St George Illawarra Dragons v Sydney Roosters
It could be the turning point in the season for both the winner and the loser of Wednesday’s Anzac Day showdown in Sydney, with one side destined to nudge the top four while the other will drop back into the logjam of wannabes outside the top eight.
Undoubtedly one of the showcase games of any NRL season, the Dragons and Roosters share a fierce Anzac Day rivalry dating back to the concept’s first scheduling in 2002, with the Dragons holding bragging rights courtesy of seven victories to three.
However, both sides have struggled in recent weeks and appear well behind the standard of the top-tier teams; consequently a fiercer focus is expected here.
Certainly the St George Illawarra players will be fully dedicated, given captain Ben Hornby breaks legendary Dragon Norm Provan’s record of 256 games in the red and white. Hornby (who has missed just 16 club games over the past decade), along with Matt Cooper, will extend their Anzac Day clash records to nine games, while Roosters captain Braith Anasta and fullback Anthony Minichiello will each suit up for their seventh encounter, breaking former captain Craig Fitzgibbon’s record of six.
St George Illawarra got their season back on track last round with a clinical 12-4 victory over Newcastle – their second over the Novocastrians in six weeks – following worrying successive defeats to the Broncos and Sharks. Crucially, the seven members of their squad who suited up for representative duty last week are fit for this clash.
The Roosters need to regroup after their demoralising 50-12 loss to the Cowboys. After back-to-back victories over the Warriors and Titans the tricolours had the chance to cement their premiership credentials last round but wilted badly in the Darwin heat. Their four representative players from last weekend are all clear to go too.
Matt Cooper’s return after three weeks on the sidelines with a niggling ankle injury is timely given the Dragons have struggled in attack – he slots back at left centre, with Kyle Stanley swapping to the right side of the field and Matt Prior dropping to the bench.
Nathan Fien will start for injured hooker Mitch Rein, with Jacob Miller, Chase Stanley and Jake Marketo forming a seven-man interchange at this stage.
Meanwhile the Roosters have promoted Aidan Guerra to start in the second row for NSW Origin rep Boyd Cordner, Also, Tinirau Arona moves from the pine to start at lock with Brad Takairangi relegated. Mose Masoe is the new face on their interchange.
Watch Out Dragons: The Roosters will threaten through second-phase play all around the park. They’re ranked fourth for offloads with 13.4 a game and the Dragons are conceding an above-average 11 each week. Mitchell Pearce in particular needs to be contained – he’s tallied a team-high 12 offloads which have contributed to his four try assists and five line-break assists.
Errors continue to eat away at the Dragons’ continuity: last year they made the fewest errors but are now making the seventh most (11.7).
Roosters captain Braith Anasta has contributed more try assists in Anzac Day clashes over the past decade (four) than any player.
While the Red V are the only side to not concede a try through their left centre position that won’t stop Shaun Kenny-Dowall from having a red-hot dig. The blockbusting Kiwi has scored four tries in just five games and broken the opposition defensive line three times.
Danger Sign: Coach Smith will rely on Kenny-Dowall and centre partner BJ Leilua to create and finish off opportunities. The pair rank second among centres for breaking tackles with a combined 48 brush-asides. And you can be certain Leilua, who starred for City against Country with two try assists and agreed to a two-year contract extension last week, will look to exploit Chase Stanley given the Dragons have leaked five tries on the spot 15 metres in from their right corner post.
Watch Out Roosters: Overlooked by Country selectors and with Todd Carney now the number one choice for the New South Wales No.6 jersey, Jamie Soward knows he needs a stellar game to get back in the picture for Origin. While the pivot has been damaging with his passing and kicking, tallying five line-break assists and four try assists, he’s been alarmingly less potent overall than in past seasons. Soward is running the ball just four times a game (the fewest runs by any half or five-eighth) and he seems to have lost his ability to break open a play – last year he tallied 11 line busts but through seven games in 2012 he hasn’t managed even one! With so much on the line the Roosters need to brace themselves for a heap more involvement from the Dragons’ No.6.
Another massive defeat could hurt the Roosters come semi-finals time. Although they sit seventh on the ladder they have the second-highest negative points differential in the league (-62). And while they need to stop haemorrhaging points they also need to find a way to score some: only Parramatta’s 91 points are fewer than their 98 to date.
Danger Sign: Expect Soward to go to the air targeting the lack of height on the Roosters’ flanks. To date the Roosters’ wingers including Sam Perrett are defusing cross-field bombs just 36 per cent of the time, the second worst rate in the league. Soward may also look to employ a short kick through the defence near the Roosters’ goal posts for a chaser like Brett Morris to pounce. The Roosters have conceded five tries off the boot so far.
Brett Morris v Anthony Minichiello: Two of the best running fullbacks in the game go head to head with each a vital cog in their side’s attack. Morris has been a revelation since shifting to fullback; while his value as a metre-eater remains high (183 metres a game, most by a fullback) he is also rapidly developing into a top-notch playmaker – he has added three try assists and leads all fullbacks for offloads (12). Meanwhile the Roosters continue to rely heavily on Minichiello’s vibrancy and enthusiasm. ‘Mini’ leads all custodians for average runs (a whopping 19) and ranks fourth for average metres gained (164). And only Lachlan Coote tallies more metres on kick-returns than Minichiello’s 45 each match.
Where It Will Be Won: ‘Spotting’ the weak links in defence. St George Illawarra are sure to test out Mitchell Pearce (25 missed tackles) and hooker Jake Friend (21 misses – second most by a hooker). The Roosters’ small men will target big Dragons forwards Trent Merrin and Dan Hunt who are missing a high 2.6 and 2.4 tackles a game. Look for relentless dummy-half runner Sam Perrett to probe for opportunities when he spies either of the pair sucking in the big ones near the ruck. Perrett is averaging six dashes from dummy-half each game. Also, the Dragons are a favourite opponent – last meeting Perrett registered 163 metres and a game-high nine tackle busts.
The History: Played 26; Dragons 16, Roosters 9, drawn 1. The Dragons have an imposing record against the Roosters, winning six of the past eight clashes. They’ve won seven of the 10 Anzac Day encounters. The ledger at Allianz Stadium is level at eight games apiece – although the Dragons have won the past three matches at the ground.
The Last Time They Met: The Roosters inflicted a surprise 20-12 defeat on the Dragons at WIN Stadium in Wollongong in Round 23 last year.
The near-the-bottom-of-the-ladder Roosters out-enthused their finals-bound opponents in a see-sawing encounter. The visitors raced to a 10-nil lead after just 12 minutes through tries to Dragons discard Jason Ryles and Phil Graham before St George Illawarra retaliated with four-pointers to Trent Merrin and Matt Cooper to snatch a 12-10 halftime lead.
The second stanza belonged to the Roosters as they mounted 10 unanswered points to stun the Wollongong faithful. The writing was on the wall when Mose Masoe plunged over shortly after the break, before BJ Leilua scored the match-winner with 10 minutes remaining.
The Dragons were their own worst enemies, tallying a season-high 41 missed tackles – including 25 in the first 40 minutes.
Jason Ryles made a statement against his former club, gaining 136 from a game-high 19 hit-ups, while winger Sam Perrett was a relentless carrier of the football with 163 and nine tackle busts.
Dragons hooker Nathan Fien was a liability in defence, missing eight tackles. Darius Boyd added 182 metres from fullback.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Russell Turner; Video Referee – Paul Simpkins.
The Way We See It: The Roosters simply aren’t respecting the football enough to stay in the contest each week. They are the worst side in the comp at completing their sets of possession (just 64.8 per cent each week) and if they don’t show a massive improvement this week they are headed for another defeat. The Dragons are struggling for points this season (just 15 a match, down from 20 in 2011) but if they’re given a glut of ball they may just rack up a big score here. Dragons by 13-plus points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 4pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats