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St George Illawarra Dragons v Melbourne Storm
WIN Stadium
Friday 7.30pm

The spluttering Dragons’ season goes on the line in Wollongong on Friday night against the wobbly Storm who will be out to reassert their premiership credentials after an unprecedented and uncharacteristic four-game losing streak.

St George Illawarra were outclassed from the outset last Saturday night, succumbing to their second worst defeat against South Sydney in a seven-tries-to-three rout that leaves their semi-finals campaign on life support with six matches remaining.

They dropped from 10th to 13th on the NRL ladder and are now the lowest-ranked of five wannabe finalists on 20 competition points. Given the logjam of contenders a loss here would almost pull the plug on their dreams of making the semis; certainly they would be left with the heady task of winning all five of their remaining games – and by big margins – in order to make the playoffs. Given their attacking woes and wafting focus even the truest of their believers might find that tough to invest in.

Meanwhile the Storm were bushwhacked by beleaguered Parramatta last week, with the Eels rallying in coach Stephen Kearney’s swansong to hand Storm mentor Craig Bellamy his first quartet of successive losses with the clipboard. (Ironically the last time Melbourne failed to win in five successive games came when they drew with the Dragons in Wollongong in 2002.) The fact that Melbourne dominated all stats categories against Parramatta will be cold comfort to perfectionist Bellamy who admits he is at a loss to explain their poor form which threatens to do more damage than last year’s slide that culminated in them losing three of their final four games and missing a berth in the decider.

Publicly Bellamy does not believe Billy Slater is the magical cure – but privately we bet he can’t wait for the reigning Dally M Medallist to return from his knee injury this week.

In team list news Dean Young has made a fair recovery after being flattened by Greg Inglis’ shoulder-charge-gone-wrong last week and has been named to start the game at lock for the Dragons, with Jack de Belin reverting to the bench. A final call will be made on Young’s fitness following extensive cognitive assessment during the week.

However in a blow, Matt Cooper has succumbed to a hamstring injury, with his place in the centres taken by Beau Scott. Matt Prior takes Scott’s place in the second row with Nathan Fien, Will Mathews and Leeson Ah Mau the new faces on the interchange.

Meanwhile Slater’s welcome return for Melbourne sees Gareth Widdop switch back to his preferred spot at five-eighth and Rory Kostjasyn join an extended bench that numbers five at this stage.

If 2011 is any gauge the Dragons will struggle to make the finals – after 20 rounds last season no team outside the top eight was able to force their way into the playoffs.

Watch Out Dragons: Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Ryan Hoffman and Dane Nielsen will conspire to exploit the Dragons’ weak right-side defence which has leaked 28 tries compared to 19 on the left. Souths, with Greg Inglis, John Sutton and Nathan Merritt leading the way, pounded out plenty of holes on the left edge last week, especially from close range. Jamie Soward (seven missed tackles last week) and Chase Stanley will be the targets.

The normally reliable Dragons’ defence was stressed to breaking point against the bunnies and they won’t find things easier against the strong-running Storm unit. Before last week the Dragons ranked third best at limiting missed tackles, making just 26 per game – but Souths’ far-reaching variety in attack saw them crumble to 44 misses on the night, conceding seven line-breaks in the process. In particular Craig Bellamy would have noted the effectiveness of inside passes to supports, with the Dragons often guilty of not ‘shutting the gate’ as plays drifted across the field. Greg Inglis scored his 40-metre try off an inside assist – Cronk, Slater and Smith will be eyeing success in this fashion.

Also, the Storm love to attack from close range, having scored 40 tries from inside the opposition 10-metre zone (second most).

Danger Sign: Any time Cooper Cronk puts his foot to the Steeden in an attacking position – the Storm have scored the second most tries off the boot (19) while the Dragons have conceded 18 (third most). Cross-field bombs are their weakness (defusing just 48 per cent).

Watch Out Storm: Keeping Brett Morris quiet is the key to dousing the Dragons’ fire. Shifted back to the wing after spending most of the season at fullback, Morris has the knack of slipping out of would-be tackles to keep the plays going. He leads the league for running metres (almost three kilometres so far!), has made 85 tackle busts (fourth most) as well as 11 line-breaks and 32 offloads. He’s a momentum player who feeds off early success so containing him from the get-go is vital.

Trent Merrin’s aggressive go-forward and ability to promote second phase at the defensive line has hurt teams all year – the nuggetty back-rower ranks fifth for offloads (with 34), averages 16 hit-ups, 134 metres as well as 32 tackles. Wrap him up and the Storm are halfway home.  

In a confidence boost, injury-plagued former Melbourne centre Chase Stanley will suit up for his sixth straight NRL game for the first time in four seasons. Should he be first to score for his side he’d follow brother Kyle who was the last Dragon to cross against the Storm.

Danger Sign: The Dragons are a confidence side; while they are very much down on it at the moment they can easily shake off their funk if the likes of veteran halfback Ben Hornby and five-eighth Jamie Soward find some holes. Hornby has paid his way in 2012 with 12 line-break assists (third most by a halfback) while Soward is capable of shredding the opposition if he’s not pressured. He has nine try assists but will hope for more luck off the boot, with his side registering just six tries from kicks (second fewest and ahead of only the Knights).       

Mitch Rein v Cameron Smith: Two hookers with vastly different styles whose direction will be crucial to their team’s chances. Kangaroos captain Smith is the consummate dummy-half general; he gets his hands on the football more than any player in the NRL (1844 receives) and has made the second-most runs out of dummy-half (130). When he scoots from the ruck he’s always looking for a support and has tallied four line-break assists for team-mates. Meanwhile Rein doesn’t run as often (75 times to date) but when he does it’s generally because he can spy an opportunity – he leads all players for dummy-half line-breaks (with eight) but has just one line-break assist. Also he has crossed for five tries from close range. Despite his predictable involvement Smith is always tough to keep a lid on; meantime the Storm cannot afford to gift Rein a glimpse of a chance.

Where It Will Be Won: The effective use of decoy runners. Melbourne rank fourth and the Dragons fifth for most decoy runs, averaging 35 and 34 decoys respectively. Getting the timing right inside the opposition’s 20-metre zone will be crucial to creating indecision in the defence, enabling the playmakers to leave their stamp. Ben Creagh (80 decoys) is the Dragon to watch while Ryan Hinchcliffe (83) and Todd Lowrie (72) are prolific decoys for the Storm.    

The History: Played 25; Storm 18, Dragons 6, drawn 1. Melbourne have won six of the past eight clashes between the sides. They also hold a 3-2 advantage in games in Wollongong, with another game ending in a draw.

The Last Time They Met: The Storm, minus injured halfback Cooper Cronk, ground out an 8-6 victory over the Red V in an error-riddled clash at AAMI Park in Round 24 last year.

The visitors drew first blood with 18 minutes gone when Kyle Stanley crossed after a trademark Dragons left-side sweep; however the play attracted howls of protest from Storm players who were convinced the final pass from Darius Boyd to Stanley was forward.

Storm captain Cameron Smith engineered the equaliser for his side seven minutes later when he feigned to grubber kick into the Dragons’ in-goal from dummy-half, instead shooting the ball wide to fill-in halfback Gareth Widdop who fed winger Anthony Quinn on the left edge.  

The Storm pressured the Dragons’ line in the minutes leading up to halftime; they took an 8-6 lead to the break courtesy of a Smith penalty goal after St George Illawarra prop Michael Weyman was penalised for holding in the tackle.

The scoreless second half was a dour, lacklustre affair with both sides bumbling their way through their sets. The Storm completed their sets at a poor 55 per cent while the Dragons couldn’t even manage a pass mark, completing just seven of 15 sets with the ball in hand. Both sides struggled to get into their groove, making 12 errors apiece throughout the 80 minutes, with the Storm adding a whopping nine in the second stanza alone.

The fullbacks were the key to their side’s fortunes with Billy Slater running for 215 metres with seven tackle busts while Darius Boyd added 193 metres and offered a try assist.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Steve Carrall; Video Referee – Steve Clark.

The Way We See It: We’ve waited patiently for the Dragons to come good in 2012… but no more. They just don’t seem capable of mounting the attack necessary to compete against the best sides. Meanwhile we sense the Storm will be stung into action here after falling to the Eels. They’ve eyed the minor premiership all year and will be desperate to stay in touch with the Bulldogs in the race for the JJ Giltinan Shield. It’s Melbourne by eight points.  

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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