Dragons v Eels preview

St George Illawarra Dragons v Parramatta Eels
WIN Jubilee Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Lightning couldn’t strike thrice for the Dragons, could it? Certainly St George Illawarra fans will be approaching Saturday night’s clash with great trepidation given the side’s second successive golden-point defeat last week – with another loss by the same margin (and it doesn’t have to be in extra time) guaranteeing the joint venture rugby league’s all-time record for successive defeats by the barest of differences.

Adding to their concern is this week’s opponent: the last time these sides met they couldn’t be separated despite playing 10 minutes of golden point extra time!

Alleviating some of their anxiety would be the fact that Parramatta are languishing on the bottom of the ladder – and have notched just one victory at Kogarah, full stop.

The Dragons’ fall from fourth to 11th place in the premiership hunt can be attributed to the massive hit their forward stocks have taken due to injuries, suspensions and representative call-ups. Beau Scott was their first casualty; followed by a suspension to Matt Prior, then a season-ending knee injury to prop Michael Weyman and a troublesome ankle concern for Nathan Fien; on top of that they lost Ben Creagh and Trent Merrin to New South Wales camp last week. Plus, Jamie Soward was absent when they fell to Penrith in Round 10.

Those disruptions aside it’s clear the Dragons are struggling for consistency in attack – a lot of it stemming from the failure to mount and sustain pressure, especially late in their sets. The benchmark side for fewest errors in 2011, the flustered Dragons now make the ninth-most mistakes each week. That’s got to hurt, and unless they can find a groove and some calm over the next month, their finals hopes could evaporate.

Meanwhile the Eels can only get better. Such is the nature of the game that they are bound to surprise more than a couple of times over the remainder of the season; remember, their sole win to date was over premiers Manly – and that spells trouble for St George Illawarra.

The Dragons’ pack has a much stronger look to it this week: Dean Young will start at lock with Ben Creagh returning from Origin and Beau Scott pencilled in to make his return. That trio’s inclusion sees Jake Marketo, Leeson Ah Mau and Jack De Belin relegated to an eight-man bench.

In Eels personnel changes, Reni Maitua is back at lock after serving his week’s suspension in Round 10, with caretaker No.13 Matt Ryan shifting to the second row and Joseph Paulo relegated to the bench. Ex-Dragon Justin Poore will start at prop for Fuifui Moimoi who hits the pine.  

Watch Out Dragons: The sight of the Red V jersey could herald a massive return to form for halfback Chris Sandow – he’s managed three try assists in a single game against Saturday night’s opponent on two separate occasions. In his last outing he orchestrated an incredible 28-4 second-half comeback for South Sydney to bag the competition points against the then premiers in Round 21 last year. Sandow’s impotence in attack in 2012 has been well documented but he is still capable of a stunning display. He hasn’t been all bad, with five line-break assists, three try assists and three line-breaks. Just one try assist here will give his team great heart.

Ken Sio has taken his chances since his elevation to the top squad – the right-side winger has crossed for six tries in 10 games and bagged a double last outing against the Raiders. Only Jarryd Hayne has made more territory than Sio’s average 134 metres and he has made as many line-breaks as his team’s superstar (seven so far). Sio is developing into a quality finisher and with Hayne’s assistance you can bet the right corner post will get a workout.

Hayne and left winger Luke Burt will also target the Dragons’ weak right edge – they’ve conceded 15 tries down their right flank, compared to just nine on the other side of the field.

Danger Sign: If the Dragons get sucked into believing defensive warhorse Nathan Hindmarsh is nothing but a decoy in attack, they could get burned. Hindmarsh is toiling hard off the ball, ranking fifth in the NRL for decoys (with 55) – but a simple change-up can reap dividends for the Eels if he becomes the target for a Sandow, Hayne or Casey McGuire short ball.

Watch Out Eels: The Dragons will be out to maintain their dominance over the blue-and-gold at Kogarah – they’ve won their past two encounters with the Eels there by 30-zilch.

If the Dragons can string together some strong runs they might just break out here – the Red V rank sixth for tackle-breaks (36 a game) and the Eels concede the fourth-most line-breaks (4.5). Look for their back three in particular to run often – they have combined for a whopping 123 tackle busts.

Clearly coach Steve Price got in the ear of five-eighth Jamie Soward before the game with Souths last week – he upped his running game and involvement, with 10 runs for 94 metres, 18 kicks, five tackle-breaks, a try assist, an offload, and a try. Soward can pave the way to victory with a similarly committed effort here. In particular look for him to spark something whenever the Dragons edge into the Parramatta side of halfway – the Eels have conceded 14 tries from between 21 and 50 metres of their goal line, the most in the comp.

Danger Sign: Any time Mitch Rein is at dummy-half – and especially when he’s in the attacking red zone. Incredibly, Parramatta are the only side that haven’t had a try scored against them from dummy-half. Not intending to be cruel, but a look at their stats (54 tries conceded, the most in the comp) suggests sides haven’t needed to chance their arm this way. But given the Dragons’ difficulties in getting across the stripe you can be sure Rein will have a dig – he has an incredible success rate of busting the opposition defence open when he runs, making a league-high five line-breaks from just 50 scoots. He has scored two tries from close range.

Jarryd Hayne v Brett Morris: The threat Hayne will pose doesn’t need too much elaborating. He runs the ball nearly 16 times a match, adding in excess of 150 metres every 80 minutes. He has contributed eight of their 21 try assists, scored four tries and added seven line-breaks. His spiral pass to his right-side supports is the best in the business. Meanwhile Morris runs 16 times for 160 metres, with a credit sheet that also boasts 53 tackle busts, six line-breaks and three tries. And he simply loves playing the Eels, having crossed for five tries in his past five games against them.   

Where It Will Be Won: The scoreboard attendant may need a thermos of strong coffee to sip from throughout this clash, given both sides’ troubles in posting points in 2012. The Dragons have crossed for the second fewest tries to date (2.6) while the Eels post just 2.8 per game. Clearly the side that ups the ante will prevail.  

The History: Played 24; Dragons 11, Eels 11, drawn 2. The Dragons have won five of the past eight encounters and hold a 5-1 advantage at Kogarah.

The Last Time They Met: The Dragons and Eels played out a 14-all draw after an absorbing 90-minute contest at Parramatta Stadium in Round 13 last year.

The Eels drew first blood in the ninth minute when prop Fuifui Moimoi crossed for a rare four-pointer in unusual circumstances, catching a Jarryd Hayne bat-back of a Casey McGuire cross-field kick to plough over from close range.

A Luke Burt penalty goal five minutes later extended the lead to 8-nil before Adam Cuthbertson got the visitors on the scoreboard in the 25th minute, receiving a dream bounce from a Jamie Soward cross-field kick.

The Dragons fans’ joy was short-lived however, with Jason Nightingale dropping a bomb and Taniela Lasalo scoring to send the Eels to the halftime break with a 14-6 lead.

The scoreboard sat stagnant for the opening half of the second 40 before Peni Ratu Tagive chased a Darius Boyd grubber down the left edge and skilfully picked up the ball on the half-volley to score. A Jamie Soward penalty goal tied the scores with 10 minutes remaining.

Neither side could break the deadlock in the 10 extra minutes of play, with Luke Burt missing two field-goal attempts and Jarryd Hayne, Ben Hornby and Jamie Soward missing one apiece.     

It was a dour game, with just one line-break made, while the Eels were kept in the clash with a 6-1 penalty count in their favour.

Nathan Hindmarsh made a staggering 71 tackles, with Jason Nightingale the Dragons’ best with 187 metres.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Dave Ryan; Video Referee – Rod Lawrence.

The Way We See It: This one could go either way. The safe tip is the Dragons – although an upset would not surprise. Dragons by four points.  

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats