Dragons v Storm
It's been a whirlwind couple of months since these two teams last met. New South Wales has a new premier, the Blues won their first Origin series in eight years, the Socceroos played (and subsequently exited) the FIFA World Cup and the Dragons have a new coach in Paul McGregor.
Some things don't change however, like the fact that the Dragons, without a shadow of a doubt, circled this game on their calendars when they returned home from Melbourne after their heartbreaking loss in Round 6.
A controversial Young Tonumaipea try after the siren broke the Red V faithful's hearts with a season-turning 28-24 defeat. You better believe they will be looking to make amends for it. While both teams have struggled for consistency all season they are starting to string some results together, with the two clubs winning two of their past three fixtures.
In a massive blow for the Dragons, Trent Merrin (ankle) has not been named by coach McGregor with Dan Hunt set to replace him on the bench. If fit, Hunt will also line up for his 150th game for the club while Jack Stockwell has been named as cover on the extended interchange. NSW representative Merrin is a huge loss considering his impact in the Red V’s 19-18 win over the Titans in Round 15.
Melbourne will go into this game unchanged following their big win over Parramatta last week though they have shifted their troops around. Kurt Mann retains his spot in the centres with Will Chambers still out, while Ryan Hoffman and Bryan Norrie return to the starting side, pushing Tohu Harris and Jordan McLean back to an extended bench that also features Tim Glasby and Joel Romelo.
Watch Out Dragons: The Storm have found their way back into the winner’s circle after dropping to as low as 11th earlier on in the Origin period. Barring injury, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater will not miss another game over this period in what will prove to be an important next few weeks without Cooper Cronk steering them around the park.
Credit where credit is due though with their makeshift halves pairing, Ben Roberts and Ben Hampton, impressing again in their game against the Eels in Round 15. Hampton arguably played his best game of the year after producing 246 kick metres, a line break, a try assist and three tackle breaks.
Keeping the young five-eighth level-headed is halfback Ben Roberts who has remained consistent, having produced five try assists and three line break assists this season.
Watch Out Storm: The pressure is seemingly off Josh Dugan as he becomes further accustomed to the centre position. The last time the Dragons played Melbourne the then-fullback was in a battle with Jarryd Hayne for the Blues’ custodian spot and crumbled slightly under pressure. Now back in the New South Wales team, Dugan's confidence has returned and it showed last weekend against the Titans when he scored a brilliant try while running for 109 metres and producing a line break, 16 tackles and seven tackle breaks.
With this new attitude seeping through the squad and a chance at redemption in the back of their minds this weekend, Paul McGregor has worked his magic to get the team's season back on track after winning two of their three past games. With the Benji Marshall/Gareth Widdop combination growing each week the Storm will have to tread carefully.
Plays To Watch: Labelled soft in recent weeks, the Dragons’ forwards finally stood up when it mattered against the Titans last weekend with a couple of brilliant try scoring efforts from their big boppers. First it was a cheeky short ball from Benji Marshall to put Lesson Ah Mau away within the first three minutes of the game before Trent Merrin (who will sadly miss this fixture) scored the match winner in the final quarter of the game with a rampaging run.
Billy Slater's return to the NRL for the first time since Round 10 was nothing other than spectacular. The elusive fullback was everywhere and it showed with his slick passing skills, including an amazing cut-out ball for Fijian flyer Sisa Waqa to score early in proceedings, and aerial flair after producing three try assists before crossing for two tries of his own, becoming the equal-third most prolific try scorer in Australian rugby league history in the process.
Where It Will Be Won: The Dragons have to keep their head. They'll undoubtedly be searching for redemption considering how their last game against the Storm finished. The Red V will have to stick solid if they are going to compete against Melbourne, especially with the Storm working their way back to their best. On a positive note, the Dragons are growing in stature every week under the guidance of Widdop and Marshall and this game will come down to a battle of willingness in all facets of the game. Enthusiasm will be the key for both of these clubs, with the quickest team to get the ball rolling in a composed and convincing manner set to go a long way to recording the victory.
The History: Played 28; Dragons 7, Storm 20, drawn 1. Melbourne have dominated the Dragons in the majority of their 28 previous meetings. Since their controversial 1999 Grand Final loss, the Dragons have only beaten the Storm five times. Adding further to their disadvantage, the Dragons have only beaten Melbourne three times since 2005. While they went close in Round 6 this year after being beaten after the buzzer, history is well and truly against the Dragons this Monday night.
What Are The Odds: Over 90 per cent of money invested at Sportsbet.com.au is on the Storm and they’ve come in dramatically from $1.90 to $1.55. The Dragons have drifted from $1.88 to $2.45. There’s even big support for Storm -5.5.
Match Officials: Referee – Ashley Klein; Assistant Referee – Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Chris Butler & Jeff Younis; Video referees – Gavin Badger & Luke Patten.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live, 7pm.
The Way We See It: The Dragons will love the fact that they are back in Wollongong to take on Melbourne and considering how their last meeting finished, an upset might be on the cards for the rejuvenated St George Illawarra squad. Another factor to take into consideration is how influential Cronk was the last time these two met. He won't be there to help them this time around. Dragons by 4 points in a boilover.