Mathematically it’s not panic stations for the Dragons’ semi-finals bid – although their abject lack of penetration has fans wondering whether their heroes have the weaponry required to ignite a late charge and instil fear into the other premiership candidates.
Certainly they have little to show for themselves at present. St George Illawarra may be just one win away from the eighth-placed rung occupied by the Warriors and Wests Tigers on 20 competition points but they are worlds away from the congestion of semi-finals candidates when it comes to troubling the scoreboard attendant, languishing a long last in the NRL hierarchy with just 14.8 points per game.
Their misery was compounded two weeks ago when the Raiders snatched a last-gasp win in Canberra to extend their drought in the nation’s capital to 13 years. It was the Dragons’ sixth loss from their past eight games – leaving their season with a distinct Groundhog Day feel given they lost 10 of their final 14 games in 2011.
After resting up with their second bye last week they face a return bout with the surprise-packet Sharks, who beat them 12-nil in Round 6. The black, white and blue have established some serious premiership cred over the past months; they sit in outright third spot on 25 points following their hard-fought 14-all draw with the Roosters last Monday night. Victory would have elevated the Sharks to just a win adrift of the Storm; the odd-point difference probably puts paid to their minor premiership dream for 2012. But they’re still very much in the hunt for the main prize.
The Sharks gained their point last week without their formidable back row of Paul Gallen, Jayson Bukuya and Jeremy Smith – and they’ll need to be gutsy again this week given only Bukuya has been slated to return from injury. His inclusion sees Tyson Frizell revert to an extended bench.
However, winger Isaac Gordon and centre Colin Best return this week, bumping John Williams and Ricky Leutele respectively.
In a reshuffle of the Dragons’ ranks, Jason Nightingale retains the No.1 jersey he wore when filling in for Morris against the Raiders, with Morris’ return from the Origin arena shunting incumbent left-side winger Daniel Vidot onto the right wing, displacing Bronx Goodwin.
In a major overhaul of their pack Trent Merrin will start at prop for Jack de Belin; Mitch Rein starts at hooker for Nathan Fien who hits the interchange; while Blues back-rowers Ben Creagh and Beau Scott are also back on deck, shunting Jake Marketo to the bench and bumping Leeson Ah Mau from the squad. Jeremy Latimore is the new face on the bench.
Given the problems with their attack coach Steve Price would be breathing a small sigh of relief after learning St George Illawarra have averaged 26.5 points at this week’s venue WIN Stadium.
Meanwhile the race is on to see which Dragon can grab the joint venture’s 400th try in Wollongong – their most productive scorer has been Matt Cooper (41 tries).
Watch Out Dragons: Bodies in motion on down the left edge will test out the Dragons’ nerve. St George Illawarra’s right-side defence leaked two soft tries to Reece Robinson a fortnight ago and if Chase Stanley and Jamie Soward in particular don’t make good reads on the Sharks’ decoy runners Colin Best will find plenty of open space.
The Dragons should never give up on a play – the Sharks make the third-most supports (611).
Jamie Soward and Ben Hornby need to watch their clearance kicks, given Todd Carney and Wade Graham make among the most charge-downs (three each). The Dragons have had seven kicks charged down.
Danger Sign: Any time Jeff Robson rolls a grubber into the in-goal – the Dragons are the second worst in the competition at defusing grubber kicks and they have surrendered 17 tries off the boot so far (second most). Robson had success this way the last time they met.
Watch Out Sharks: St George Illawarra remain unbeaten in Wollongong, with the Sharks’ last victory in the Steel City occurring way back on April 30, 1989! Since then the Sharks have suffered nine straight defeats at WIN Stadium. Ouch.
Expect Ben Hornby to ramp up his involvement and probe for holes in the Sharks’ right-edge defence – Cronulla have leaked 26 tries down that side of the field compared to 17 on their left. Hornby needs just one line-break to grab 100 in his career.
Trent Merrin starting at prop is a sure sign the Red V aim to lay a platform from the start. The Blues representative ploughed out 19 hit-ups for 179 metres last time they met. Plus, he leads his side for offloads (29).
Likewise Mitch Rein, starting at hooker, can hurt the Sharks early: he leads all players for dummy-half line-breaks (seven) and barged over for two tries from dummy-half in their loss to the Raiders. The Dragons’ eight tries from dummy-half are the second most behind the Rabbitohs’ 10.
Danger Sign: When the Dragons head left towards Brett Morris. Playing exclusively on the wing last year the speedster ranked fourth in the NRL for line-breaks with 17 and scored 10 tries. He has scored four tries in the No.1 in 2012. Clearly they’ll look to Morris for more oomph out wide.
Jamie Soward v Todd Carney: Soward was the incumbent NSW five-eighth when these stars met back in Round 6 although both players had relatively quiet games for their teams. Certainly Soward will be focused on a morale-boosting game against the guy who ‘stole’ his representative jersey. He’s been a little quiet in broken play in 2012 with just three line-breaks to date – although he’s bagged one on the right edge in each of his past two games. This week he’ll test out Colin Best and Isaac Gordon. Meanwhile Carney enjoyed the return to club level last Monday night, running more often than we’ve seen him so far (12 runs, 98 metres) and adding a try assist to take his tally to eight for the year. He’s another player who can cause the Dragons’ right-edge defence huge problems when he sprints to the line.
Where It Will Be Won: Each team matching their high season standard in defence. The Sharks have missed fewer tackle than any side (25.9). The Dragons are next best (26).
The History: Played 29; Sharks 15, Dragons 13, drawn 1. The Dragons have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides although Cronulla have won two of the past three.
The Last Time They Met: The Sharks held the Dragons scoreless to record a 12-nil win in a fast-and-furious encounter at Toyota Stadium back in Round 6.
Cronulla drew first blood with just six minutes gone after Colin Best sliced through some flimsy Dragons defence near halfway. The centre linked with winger John Williams who streaked down the left sideline before throwing a well-judged pass infield to Jeff Robson who found John Morris with the final pass for a 6-nil scoreline.
Thereafter the teams ran each other ragged with end-to-end action, with neither side blinking until the 57th minute when Wade Graham out-enthused the Dragons to be first to a Robson fifth-tackle grubber kick that barely made it into the in-goal.
Cronulla owed their victory to some expansive second-phase play, with 19 offloads tallied on the evening helping them to a 4-2 advantage in the line-breaks count.
Incredibly the Dragons churned out more territory, their 1643 metres 39 metres more than the home side managed – although the Red V had a decidedly off night with their defence, tallying a season-high 42 missed tackles.
Sharks captain Paul Gallen’s stats were truly phenomenal – 29 hit-ups for 215 metres with 41 tackles and five offloads – while Robson added two try assists.
Daniel Vidot was among the best of the beaten bunch, making 161 metres, a line-break and four tackle-breaks, while prop Michael Weyman was similarly strong with 143 metres and two offloads.
Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Referee – Paul Simpkins.
The Way We See It: The Dragons offer a lot more on paper than they do on the field, but surely that’s got to change? Every team has a breakout game during the course of any given season and the Red V are yet to have theirs. Up against the depleted Sharks at home, this could be their week. If it isn’t we’ll be dropping off them for the remainder of 2012. Dragons by six points.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 6pm.