Two old combatants rekindle their rivalry in a clash that could have considerable ramifications for their ongoing seasons. Canterbury did enough in their win over Brisbane last week to convince most of us that their shock 44-8 loss to Newcastle a fortnight ago was simply an unfortunate blip on the radar. After a horror start to the season, they have begun to rediscover the form that rocketed them to the minor premiership last season and another win this week would likely see them move into the top eight for the first time in 2013.
St George Illawarra, meanwhile, are again at the crossroads after they wasted the strides they made against Parramatta in Round 10 with an insipid performance against Penrith last Saturday night. Apparently the arrival of Josh Dugan hasn’t solved all of their attacking woes just yet and they can’t afford too many performances like last week’s if they are to stay in touch with the top eight.
The onset of the State of Origin period throws a spanner or two in the works this week, particularly for the Dragons who will be without strike winger Brett Morris and lock Trent Merrin for a clash they really need to win.
Canterbury are missing Josh Morris, but the fact that fullback Ben Barba missed selection provides a huge boost for coach Des Hasler. Barba has been gradually finding his feet again in the wake of the off-field issues that upset his start to 2013 and he produced his best performance of the year against Brisbane last Friday with a clever solo try and a brilliant run from inside his own half that evoked memories of 2012.
No doubt the Dragons now boast their own X-factor in Dugan and his superb debut for his new club against Parramatta showed that he hasn’t lost any of that game-breaking ability, but can he produce it again this weekend? We suspect St George Illawarra’s chances of pulling off a win hinge on it.
Drury Low returns to the 17 for the Bulldogs this week on the left wing with Mitch Brown moving into the centres in place of Josh Morris. Five-eighth Josh Reynolds was a late call-up to the NSW squad following Kurt Gidley’s withdrawal through injury but a decision on whether he or John Sutton take Gidley’s spot won’t be made until later in the week.
Matt Prior comes into the Dragons squad in the centres with Jason Nightingale returning to the wing. Mitch Rein, who celebrates his 50th NRL game, moves into the starting side at hooker with Cameron King dropping back to the bench. Tyson Frizell will wear Merrin’s No.13 jumper while Leeson Ah Mau joins the 17 as well on the bench.
The Dragons have won 12 of their past 16 games played at ANZ Stadium although the Bulldogs also boast a great record at the venue, having conceded an average of just 5.6 points per game in the second half over the past two years!
Watch Out Bulldogs: There is no doubt that Josh Dugan is one man the Bulldogs will do their homework on this week and with good reason given his first two outings for St George Illawarra. In fact, the 19-0 scoreline in that horrible loss to Penrith masked what was another superb outing by the star fullback. Dugan ran for a game-high 201 metres with a line-break and two offloads just a week after scoring two tries and making 222 metres in his club debut.
Watch Out Dragons: Canterbury’s ‘blonde bombshells’ in the front row are going to take plenty of stopping on Friday night. Both in fine form this season, Aiden Tolman and James Graham have played a significant role in the Bulldogs’ resurgence and it comes as no surprise that the side has improved considerably since Graham’s return from suspension. They were also the two dominant players on the park in last week’s 24-14 win over Brisbane, with Tolman running for a game-high 173 metres and Graham 169.
Plays To Watch: A short ball from Michael Ennis to one of his big men when attacking on the try line. The fact that Canterbury’s forwards boast both size and skill makes them extremely tough to defend against – particularly close to the line when there is no margin for defensive error. Since their plethora of injured forwards have returned over the past month the Bulldogs have reverted to testing the resolve of the opposition defence with short passes and inside balls close to the line. Last week that resulted in tries to both Sam Kasiano and Aiden Tolman who punished Brisbane for not pushing off their line with enough intent.
Key Match-Up: Ben Barba v Josh Dugan. A no-brainer, really, with two of the finest fullbacks in the business going head to head in a classic encounter. They differ greatly in style, though, with Barba using his speed and agility to find gaps in the defence while Dugan is renowned for his ability to bump off defenders with his tremendous upper-body strength. Both will be heavily involved in this one.
Where It Will Be Won: The Dragons are at their best when they get themselves into the grind and they will need to do that this week against a highly skilled Bulldogs pack. If they can match-up physically and crack down on the ball-playing ability of Canterbury’s big men they will go a long way towards scoring arguably their biggest win of the season.
The History: Played 24; Bulldogs 14, Dragons 10.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jeff Younis; Video Referees – Luke Phillips & Luke Patten.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Bulldogs v Dragons clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7:30pm.
The Way We See It: The Dragons continue to baffle with their inability to find any great consistency and given the Bulldogs’ vast improvement of late it is hard to see them being toppled here. Even with Josh Morris off with the NSW side, Canterbury have so much strike-power across the park; more importantly, they believe in themselves again. They should win comfortably. Bulldogs by 12 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats