons v Newcastle Knights
WIN Jubilee Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

The Dragons may have drawn first blood in their brand-new rivalry with the Knights back in Round 1 but a worrying form slump from the Red V over the past fortnight will have opposition coach Wayne Bennett confident of extracting revenge.

St George Illawarra have lost their way since accounting for premiers Manly 17-6 in Round 4 with successive road-trip losses to the Broncos and Sharks seeing them drop out of the top eight. Of greatest concern to coach Steve Price will be their fits-and-starts attack that has failed to notch any points in three of their past four halves of football. Their only return during that time was a 20-points flurry in the second 40 against the Broncos.

Safe inside the top four just three weeks ago, another defeat here could see them fall as low as 14th after this weekend.

Meanwhile the Knights occupy eighth place on the ladder, ranked third of a logjam of six sides on six competition points. Despite their standing they have been far from impressive, stringing together a loss-win-loss-win-loss-win sequence to date. Last week’s drab victory over the Eels was hardly inspiring and coach Bennett knows his charges will need to pull out a season-best effort if they’re to overcome the Dragons.

However, he’ll be buoyed by the Knights’ excellent away record against the Red V: they’ve won their past four games heading down the F3 to take on the joint venture.

Desperate to plug some defensive lapses on the edges and with Matt Cooper still sidelined with an ankle injury the Dragons have named Matt Prior at left centre. Dean Young, who announced during the week that he would be retiring at the end of 2012, has been elevated to the starting side at lock with Jack De Belin benched. Crucially, interchange hooker/halfback Nathan Fien returns from injury, with Leeson Ah Mau axed.

Wayne Bennett has made just the one cosmetic change to his starting line-up with Neville Costigan to run on at lock and Joel Edwards benched. Also, Evarn Tuimavave has been added to their interchange.  

It’s a milestone week for Danny Buderus who plays his 200th NRL game, while in-form winger James McManus needs 149 metres in this game to register 10 kilometres of runs for Newcastle.

Watch Out Dragons: Unless the Dragons shore up their right-edge defence they will remain vulnerable every week. Incredibly, they’ve conceded a whopping 11 tries on that side of the field compared to just three on their left. Trent Merrin has missed 17 tackles so far and Kyle Stanley really needs to start making his defensive reads count given he’s averaging nearly three misses a game – the fourth-most misses by any centre.

Jarrod Mullen caught the Dragons napping down their right side in Round 1 and he will fancy his chances again after growing in confidence running to the line. Mullen has four line busts, the second most by a halfback behind Warrior Shaun Johnson.

Also, Timana Tahu had little trouble standing up Ben Hornby on the left edge, setting up James McManus. Expect Tahu to pile on the pressure again.

The Dragons need to pressure Mullen late in the tackle count or his impressive kicking game will keep them wedged in their territory. Mullen is kicking to open space 53 per cent of the time and he leads the NRL for 40/20s after booting his second of the season last week.

Veteran Danny Buderus is running from dummy-half five times a game and he’ll look to set up short-side raids at every opportunity, especially given the inexperienced centre pairing of Kyle Stanley and Matt Prior.

Danger Sign: Expect Mullen to go to the air on the edges where the Dragons have fumbled exactly half of the cross-field bombs sent their way.

Watch Out Knights: The Knights need to get numbers to their tackles and increase their effectiveness or else key Dragons will create migraines with their offloading games. Brett Morris (12), Trent Merrin (eight), Beau Scott and Michael Weyman (six each) and Ben Creagh (five) will be the likely suspects. The Knights are having huge problems shutting down second-phase play, conceding a league-high 13.4 offloads every week.

Michael Weyman will need to be watched both with the ball in hand and also running decoys – coach Price has made it a priority for the imposing prop to create uncertainty in oppositions. Through six games in 2012 Weyman has made 35 decoys, the fourth most in the NRL – he made a total of 78 last year. He’s also upped his work rate carting the ball, averaging 13 hit-ups and 114 metres in 45 minutes of game time.   

Danger Sign: The Knights need to react quickly to Jamie Soward’s raking clearance kicks or they’ll find themselves doing it tough trying to bring the ball back out of their half. Three Dragons – Jason Nightingale, Ben Hornby and Beau Scott – rank in the top eight for ‘good chases’.

Former team-mate Darius Boyd is a likely target – he’s added just 80 metres a game. If the Dragons get up in Boyd’s face early and drive him backwards you’ll know they’re intent on making a statement.

Brett Morris v Darius Boyd: Former ‘partners in crime’ go head to head in an intriguing match-up. ‘B-Moz’ has been a huge success since transferring to fullback a month ago, his tackle-busting and offloading skills providing the Dragons with a new dimension in attack after Boyd’s largely playmaking focus during his three years with the joint venture. Jarrod Mullen will need to kick well away from Morris given he’s ranked second for metres gained among No.1s (177) while his 12 offloads are the most by a custodian.

Boyd knows he needs to offer more after a subdued start to 2012 and will be looking to spark some magic down the right edge linking with Akuila Uate, testing out Matt Prior and winger Daniel Vidot. Incredibly Boyd is yet to make a line-break or offer either a line-break assist or try assist. Last year he was ranked in the top-10 for line-break assists (13) so we don’t expect him to remain in hibernation for much longer.

Where It Will Be Won: Busting through the defensive line. Each outfit is tallying just 3.3 line-breaks every 80 minutes – the fourth-fewest in the competition. The Dragons’ backs have contributed 13 of their 20 line-breaks to date, while Newcastle backs have added 16 of their 20 – with the trio of James McManus (5), Akuila Uate (4) and Jarrod Mullen (4) adding 13 between them. On these numbers perhaps the Dragons might look to bust the Knights open up the centre.

The History: Played 25; Dragons 16, Knights 9. The Dragons have won five of the past eight clashes. While the Dragons have an outstanding record when travelling to Newcastle they remain a shaky commodity on home turf with the Knights holding a 3-1 advantage at Kogarah.

The Last Time They Met: The Dragons beat the Knights 15-14 in golden point in front of a boisterous crowd of 29,000 at Hunter Stadium in Round 1.

The visitors opened the scoring in the 2012 Telstra Premiership with a Jamie Soward penalty goal before winger Brett Morris powered his way over in the left corner in the 9th minute after a slick backline sweep.

Knights halfback Jarrod Mullen hit back with a smart solo run down the left edge, catching out some lazy marker defence to scoot 40 metres out of dummy-half to score.

But the Dragons edged out to a 14-6 lead seven minutes after halftime when Matt Cooper defied a valiant try-save attempt from Mullen on the Newcastle try line.

Timana Tahu got the home side back into the contest with a neat shimmy to get around Dragons captain Ben Hornby on the left fringe, gifting James McManus passage to the try line, before Kurt Gidley nailed a pressure penalty goal from 15 metres to the left of the Dragons’ goalposts that saw the sides draw level at 14-all with eight minutes remaining.

Jamie Soward clinched victory with a field-goal from 27 metres out in the dying seconds of the first section of extra time.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Bernard Sutton.

The Way We See It: A really tough game to predict. The Dragons uncharacteristically missed a huge 42 tackles against the Sharks (they average 24) and we can’t see that happening again. Meanwhile the Knights did enough to get the job done last week but their 17 errors (they average 11) would have had the coach fuming. Like all games so far in 2012 it will boil down to attitude and execution.

While Newcastle have a sensational record at WIN Jubilee Stadium the Dragons couldn’t have been more impressive in their victories there over the Wests Tigers and Sea Eagles. On that basis we’ll opt for St George Illawarra by six points.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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