Dragons v Cowboys
Dragons coach Steve Price can empathise with his opponent Neil Henry on the fickle existence of an NRL coach. The critics were circling for Price after the Dragons had lost their first three games of the season and the bookies had posted him as the coach most likely to lose his job. Fortunes have turned somewhat for the Dragons, and their coach, which now sees them above the Cowboys on the ladder and Henry the NRL coach in the hot seat, fending off rumours about his job security although the Cowboys hierarchy stay solidly behind him.
Henry will be relieved that Johnathan Thurston returns to his side after missing the past two games through Origin commitments and a groin injury, and reliable winger Ashley Graham is back too. By the way Graham needs just one try to join Ty Williams (85 tries) as the second all-time try-getters in Cowboys' history behind Matt Bowen.
But what Henry desperately needs is Bowen to return from a knee injury to join halves Thurston and Robert Lui to give the Cowboys more impact in attack. A team known for their expansive play are scoring fewer points per game (16.8) than they have for 15 years.
And if Henry didn't have enough on-field concerns with his side that is categorically the disappointments of the first half of 2013, the news that Origin and Test prop James Tamou is on drink driving charges is an unwanted distraction at best, or another example of players not having enough discipline and focus at worst.
Scott Bolton has been promoted to the starting pack as Tamou’s replacement. However, the man Henry now needs a massive effort from is Ashton Sims, the tough prop who grew up just down the road from WIN Stadium at Gerringong and began his NRL career with the Dragons a decade ago. His brother and fellow south coast junior, Tariq, also has the incentive to play a leading hand in front of many who saw him develop in the Illawarra.
The Cowboys have departed victorious in five of their past eight visits to Wollongong but will have to really get their defence and ball control in order to build on that record.
The bad news for them is that the only times they have lost four games on the trot in the past decade (this will be their fifth if they can't turn around their fortunes) has been in the only seasons they have not made the finals – 2003 (twice they lost four straight), 2006 (four straight, six straight), 2008 (13 straight), 2009 (four) and 2010 (they lost their last six).
Consistency hasn't been the Dragons' strong point and they still have to struggle with non-established centres Nathan Green (seven NRL appearances) and ‘Mr Fix It' Matt Prior out wide with Kyle Stanley, Matt Cooper, Bronx Goodwin and Gerald Beale injured. But Josh Dugan's scintillating form and the gamble of dumping Jamie Soward and replacing him with the more dynamic runner Chase Stanley gives them an edge they did not have a month ago. They need it; the Red V are just about on a par with Parramatta as having scored the least tries this season (2.67 per game compared to the Eels 2.65) and have only twice scored 20 points or more.
Watch Out Dragons: If Origin props Matt Scott and James Tamou and the Sims brothers Tariq and Ashton can lift their aggression and go-forward, 20-year-old James Taumalolo can be a real game-breaker for the Cowboys. He has 20 tackle busts from his seven appearances this season and can pop an offload. Close to the line, he is a real handful. He's the wild card Cowboys forward with genuine class with the ball.
Watch Out Cowboys: The Dragons' danger man is obvious – reborn bad boy Josh Dugan at fullback. His stats have been breathtaking – averaging 183 metres per game and having made 26 line-breaks in five matches (four for the Dragons). The sniff of a possible Origin call-up with Jarryd Hayne battling injury just adds to his motivation to dominate.
Plays To Watch: Dugan coming through the middle off five-eighth Stanley. Stanley already showed in just one match in the No. 6 jersey that he is more willing to go to the line and pose questions than Soward who was a ‘before the line' player. Soward ran just 36 metres at 3.7 runs a match while Stanley ran 90 metres and took on the line 11 times against the Knights. That's a massive change for the Dragons and the smart Dugan could be the major benefactor.
Key Match-Up: Thurston v Stanley. While Stanley adds a new dimension to Saints' running game, he is inexperienced at five-eighth and has to contend with Thurston who loves to draw defenders out of the line.
Where It Will Be Won: In the front row. While they have kept their Australian and Origin jerseys, Scott and Tamou have not dominated enough this season. They come up with experienced campaigners in Michael Weyman and Dan Hunt but other than them and back-rowers Ben Creagh and Trent Merrin, the Dragons lack experience in the forwards. This is an opportunity for the Cowboys' bookends to make a statement and turn the team's season around.
The History: Played 23; Cowboys 12, Dragons 11. At WIN: Dragons 6, Cowboys 4.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell, Phil Haines; Sideline officials – Steve Carrall, Shane Rehm; Video referee – Bernard Sutton, 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 Dragons v Cowboys clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.35pm (Qld); Delayed 9.30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: If ever the Cowboys are going to turn their season around it has to be this week before the bye. They have the ‘cattle' to do it and Thurston, Tamou, Scott and centre Brett Tate have to be the leaders. But they have to contend with the red-hot Dugan who has impacted himself into the Dragons attack. Cowboys by six points in an away upset.
*Statistics: NRL Stats