Raiders v Dragons preview

Canberra Raiders v St George Illawarra Dragons
Canberra Stadium
Monday 7pm

The Dragons will endure a nervous coach ride down the Federal Highway on Monday contemplating their match-up with the Raiders – they have not beaten the Green Machine in Canberra since Cathy Freeman lit the flame to open the Sydney 2000 Olympics!

Worse, they’ve lost 12 of their past 13 games against the boys from the nation’s capital (in fact, Leeson Ah Mau and Atelea Vea are the only players among their main roster to have beaten Canberra in Canberra). And this week their ranks are severely depleted due to Origin duty, with key players Ben Creagh, Trent Merrin, Beau Scott and Brett Morris all missing.

However, the Raiders will need to pull out something special if they’re to keep their bogy-team status intact, given they’ll be without skipper David Shillington (Maroons) and attacking linchpin Josh Dugan, who is out for three weeks after injuring his ankle last Saturday.

The Raiders enter the arena after being touched up by the Cowboys in Townsville, the 40-18 defeat their third from their past four games. They continue to have little response to free-flowing opposition attack and conceded 12 line-breaks – the equal most by any side all year – as Matt Bowen cut loose. Currently sitting in 13th place on the ladder, they need to win at least eight of their remaining 10 games to force their way into the playoffs.  

Meanwhile St George Illawarra had a lucky escape against the Titans in Wollongong last Friday, emerging 8-6 victors only after the Gold Coast were denied a late try when their five-eighth Aidan Sezer was caught marginally offside in the lead-up to Phil Graham’s apparent four-pointer. The Red V’s hard-fought win, just their second in seven outings, elevated them to 10th position on the ladder and just one win away from the eighth-placed Wests Tigers.

However, as the scoreline suggests, the Dragons’ scoring woes continue – while their defence is airtight they remain rock bottom for points scored (14.5 each week), a whole two points adrift of the next most attack-challenged team, Penrith.

In personnel changes Raiders coach David Furner has promoted Dane Tilse to start at prop this week for Dave Shillington, with Bronson Harrison, Mark Nicholls and Joe Picker the new faces on their bench.

Meanwhile Dragons coach Steve Price has been forced into a significant reshuffle: Jason Nightingale shifts from the centres to fullback for Brett Morris, with Matt Cooper fit to take his place in the No.4 after missing last week’s game with the flu; Mitch Rein will start at hooker, with Nathan Fien reverting to the interchange. Jake Marketo and Leeson Ah Mau are the new starting second-rowers (for Beau Scott and Ben Creagh), with Jeremy Latimore and Josh Miller named on the bench. Trent Merrin, initially named in the NSW Origin squad for Game Three, has been released to line up for the Dragons. 

Watch Out Raiders: Daniel Vidot will be primed for a huge game against his former team. The winger scored 27 tries in three seasons in Canberra and has quickly gained a reputation for clawing out solid territory at his new club, leading all NRL wingers for running metres (1913). Vidot has crossed for four tries so far and has seven line-breaks, including two last week. He’ll relish his contest with Dimitri Pelo.

Nine NRL hookers run more often out of dummy-half than Dragons No.9 Mitch Rein – but he still maintains a better strike rate for line-breaks from the ruck than everyone else, leading the way with five so far. He’ll look to add to the Dragons’ tally of soft tries from dummy-half: they have six to date (third most).

Danger Sign: Canberra must try to keep the Dragons well away from their goal line or they’ll put themselves under huge pressure. The Raiders have surrendered a league-high 43 tries from within 10 metres of their try line.

Watch Out Dragons: Jarrod Croker has had problems with his defence in 2012 but there’s no doubt he’s been their shining light in attack. The left centre has scored 10 tries, made 11 line-breaks and busted 52 tackles. He’ll look to get on the outside shoulder of Chase Stanley and test his defensive reads, given the older Stanley brother is playing just his third game of the season.

