Wests Tigers v Dragons
All eyes will be on a certain premiership-winning ex-Tiger when these two clubs run out onto ANZ Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Benji Marshall famously once said he’d never face off against the club he won a competition with in 2005 but times have changed and the former Kiwi captain, who now proudly wears the Red V week to week, will be the centrepiece in a game that isn’t short on importance, nor on subplots.
The Tigers absolutely caught fire in the second half last week against the Bulldogs in running away 46-18 winners – the first time the ‘Dogs have conceded 40 points since a 44-8 loss at Newcastle in Round 10 last year.
Rookie Mitch Moses was sublime at fullback; new five-eighth Blake Austin just keeps getting better; second-generation Tiger Curtis Sironen played strongly as he makes up for a delayed start to the season; and the side overall showed they can’t yet be written off on terms of a finals charge.
In fact, the win has them level with the sixth-placed Broncos on 22 competition points, although their poor differential currently has them in ninth.
Coach Mick Potter has named the same starting side that ran out last week, with point-scoring winger Pat Richards seemingly past a groin strain suffered a week earlier against Manly. Dene Halatau has been named to return from a concussion, pushing Suauso Sue to 18th man.
The Dragons were determined against Manly on Monday night but just lacked the polish to crack open a resolute defensive line, despite plenty of opportunities in their opponents’ red zone. Marshall himself had good game, not overplaying his hand and steadying things for his team when they needed it, but like the rest of the side wasn’t able to provide the spark to crack the Sea Eagles.
Coach Paul McGregor has also named a virtually identical team to last week – Shane Pumipi and Charly Runciman have been added to an extended bench. Winger Brett Morris, a late inclusion last week coming back from a shoulder injury suffered in Origin I, has been named to start. Centre Dylan Farrell is still working his way back from a pec injury in NSW Cup.
The Dragons are just a win behind the Tigers on the ladder but with 20 competition points and an even worse differential are lagging in 12th, and really need to get a roll on if they’re to stay in touch with the finals zone.
Watch Out Wests Tigers: The Tigers will need to watch their discipline. They often find themselves on the wrong side of the referees – they are the second-most penalised side in the competition after Gold Coast, giving up 132 infringements at almost eight per game, while the Dragons are relative cleanskins having been penalised just 95 times at around 5.6 per game – the third best. The Tigers have also found themselves on report more than any other team – a massive 10 times – while again the Dragons are cleanskins, with just three players placed on report all season (second-best). With a few games this year having produced big momentum swings on the back of a wave of penalties, the Tigers can ill-afford to be giving their opponents a big leg-up.
Watch Out Dragons: No side loves to scoot the ball out from dummy-half more than the Tigers. The chief exponent, of course, is in-form hooker Robbie Farah, who leads all-comers in the NRL when it comes to dummy-half running. His 125 runs from dummy-half are ahead of second-placed James Segeyaro (118) despite having played six fewer games. He is also the only player so far to have racked up a full kilometre in dummy-half scoots (1,061 metres) with Segeyaro again second best (979) and Storm skipper Cam Smith third in both categories (809 metres from 116 runs). With big winger Pat Richards (227 metres from 29 runs) and centre Tim Simona (275 metres from 31 runs) among the outside backs who love to take a run early in the set, the Dragons markers will need to be on their game.
Plays To Watch: Moses halfback Luke Brooks have been playing together for a fair while now – watch for that partnership to develop at first grade level. Brooks finished off a try supporting Moses (which was started off by Austin) last week, and their communication already looks good – and is only likely to improve.
For the Dragons, Marshall showed a strong preference for rolling the ball into touch at the end of sets last week to allow his side to get settled ahead of Manly’s possessions. The Tigers are a far different proposition – keep an eye on what route he opts for when deciding how his old club will begin their sets on Sunday, and whether he chooses to deny the likes of Moses and Pat Richards free space the way he did with Brett Stewart and Jorge Taufua last week, or whether he decides to test out the rookie fullback with a few bombs.
Where It Will Be Won: Balance. The Dragons have been playing a fairly conservative style of footy under McGregor, with a moderate amount of success, but it wasn’t enough to get the job done last week because they just couldn’t challenge the Sea Eagles enough when they were on the attack. On the flip-side the youthful Tigers were full of exuberance last week and it paid off in spades but it’s a style of play that can also bring you undone when a team manages to grind you out of it – which most times you’d back the Bulldogs to have done. In the wash-up the Tigers have committed more errors (200 to 176) and conceded more penalties (132 to 95) than the Dragons, but have only a very slight advantage when it comes to tries scored (59 to 57) and line breaks (65 to 64). It will be interesting to see which approach wins out.
The History: Played 28; Dragons 15, Wests Tigers 13. These two merged sides, by default, have a fairly short history against each other but the Dragons have just a slight edge overall. Their Round 1 44-24 win over the Tigers kicked off an early-season push to the top of the ladder (albeit briefly) before the Tigers found their mojo. The last six meetings are split three apiece and when these clubs meet at Homebush the chocolates are divided up four each.
What Are The Odds: The Tigers ($1.72) have been well backed since beating the Bulldogs, with Sportsbet holding twice the money on them compared to the Dragons. Plenty of money for over 44.5 points to be scored in this game with both sides struggling with their defence in 2014. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Dave Munro; Touch Judges – Rickey MacFarlane & Michael Wise; Video Referees – Gavin Badger & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine, Delayed, 4pm.
The Way We See It: A very tough one to call and no real home ground advantage to speak of. Both sides are fairly settled – the biggest name missing from either line-up among those expected back any time soon is Dragons and NSW forward Trent Merrin – although the Tigers have at least had an extra day’s rest with the Dragons having played last Monday. Recent form favours the Tigers though – with that Bulldogs masterclass still fresh in our minds we’ll take the “home” side by 10 points.