Wests Tigers v Dragons
Sydney Cricket Ground
Sunday 3pm

Back-to-back losers Wests Tigers lock horns with back-to-back winners St George Illawarra with a borderline top-eight ranking the prize for the winners of this classic Heritage Round match-up, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1963 grand final with a return to the spiritual home of rugby league. 

However, dampening the occasion is the fact each team will enter the hallowed arena minus a star contributor after injuries to Benji Marshall (toe – four weeks) and Gerard Beale (knee – season) last week. 

The Tigers’ woes extend further than the casualty ward: second-rower Bodene Thompson has been slapped with a one-week ban for some dangerous contact last week. But in some good news, gritty lock Adam Blair will take the field after beating his contrary conduct charge at the judiciary on Wednesday night.

The Tigers’ start to the season has been scratchy to say the least but they will draw great comfort from their rousing effort against the Storm last Monday night when they led the premiers after 60 minutes before being swamped by a shockwave of skill from the desperate home team to eventually fall 26-12.

It was arguably their best performance of the season, surpassing the wins over Penrith (28-18) in Round 2 and Parramatta (31-18) in Round 3 and erasing the nightmare of their 26-0 capitulation to Manly in Round 4. 

Meanwhile after a 0-3 start to 2013 the Dragons have well and truly silenced the knockers with polished victories over the Sharks (25-12) and Knights (19-16) over the past fortnight. While their form doesn’t warrant superlative praise the players have gone about doing the little things well – in particular holding onto the ball and minimising mistakes. Indeed the Red V are completing their sets at more than 76 per cent each week, and their average nine errors are the second fewest in the league behind the Broncos. This sort of discipline is keeping them in matches.  

It’s uncertain what Tigers coach Mick Potter will do to cover for Marshall’s unavailability. His options are to call on Curtis Sironen to play pivot, or else Tim Moltzen could shift from fullback, with James Tedesco assuming the custodian’s role. 
However the Tigers are boosted by the return of workhorse Liam Fulton who will start in the second row, with Matt Bell reverting to the interchange.

Dragons coach Steve Price has shifted Jason Nightingale to fullback to cover for Beale, with Daniel Vidot promoted to start on the wing. Their only other changes see Josh Drinkwater make way for Michael Henderson on the bench, with Damien Cook named in jersey No.18. 

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Dragons’ controversial 8-3 grand final victory over Western Suburbs at the SCG – the eighth premiership in their record streak of 11 – both teams will wear replica jerseys. 

The 1963 grand final is enduringly tied to the modern game through the classic image of ‘The Gladiators’ – Wests halfback Arthur Summons and St George enforcer Norm Provan – whose mateship embrace at fulltime is sculpted into the Telstra Premiership trophy.
 
Watch Out Wests Tigers: Dragons hooker Mitch Rein has an impressive head-to-head record with Robbie Farah’s boys and his form last week suggests he’ll look to inflict more pain on the gold and black. Rein scored tries from dummy-half in each of the sides’ two meetings in 2012 and also set up a try with a dash from the ruck. He crossed from dummy-half against the Knights last Sunday so clearly he’ll fancy having another dig here.

The Tigers need to control their discipline or else they will continue to rack up massive penalty counts. The Tigers are the ‘bad boys’ of 2013, with a whopping 47 penalties conceded in just five matches (9.4 per game!). Meanwhile the Dragons’ 27 penalties conceded are the equal third-fewest in the comp.

Watch Out Dragons: Tim Moltzen, who reneged on a deal to join the Dragons at the end of 2011, will play with confidence after a stunning three-try haul against the Red V the last time they met. And with specialist fullback Beale sidelined Moltzen (three line-breaks and two tries to date) will look to cash in on any indecision from makeshift custodian Jason Nightingale. – regardless of whether he plays at five-eighth or fullback.

Robbie Farah will also exploit any weaknesses at the back with an array of attacking options. In particular he’ll fancy targeting the in-goal with a grubber kick – he had success this way the last time the sides met with Moltzen scoring and it also paid dividends last week for James Tedesco against the Storm. 

Plays To Watch: Chris Lawrence (two line-breaks) looking to regain top form squeezing through down the left edge; Brett Morris continuing to dish it out to the Tigers after making two try assists and 195 metres in their first clash last season before backing up with a try double in Round 23; Aaron Woods (eight offloads) and Robbie Farah (six offloads) keeping the Tigers’ plays going from sideline to sideline; Jamie Soward slotting his fourth field-goal in as many games (don’t think he won’t try).

Key Match-Up: Aaron Woods v Dan Hunt and Jack Buchanan v Jack Stockwell. 

Woods and Hunt are two of the top four NSW Origin-eligible metre-eating props (James Tamou and Aiden Tolman are the others), with Woods cranking out 137 metres a match and Hunt close behind with 128 metres – but Hunt has accumulated his in only two-thirds of Woods’ average 62 minutes of game time. 

Rookie Buchanan joined the Tigers from the Dragons’ Under-20s at the end of last season, so you can bet he’ll be focussed on making a statement against his former club. He’s made an immediate impact at Concord, nudging triple figures in metres with just five games under his belt – not a bad feat considering Woods and Keith Galloway were the only Tigers forwards to average more than 100 metres last season. 

Buchanan’s running battle with former under-20s team-mate Jack Stockwell (average 105 metres in 2013) will be a belter: two raw-boned tyros ripping into each other.    

Where It Will Be Won: For the Tigers it’s about making inroads, while for the Dragons it’s about stopping the opposition team in their tracks. 

The Tigers are struggling for field position throughout their 80 minutes, gaining the fewest metres by any team each week (1168). Meanwhile the Dragons are backpedalling big-time each game, yielding the most metres (1456). 

Clearly whichever team is able to make significant improvement in their respective areas will be in the box seat.      
The History: Played 25; Dragons 13, Wests Tigers 12. The Dragons hold a narrow advantage in recent clashes, winning five of the past nine. However the Tigers dominate at ‘home’, losing to the Red V just once in five match-ups. 

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Luke Phillips; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Michael Wise; Video Referees – Ashley Klein & Luke Patten. 

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 6pm. 

The Way We See It: Despite being super-competitive last week the fact remains the Tigers failed to make even one line-break against the Storm, while the premiers rushed six past them. The reshuffle in the Tigers’ halves given Marshall’s injury is regrettable – it’s something they can ill afford as they strive for continuity with Braith Anasta making his way in the No.7 jersey. 

Conversely the Dragons look to be fit, in form and brimming with confidence. They should prove too strong. St George Illawarra by eight points. 

*Statistics: NRL Stats.