Blake Ferguson is due to cross the stripe sooner rather than later. Now in the centres, the former winger leads all Raiders for territory gained (128 metres) but has crossed for just three tries in 13 games. Last year scored 13 tries, so no doubt he’ll be hungry. Plus he’s averaging six tackle-breaks a game, the most by any centre.

Danger Sign: The Dragons are having massive problems cleaning up kicks and with Brett Morris missing they’ll be under the pump even more than usual. They’ve conceded 17 tries to kicks so far – the third most in the league – including one last week (and very nearly two!). Their biggest problems are cross-field bombs (just 50 per cent defused) and high balls near their goal posts. Expect Josh McCrone and Sam Williams to test out their communication.   

Josh McCrone v Jamie Soward: Pushed to five-eighth this week Josh McCrone’s passing game will need to be closely monitored – he has contributed 12 line-break assists to date, with 11 coming from select passes. Meanwhile after hanging around on the left-hand side of the field through the first half of the season for not much gain, Jamie Soward found immediate success back on the right-hand side of the field last week, breaching the Titans through the centres region to notch just his second line-break of the year. Given the Raiders have conceded 38 tries through their left-edge defence (nine more than the next most leaked by the Warriors) Soward could be in for a night to remember.

Where It Will Be Won: Getting the balance right. Clearly the Dragons are the most imbalanced side in the NRL: on the one hand they lead the comp for fewest tackle misses (just 26), on the other they score the fewest tries (2.5 per game). They need to find a middle ground that will afford them greater attack while not compromising their rigid defence. Meanwhile the Raiders rank middle of the pack for points scored (19.1) but are shooting themselves in the foot through their inability to repel opposition attacking raids – they concede a league-worst 5.7 line-breaks every game.  

The History: Played 20; Raiders 13, Dragons 6, drawn 1. The Raiders have won the past six games straight and hold a 9-2 advantage at Canberra Stadium. The Dragons’ last win over the Green Machine was a 58-16 thrashing in Wollongong in 2007.

The Last Time They Met: The Raiders stunned the Dragons with a dramatic last-seconds play to steal a 24-19 victory at Canberra Stadium in Round 20 last year.

On a freezing Monday night in the nation’s capital the Green Machine overcame an 18-6 deficit at halftime, with Josh Dugan snatching victory with his second try of the evening as the fulltime siren loomed.

It was Dugan who launched their second-half comeback when he bounced out of a brace of would-be Dragons tacklers 20 metres out to power over under the posts in the 53rd minute, before Blake Ferguson’s try in the right corner from a scrum saw the teams draw level with 17 minutes remaining.

Jamie Soward appeared to have sealed victory for the Red V when he piloted over a pressure-cooker field-goal with 98 seconds left on the clock but the Raiders managed to get the ball back from their short restart of play, leaving them one last bite in attack. They worked the ball downfield, then Josh McCrone dabbed a grubber into the in-goal that Dugan somehow managed to pounce on before on-the-spot Dragons Nathan Fien and Brett Morris.

It was a remarkable, against-the-odds victory by the Raiders who were dominated by St George Illawarra everywhere but on the scoreboard. The Dragons completed their sets at a season-best 95 per cent (to Canberra’s 85 per cent), made five line-breaks to three, committed just five errors (to the Raiders’ 10) and missed just 17 tackles (to the Raiders’ 38).

Dugan (two tries, 180 metres and six tackle-breaks) and McCrone (two try assists) were the stars for Canberra, while Trent Merrin was unstoppable for the visitors (19 hit-ups, 177 metres).   

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Gavin West; Video Referee – Pat Reynolds.

The Way We See It: Losing Josh Dugan blunts the Raiders considerably but the Dragons will really need to step up without their Origin players. The Canberra hoodoo cannot be overlooked but the Dragons have shown enough in their past 120 minutes of footy to suggest they might be about to string some points together. They’ll need to, or else their semi-finals dream will soon fade. Dragons by six points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats