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Dragons v Roosters
WIN Jubilee Oval
Saturday, 5.30pm

Well, could they be the real deal? After producing a second gritty win in as many weeks in the absence of one or more of their star playmakers, the Roosters have surged past the Storm into outright second place – still four points behind South Sydney.

The question now is, can both the Sydney sides keep it up – and could 2013 therefore see the first grand final between two foundation clubs since Balmain defeated South Sydney in 1969?

Also for the second time in as many weeks, Sonny Bill “what can’t he do” Williams stepped up admirably in the halves to show his all-round value to this Roosters side. It has helped carry a team that has had its fair share of Origin representatives (as well as injuries and suspensions) through the tricky representative period in great shape.

The news isn’t quite so bright for the Dragons – wins for the Tigers and Cowboys last weekend have them now alone on 12 points, just one victory ahead of the beleaguered Eels. With just one win from their past five starts, and two from their pst nine, a season that never really got out of second gear looks to have well and truly stalled.

While finals footy is still a mathematical possibility, staying in front of Parramatta and a shot at one of Australian sport’s least desirable kitchen utensils is now a more pressing issue.

With the Eels a massive long-shot to take the points from a visit to Brookvale on Monday a win here could put the Dragons two wins clear of the foot of the ladder and more importantly get their season heading back in the right direction – but it won’t be easy against a back-to-strength Roosters outfit and without star recruit Josh Dugan, who has elected to take the early guilty plea for a shoulder charge last week on Panthers fullback Matt Moylan.

An unsuccessful challenge would have put Dugan out of contention for the State of Origin decider and with the path of utter devastation carved through the NSW outside backs Dugan finds himself in the box seat to retain the sky blue number 1 jersey. In fact, his only logical competitors for the role, Jarryd Hayne and Brett Stewart, face off on Monday night – after the NSW team has been named.

It means promising youngster Adam Quinlan comes in for the second game of his NRL career. Jack De Belin moves from lock to prop to cover for the injured Dan Hunt, and Trent Merrin returns from his one-match striking ban at lock in the only other change to the 17 from last week. Centre Charly Runciman also plays the second game of his career, and halfback Nathan Fien is free to play after taking the early guilty plea for striking Lewis Brown.

The Roosters welcome back Origin pivot James Maloney who missed just one week with a fractured cheekbone. This pushes Williams to the second row, Boyd Cordner to lock, Frank-Paul Nuuausala to the bench and Isaac Liu to 19th man. Super-sub Daniel Mortimer has been named in jersey No.14 despite leaving the field following a nasty head knock last week.

Watch Out Dragons: Where do we start? The Roosters have plenty of strike weapons but possibly the main one to watch this week is that man Williams. After two weeks filling in as a playmaker he returns to his preferred home in the second row where he is the equal leading try-scorer this year among all forwards with six, along with Brisbane’s Matt Gillett.

He also has the equal most line-breaks for any forward so far this year, with nine, alongside Rabbitoh Sam Burgess, and a very handy five try assists. Perhaps most impressive though are his nine try assists (many of them to a flying Michael Jennings). It’s an equal club-high with Mitchell Pearce and incredibly equal third most among all comers in the NRL this year, behind just injured Titan Jamal Idris (13) and Broncos fullback Corey Norman (11).

Expect Williams to throw off the shackles after filling in in the halves and go back to what he does best – creating havoc for opposition defences. 

Watch Out Roosters: Without Dugan, who has been one of the best in the Red V since he joined mid season, someone else will have to step up if the Dragons are to challenge the Roosters here. Trent Merrin could be the man – he will be well rested and out to make amends after his striking charge in Origin II caused him to miss the Panthers clash last week.

He’s been the standout in a struggling team this year with club highs in offloads (34, third in NRL) and tackles (33) while his average metres (134.5) are second only to fullback Dugan.

The Dragons missed his footwork and second-phase play last week and if they’re to crack this seemingly bulletproof Roosters defence they’ll need his creativity close to the line.

One man who has really stepped up lately is young Jack De Belin. Promoted to start at lock in Merrin’s absence last week De Belin cut loose, racking up up a massive 158 metres from 15 runs including five tackle busts, with 29 tackles. He’s in the starting side again this week at prop with Hunt out so if he and Merrin both show what they’re capable of the dominant Roosters pack could be in for a battle.

Due to these kinds of efforts and Merrin’s form all year the Dragons actually average more metres per game than the Roosters with 1413 per week (fifth) versus 1331 for the Roosters (twelfth).

Plays To Watch: The most obvious one (picking it is one thing, stopping it is another) is the Williams to Jennings offload for a line-break down that left edge – plenty of the former’s nine line-break assists and the latter’s 10 line-breaks have come in this fashion; De Belin to pick up where he left off last week and to go looking for a mountain of work; Rooster Sam Moa to continue building his reputation as a hard direct ball runner and heavy hitter in defence; Dragons second-gamers Quinlan and Runciman to make the most of very chance as they strive for a regular spot in the top grade.

Key Match-Up: Jared Waerea-Hargreaves v Jack De Belin. He was great last week but in the front row De Belin won’t find a fiercer opponent to test himself against than Waerea-Hargreaves. The Kiwi enforcer returned from a long suspension with a bang last weekend, playing bigger minutes than he would have planned after the Roosters copped some injuries – and earning himself man of the match honours in the process. Waerea-Hargreaves has taken his game to another level this year while De Belin has matured out of sight and will be desperate to prove himself against one of the form packs of the competition.

Where It Will Be Won: On the Roosters’ try line. The tricolours repelled wave after wave from a desperate Manly side last week and could not be cracked at all in the first half, before Jamie Lyon finally found a way around in the 48th minute. It showed why the Roosters are the best defensive side in the comp, which is bad news for the Dragons, who have scored fewer points this year than any side other than the Tigers. The likes of Nathan Fien and Chase Stanley will have to find the right options every time they get close to the Roosters line if they are to build pressure and find a way to score points.

The History: Played 29; St George Illawarra 17, Sydney Roosters 11, drawn 1. The Roosters are not regular visitors to Kogarah, having played the joint venture club here just once since the merger – which the Dragons won 34-12 in 2009. In fact the Roosters’ last win at the ground came way back in 1997. The Roosters have the edge in recent matches, winning three of the past four, but it was all Dragons before that with six straight wins from 2009-11.

Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Paul Mellor & Matt Rodwell.

NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week, including the Dragons v Roosters clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live, 7.30pm.

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The Way We See It: The Dragons will need a very vocal crowd behind them to try and tip the ledger in their favour because on paper it’s very hard to tip against the Roosters. We’re not even sure that will help – the Dragons’ last match here was a 19-0 shutout at the hands of the Panthers in Round 11. Meanwhile the Roosters are five from six on the road this year. We’ll take the Roosters by 12 points but it could well be more if they build up some momentum.

*Statistics: NRL Stats.
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