Roosters v Dragons preview

Sydney Roosters v St George Illawarra Dragons
Allianz Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

They may be out of this year’s premiership race but there’s no question the still-ruffled Roosters will be intent on avenging their heartbreaking last-minute loss to the Dragons back on Anzac Day with a retribution victory here that could potentially end the Red V’s semi-finals quest.

The Roosters started tossing around end-of-season trip ideas following last week’s disappointing loss to the Titans that left them mired in 14th place on the NRL ladder. It was another disappointing performance from the Roosters who led 10-nil until the 30th minute before losing their focus – yet again they revealed an annoying inability to compete for the full 80 minutes, an irksome trait that has defined their season. So full of promise after nine rounds with five wins under their belt, incredibly they have banked more points from byes than on the field (just a win and a draw) in the period since.

Meanwhile the hot-and-cold Dragons bounced back from their debilitating thrashing at the hands of South Sydney in Round 20, surprising the league when taking down the Storm in backs-to-the-wall fashion in Wollongong last week. Tellingly the 26-18 upset victory included just their third-most points tallied all year (after 36 against the Tigers and 28 against the Roosters) – although they can put 10 of those points down to a pair of length-of-the-field tries against the run of play. Regardless, St George Illawarra – minus Jamie Soward for the second time in three weeks – played with good structure and urgency. The overall vibe to emerge was that if they happen to string together some wins and squeak into eighth place with momentum, they could trouble some of the top-ranked sides. They certainly have the defence… they just need their attack to hold up their side of the bargain.

In Dragons personnel changes rookie Nathan Green has been named in the centres for Beau Scott, who blew a hamstring when scoring his try last week. Jamie Soward (back spasms) remains in the Dragons’ casualty ward, with Nathan Fien slated to start at No.6 again. Jake Marketo and Leeson Ah Mau form an extended bench.  

Coach Steve Price would be quietly confident of taking down this week’s opponent – the Dragons have won 12 of their past 15 games against the Roosters.

Meanwhile Roosters coach Brian Smith has named an unchanged line-up, adding Brad Takairangi as 18th man.

It’s a milestone week for Roosters prop Frank-Paul Nuuausala who plays his 100th game in the red, white and blue.

Watch Out Roosters: Mitch Rein needs to be watched like a hawk when he slips into dummy-half. Rein engineered a try against the Roosters with a line-break out of dummy-half and he leads all players in that regard with eight to date. Rein and Dean Young will also pose a threat from close range – the Dragons have crossed for eight tries out of dummy-half (second most) while the Roosters have conceded six (fourth most).

The Dragons’ improved attack has come on the back of a heap more offloads in the second half of the season. Early in 2012 the Dragons were in the minority of teams for offloads but now they rank fourth with 12 every game. The Roosters rank second for limiting offloads but they’ll need to be at their defensive best to stop the likes of Trent Merrin and Brett Morris from creating damage. The pair rank third and fourth in the comp for offloads with 35 and 33 respectively.

Danger Sign: Brett Morris has been in great form all year but he’s gone up a notch since returning to the wing three weeks ago – in that time he’s more than doubled his try-scoring tally for the season, crossing six times to now boast 11 for the year. The Roosters need to be precise with their right-edge plays or Morris will make them pay even from long range. The flyer ranks second in the comp for average metres each week (172). He needs just one more line bust to register 100 in his career. That’s a heck of a strike rate given he’s played only 125 games.

Watch Out Dragons: The Roosters are a handful for even the best defence when they manage to string together some passes – they rank third for second-phase play with 12.1 offloads every 80 minutes. That poses a threat to St George Illawarra who are just middle of the NRL pack at limiting offloads (almost 11 conceded each game).

The Dragons need to get to their clearing kicks with urgency or else the Roosters’ back three – and in particular fullback Anthony Minichiello – will make huge inroads. The Red V have registered the fourth-most ‘poor’ kick chases (32) while Minichiello is making the most runs by any player (340 so far) for almost 145 metres a match, as well as the sixth-biggest chunk of territory from kick returns in the league (1063 metres).

Danger Sign: Missing Matt Cooper last week the Dragons’ left-edge defence looked vulnerable against the Storm, leaking three tries. With Cooper sidelined again expect Shaun Kenny-Dowall to take on the line from close range. At his best Kenny-Dowall is one of the toughest centres to halt. He has scored six tries in just 12 games and made seven line busts and 55 tackle-breaks.      

Mitchell Pearce v Ben Hornby: Two much-maligned halfbacks in 2012 get the chance to silence their critics. Pearce is actually one of toughest playmakers to shut down, leading all No.7s for offloads (25) while he’s also proved solid setting up tries (15) and line-breaks (14) for team-mates. Much will depend on his kicking game however – the Roosters have booted the fewest metres this year (8905), more than 1100 metres less than 15th-ranked unit North Queensland. Meanwhile 268-game veteran Hornby’s strength is his ability to put a team-mate into a hole (12 line-break assists, third most by a halfback). Expect him to be heavily involved in the centre of the park, looking to get through the front line with a jink before turning the ball inside to likely supports Ben Creagh (who has won 12 of 16 games against the chooks) or Dan Hunt. Like Morris, Hornby needs just one more line-break to hit 100 in his career.

Where It Will Be Won: Improving on their weaknesses. The compelling questions here are whether the Dragons can better their season average 15.5 points scored per match – the lowest in the league – and whether the Roosters can do better than their 26 points conceded every week (the second-most leaked by any team).

The History: Played 27; Dragons 17, Roosters 9, drawn 1. The Dragons have won seven of the past eight clashes – and boast a 9-8 advantage at Roosters headquarters.

The Last Time They Met: The Dragons scored two tries in the final three minutes to snatch a thrilling 28-24 victory over the Roosters in their traditional Anzac Day clash at Allianz Stadium in Round 8.

The Roosters edged to a 12-10 lead at the break after tit-for-tat scoring in the first half. St George Illawarra drew first blood when Ben Creagh crossed in the 12th minute after a Mitch Rein line bust from dummy-half, before Aidan Guerra returned fire for the home side in the 20th minute, pouncing on a Mitchell Pearce cross-field bomb for a 6-all scoreline.

The Dragons regained the lead when Matt Cooper gathered Daniel Vidot’s smart tap-back of a Ben Hornby chip kick to score, before Anthony Minichiello outleapt his opposite Brett Morris in front of the Dragons’ goal posts to make it two tries apiece heading to oranges.   

Mitchell Pearce added to the Roosters’ tally on the hour when he followed through his kick into the Dragons’ in-goal and beat Brett Morris to the grounding, before a Michael Weyman rush from dummy-half made it 18-16 with 14 minutes remaining.

Braith Anasta’s try in the 69th minute and penalty goal with four minutes left for a 24-16 lead looked to be enough to secure the tricolours victory, before a remarkable comeback from the Red V. First Matt Prior scored after Jason Nightingale stole possession from the Dragons’ shallow restart kick, before Creagh sealed the win crossing off a Michael Weyman offload adjacent to the left upright with just 50 seconds remaining.

Although the Roosters had every right to feel ‘robbed’ the stats showed the Dragons deserved the two competition points: they dominated completions 80 per cent to 71 per cent and made five line busts to the Roosters’ one.

Weyman (a try and an assist) and Creagh (two tries, a line-break) were the Dragons’ stars while the Roosters were best served by halves Anasta and Pearce (two try assists).

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Luke Potter; Video Referee – Paul Simpkins.

The Way We See It: The unpredictable Roosters are certainly capable of pulling off an upset here. However, buoyed by their victory over the Storm and with their finals chances essentially on the line we expect St George Illawarra to prove a shade too strong. Dragons by four points.

Televised: Gem – Live 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats