Anxious Dragons fans will be hoping five-eighth Jamie Soward can set fire to their side’s waterlogged attack after the former Origin pivot’s absence was sorely missed in the shock defeat to the Panthers last Monday.
The Dragons dropped to 10th on the ladder after their second successive loss; now they have to stare down the sixth-placed Rabbitohs minus NSW representatives Ben Creagh and Trent Merrin and with a raft of injuries to key players including Beau Scott, Michael Weyman and Nathan Fien seriously compromising the depth and continuity of their forward pack.
Of equal concern to coach Steve Price is the team’s inability to score points – a powerhouse attacking unit for the past three seasons, this year they have slumped to the second-fewest tries each week plus the third-fewest points overall. Take out their 28 points scored against the Roosters in Round 8 and in their four other games since Round 6 they’ve averaged a non-competitive 7.5 points a game. If they don’t turn things around this weekend a third straight defeat could send them plummeting as low as 13th!
Meanwhile Souths enter the arena fully rested after the bye – but they’ll need to believe in themselves fully given they’ll be missing fullback and key attacking weapon Greg Inglis as well as punishing back-rower Dave Taylor to Queensland rep duty.
Souths are still on a high following successive home wins over the high-flying Cowboys and Sharks. Approaching the midpoint of the season there is no sign of a drop-off in their attack, as many pundits predicted following Chris Sandow’s exit, while their defence is now far from the one that missed the most tackles in 2011.
In personnel changes, the Dragons have opted to start Jeremy Latimore at prop for Michael Weyman, who is out indefinitely with a knee injury. Jake Marketo and Leeson Ah Mau are the new starting second-rowers for Creagh and Atelea Vea, who drops to the bench. Cameron King, Chase Stanley and Jack De Belin (a late relegation to NSW Cup last week) are the new faces on the pine.
Meanwhile Souths coach Michael Maguire has named Nathan Merritt in the No.1 to cover for Inglis, with Justin Hunt to start on the wing. Sam Burgess gets the nod to start in the second row for Taylor, with Luke Burgess, Chris McQueen and Nathan Peats added to form a six-man interchange at this stage.
Souths have a good recent record after byes, winning four of their past six games after the break – but their record at Kogarah is abysmal, winning there just once since 1989.
Watch Out Dragons: Issac Luke always creates headaches for the Red V and he’ll be keen to build on his good form in 2012 with another jack-in-the-box display out of dummy-half. Luke leads all players for runs out of dummy-half (107) and he ranks second for dummy-half line-breaks (four). He terrorised the Dragons last time they met, making 122 metres and seven tackle-breaks and he made 130 metres with six tackle-breaks against the Sharks last game.
Meanwhile the Dragons need more from centre Matt Cooper. Last year Cooper ranked second in the NRL for line-breaks with 19 in 21 games. In five appearances in 2012 he’s managed just one. That probably shows how much the Red V are missing Darius Boyd.
The same goes for Brett Morris – although he’s been a success at fullback St George Illawarra are really missing his ability to break the defensive line. Last year Morris made 17 line-breaks… but he has just five busts from 10 games so far.
While the Rabbitohs will miss Inglis, fill-in fullback Nathan Merritt has a 100 per cent strike rate for tries from just two games in 2012. His combination chiming in off John Sutton will be telling.
Danger Sign: Any time the bunnies head right – they’ve crossed for 15 tries on the right side of the field compared to just nine on the left and they put the Dragons through the ringer last time they met, crossing for five of their six tries on the right. Rookie Rabbitoh Andrew Everingham has eight tries in seven games on the right wing and will be odds-on to boost his tally here.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Just as Luke holds the aces for the Rabbitohs at the ruck, hooker Mitch Rein will be a key cog for the Dragons. Despite the media spotlight on his perceived lack of judgment following a spat with captain Ben Hornby last Monday there’s no question Rein can get the pendulum swinging the Dragons’ way. He leads all-comers for breaks out of dummy-half with five so far – including one for a try from close range last Monday.
Daniel Vidot and Jason Nightingale will be out to maintain the devastating record of Dragons wingers against the bunnies – their flank men have crossed for a whopping 32 tries from just 18 matches. Vidot in particular will be keen to get across the stripe – in 53 NRL games so far the Rabbitohs and Roosters are the only teams he’s yet to score against. The former Raider has quickly found his feet at Kogarah, leading all recognised wingers for average metres gained (146 per game) as well as proving tough to contain (27 tackle busts). He’ll test out Andrew Everingham’s defence.
Danger Sign: If Jamie Soward is accurate with his cross-field bombs the Rabbitohs could buckle under the high ball – Souths are the second worst in the league at defusing cross-field bombs, safely negotiating just four in every 10 kicks sent their way.
Jamie Soward v John Sutton: The battle of the No.6s holds the key. Soward, surprisingly quiet in 2012, needs to step out of his comfort zone and make something happen while running the ball himself. He made 18 try assists and 11 line-breaks of his own in 2011 but approaching the halfway point of 2012 he’s been restricted to just four try assists – and one paltry line-break. Meanwhile Sutton needs to feed off the energy of his recent deeds with Greg Inglis and channel that form into a new combination with Nathan Merritt. Sutton has four line busts to his name and will prove tough to contain when running to the line (average 10 runs) with 11 offloads so far. He’ll be hoping he can end a long try-scoring drought by Rabbitohs five-eighths at WIN Jubilee Stadium – Julian O’Neill was their last way back in May 1998.
Where It Will Be Won: Posting points. The Dragons simply have to find a way to manufacture points because matching their 2012 average won’t be enough to secure the win here. The Rabbitohs’ average of 22 points is seven more than the Dragons – plus they’ve averaged 26 in their past two wins.
The History: Played 18; Dragons 14, Rabbitohs 4. The Dragons have won five of the past eight clashes and are undefeated in two clashes with the bunnies at their Kogarah HQ.
The Last Time They Met: The Rabbitohs launched a stunning comeback to defeat the Dragons 34-24 at WIN Stadium in Round 21 last year.
The home side raced to a commanding 20-nil lead after 17 minutes; Brett Morris and Matt Cooper’s tries in the left corner were balanced by a pair from Jason Nightingale on the right.
Rabbitohs fullback Rhys Wesser gave his side hope when he sliced through on the right fringe just before halftime for a 20-6 deficit but the Dragons still appeared well in control.
However, their grip on the game went pear-shaped early in the second half: three tries in eight minutes saw the red and green take a 22-20 lead with 28 minutes remaining.
Dragons fans breathed a sigh of relief when Matt Cooper bagged his second try following a swift left-side sweep to regain the lead in the 73rd minute – but their world came crashing down again when Dylan Farrell latched onto a Nathan Merritt shuttle pass to plunge over in the right corner for his third try of the afternoon with little more than two minutes remaining.
As it transpired there was still enough time on the clock to score – except it was the Rabbitohs who grasped the opportunity, with Merritt the beneficiary of a John Sutton offload from close range to round out the scoreline.
Respect for possession kept the Rabbitohs in the game – they were 88 per cent effective in completing their sets, compared to the Dragons’ 75 per cent.
The Rabbitohs were best served by halfback Chris Sandow who was credited with three try assists, and fullback Wesser who ran for 132 metres.
For the Dragons, Brett Morris was a threat running the ball back, with eight tackle busts.
Match Officials: Referees – Shane Hayne & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Referee – Russell Smith.
The Way We See It: Every NRL season sees one team hit by injuries more so than others –this year is shaping up as St George Illawarra’s turn, at least in the forwards. While they still have a host of ‘name’ players to rely on there’s no way they can be called on to provide the minutes required to carry the day. Meanwhile their depth looks increasingly thin. On that basis, up against an in-form Rabbitohs and with the Dragons’ attack showing no signs of improvement, we figure they’ll do it tough again. Rabbitohs by eight points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 6pm.
- Statistics: NRL Stats