The fact both sides are out of the semi-finals picture should make for an uninhibited, expansive game. Unshackled from the nerves and expectations that have dogged them recently, the players will most likely put on a show with plenty of offloads and off-the-cuff footy the order of the evening – although some Warriors will still be feeling the heat of the management microscope after falling way below a pass mark in 2012.
It’s been a checkered and frustrating period for the Red V and their fans, with five losses from their past six outings sealing their fate. Capable of beating Melbourne one week, then slumping to the Roosters with lacklustre intensity the next… that’s been the story of their season. It was the same plotline last week: they led the Cowboys 22-18 shortly after halftime but faded late to lose by 10.
Meanwhile Brian McClennan’s axing must surely have put the Warriors’ players on notice heading into their penultimate match for 2012. Touted as serious premiership contenders as recently as Round 18 the Kiwis have seemingly lost their soul over their past six games to freefall to 13th position, one ladder rung and a win behind this week’s opponent. Their heartless 18-16 loss to Penrith in Auckland was clearly the straw that broke McClennan’s back.
St George Illawarra have just the one change this week, with one of the men of the moment Dean Young fit to go after being a late withdrawal last Monday night.
Meanwhile Warriors caretaker coach Tony Iro has elevated Micheal Luck to start at lock in his second last NRL game, while Konrad Hurrell has been named on the bench after being a late withdrawal against Penrith.
While all the focus will be on Hornby and Young (who incidentally have run out alongside each other on 157 occasions), it’s also a big game for Warrior Russell Packer who suits up for his 100th NRL game.
Watch Out Dragons: Striking a balance will be the challenge for the home side, who have been resolute in defence but poor in attack throughout 2012. The Dragons miss the fourth-fewest tackles in the league (28 a game) – but score the fewest points (just 15). Incredibly last week’s 22 points against the Cowboys was just the sixth occasion they’d hit 20 points or more all season. And it came at a cost – they missed 37 tackles in the defeat.
Feleti Mateo has the talent to ruin the Dragons’ party, with his offloads capable of wreaking massive damage inside the St George Illawarra 20-metre zone. Mateo leads all players for creating second-phase play (53 offloads); meanwhile the Dragons have conceded the third-most tries originating between 10 and 20 metres out (18).
Expect Shaun Johnson and James Maloney to send plenty of high balls to the flanks given the Dragons have struggled to defuse cross-field bombs (just 46 per cent successful). In particular Manu Vatuvei (10 tries) will be a target. The Warriors have scored 17 tries from kicks; the Dragons have surrendered 20 tries to kicks.
Danger Sign: If Shaun Johnson troubles the Dragons’ right-side defence, an area that has struggled all year since Mark Gasnier’s retirement. They’ve let in 34 tries through the region. Watch for Johnson to target Jamie Soward and Chase Stanley in particular. Johnson leads all halfbacks for tries scored (11) and line-breaks (13).
Watch Out Warriors: Dean Young will be hoping to bag his first try of the year in his last game in Wollongong. The Warriors need to be alert on their goal-line – the Dragons have crossed for 10 tries from dummy-half, the second most by a team in 2012. Young loves to have a dig from close range and will be fueled by the memory of his eight tries at the venue since 2003 (for 37 wins from 55 appearances).
The Dragons are masters at slowing down the play-the-ball – it’s one of the reasons they have one of the best defences in the league. They rank second to North Queensland for ‘flop’ tackles (the term stats guys use for legitimate stacks-on tackles) with 292 made so far. This enables their defence to get set quicker than most teams. Of additional concern to the Warriors is the fact they make the fewest ‘flop’ tackles in the competition (just 157 so far) – consequently it’s little wonder they have missed more tackles than any team (37 a game) as their defenders struggle for structure. They won’t want to linger in the tackle this week, given they are the ‘away’ team and the Wollongong crowd will be hounding the refs at every opportunity… but they may think about putting on more of a struggle when they find themselves buried under an avalanche of Dragons tacklers.
Danger Sign: If the Dragons are allowed to keep their offloads flowing and get plenty of ball wide to their back three the Warriors could be run off their feet. Jason Nightingale, Brett Morris and Daniel Vidot all rank in the top 20 players for making inroads, with Morris their most dynamic weapon (332 runs, 13 tries).
Matt Cooper v Konrad Hurrell: Fellow veteran Cooper will look to turn back the clock to help deliver Young and Hornby a fairytale result. Despite an injury-plagued season he still boasts the ability to get on the outside of his man and he will fancy looking for chinks in the defence of his opposite number. Meanwhile Hurrell will create headaches when he takes the field off the bench: he has scored 12 tries and punched out 12 line-breaks in just 15 games in his rookie year.
Where It Will Be Won: Desire. The Dragons will be focused and passionate as they look to send out Hornby (who plays his 272nd game) and Young (208th game) with winning swansongs in Wollongong. If the Warriors meet that challenge from kick-off we can expect a riveting contest; if they don’t the Dragons will dictate terms throughout the 80 minutes.
The History: Played 18; Dragons 14, Warriors 4. St George Illawarra have beaten the Warriors seven times in the past eight clashes, with the Kiwis yet to register a win over the joint-venture Dragons in eight meetings in Wollongong. However, three of their past five defeats have been by four points or less.
The Last Time They Met: The Dragons defeated the Warriors 26-22 after a dramatic second-half comeback at WIN Stadium in Round 25 last year.
An early glut of possession saw the Warriors race to a 10 nil lead in even time following tries to Krisnan Inu and Kevin Locke, the latter coming from an amazing sidestepping run in which the fullback beat six would-be defenders from close range.
Mark Gasnier opened St George Illawarra’s account in the 17th minute, racing 30 metres after receiving an extremely late offload from Beau Scott who had appeared wrapped up by the swarming Warriors defence. The crimson-shirted Dragons leveled proceedings soon after when Brett Morris flirted with the left sideline, tippy-toeing over from 10 metres out.
The Warriors returned fire six minutes from halftime when winger Bill Tupou scored in the right corner after receiving a lovely overhead pass from his fullback Locke, handing the visitors a 16-10 lead they would take to oranges.
However, Tupou turned villain shortly after the teams returned from the dressing sheds when he failed to gather in a Darius Boyd grubber kick, with the Dragons’ fullback pouncing for a try that again leveled the scoreline (16-all).
The home side seized the lead for the first time on the afternoon through a Jamie Soward penalty goal in the 54th minute, and when Jason Nightingale finished off a well-executed right-side sweep just a minute later, the Dragons had edged clear 24-16.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Adam Gee; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Shane Rehm; Video Referee – Rod Lawrence.
The Way We See It: If the real Warriors turn up they can spoil the party but given the occasion the Dragons are likely to be too committed to let this one slip. Dragons by eight points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm.