Dragons v Wests Tigers
Embattled coaches Steve Price and Mick Potter enter season 2014 as two of the most under-pressure coaches in the NRL but one of their teams will sit in the top eight after this weekend when their two sides meet at ANZ Stadium.
Having watched his St George Illawarra side suffer its worst ever losing streak last year, Price survived a post-season coaching review and will be desperate to get off to a winning start to the new campaign and keep the critics at bay.
The same applies for Potter, who was reportedly hours away from being axed by the Wests Tigers less than one year into his first season as an NRL coach – one that included the dramatic exit of centrepiece playmaker Benji Marshall.
But other than the inevitable talk of under-pressure coaches, of most interest will be how both of them have prepared the re-shaping of their respective sides.
The Dragons pushed deep into the marketplace and came away with a brand new halves combination, with Price opting for Storm five-eighth Gareth Widdop and journeyman Michael Witt in Round 1.
Joel Thompson, Dylan Farrell and English import Mike Cooper are the other three new faces named to make their club debuts, while the return of Gerard Beale from his long-term knee injury is almost like another signing. Another recruit, Sam Williams, will play for the Cutters.
The Tigers, meanwhile, will rely on a school of kids to revitalise a side that ended 2013 sitting just above the last-placed Eels. Anticipation has been building around halfback Luke Brooks' initiation as the focus of the Tigers attack, as well as the homecoming of 2005 premiership hero and former Super League Man of Steel Pat Richards.
The trial form of both sides was mixed. Judging by their comprehensive 38-20 defeat to South Sydney in the Charity Shield, the Dragons still have plenty of work to do in order to move up the ladder. News that Josh Dugan (knee) will miss the opening month of footy is the biggest blow, with young Adam Quinlan named to deputise in his place.
The Tigers, in contrast, have enjoyed a solid summer, producing a flawless first half to defeat Penrith 32-8 in Camden before holding off Cronulla 28-22 a fortnight ago. They too, were hit hard over the trial period, losing utility Dene Halatau (ankle, four months), Curtis Sironen (foot, three months) and Tim Moltzen (knee, indefinite) to long stints on the sideline.
The game at ANZ Stadium will be one of two matches the Dragons host at the Olympic venue this season, after making the decision to decrease the amount of games played in Wollongong and Kogarah from six each to four.
The remaining four will be played between ANZ Stadium, Allianz Stadium and the SCG. For the first game of the year, the Dragons are offering a special, season-opening competitive family price, together with activities for the whole family.
In milestones, Wests Tigers will play the 350th game in their club history, while Dragons winger Brett Morris needs two tries to reach 100 NRL tries.
Watch Out Dragons: Prop Aaron Woods was limited to 16 of a possible 24 games last season, but the incumbent NSW Origin front-rower made the most of his time on the field, averaging over 149m per game (fourth highest in the NRL). And given the Tigers averaged just 1179m per game (15th in the NRL), the Dragons could limit the Tigers' go-forward even more if they curbed Woods' impact. Keith Galloway (109m) was the only other player to average more than 100m.
Watch Out Tigers: In what is perhaps a sign of the freedom and liberty coach Steve Price tried to instil in his side's attack last season, the Dragons led the competition in offloads last year with 13.5 per game. The next closest was the Panthers with 11. Lock Trent Merrin was the biggest exponent of second phase play, with 44 (fourth in the NRL). Brett Morris (33), Bronson Harrison (32), and Jason Nightingale (31) weren't shy in risking the pass either. For the record, the Tigers conceded 9.6 offloads a game last year (ninth most).
Plays To Watch: The Tigers may have lost Benji Marshall, but hooker Robbie Farah still has plenty of tricks in his bag and if there's a shortage in numbers on the blindside, then the wily No.9 won't need a second invitation to make some headway. Given the pressure on his rookie half, don't be surprised if Farah looks to create more chances himself.
For the Dragons, keep an eye out for Mitch Rein's scurrying at dummy half, particularly when they're close to the line. The fourth-year rake loves to have a go himself, particularly if the opportunity presents itself early in the tackle count.
Where It Will Be Won: While both sides attacked poorly in 2013 the Dragons hold a slight edge in defence, giving up just 22 points per game (11th) compared to the Tigers' 29 (15th).
How much either side has improved in either area remains a mystery, but it really is a simple matter of taking on Laurie Daley's famous advice: whichever side scores the most points will win the game.
The History: Played 27; Dragons 14, Wests Tigers 13. The Tigers have won four of their past six, but the results were split last season. The Dragons pipped the Tigers via a Jamie Soward field goal in Round 6 at the SCG, but Brooks and his teammates gained revenge in the same arena with a thorough 34-18 examination in Round 24.
What Are The Odds: Dragons have ballooned from $1.64 only a few weeks ago out to $1.90, the same quote as the Tigers. Despite money coming in at five to one in their favour, Sportsbet.com.au calls it a toss-of-the-coin match.
Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Gee; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Chris Butler; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Reece Williams.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4.00pm (AEDT); Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 8.30pm
The Way We See It: On form, you have to go with the Tigers. While the trials count for very little, positive results breed positive mindsets and given how easily the Dragons were disposed of by the Rabbitohs in the Charity Shield – as well as their dismal showing in the Nines – it seems there is plenty of work to do before they can turn it around.
In comparison, the Tigers enter the match having won both their trials in different fashion. They shut out the Panthers in Camden, were unlucky not to get out of the group of death in Auckland, and then gritted out a tough victory in the Shire. They've made strides already in 2014, so we expect them to make some more in Round 1. Tigers by 8 points.