Roosters v Dragons
Saturday 7.30 pm
It's the question that has plagued mankind since Paul McGregor had hair.
If Captain America and Iron Man traded fighting super-powered Nazi soldiers and megalomaniac invaders from outer space for the intricacies of the 13-man code – obstruction rule, halftime oranges, Tommy Raudonikis and all – who would win?
Super hero bragging rights and two pretty vital competition points go on the line as Anthony Minichiello defies that strong Italian heritage to lead the Roosters – resplendent in their Captain America get-up – into battle against the iron-clad Iron Men of St George Illawarra for a Round 21 clash with a novel twist.
Both sides will be donning ISC Marvel-themed jumpers come Saturday night, and a spot of Hollywood-style revenge should be on the Dragons' tip sheet given the pantsing the Roosters pulled on them back on Anzac Day – a 34-14 drubbing that started the defensive rot that worryingly had them conceding just under 26 points a game midway through the year.
McGregor has since reined that in to a miserly 15 a match over the past two months he's been at the helm of the Dragons, and an upset win over the premiers could well lock Mary in for the long haul, such has been the momentum building around the Red V's late-season finals charge.
The bloke in the neighbouring coach's box, having enjoyed a storied debut into rugby league society in 2013, doesn't need the two points quite as badly as the tenth-placed Dragons, but anything less for Trent Robinson will have those declarations that this year's Roosters just aren't up to defending their NRL crown growing louder.
The reality of the Chooks' season is that with the surging Storm joining them on 24 points, and the masses circling just a win behind on the ladder, that click into gear that they've been threatening for the best part of five months now needs to happen sooner rather than later.
With tough away trips to Leichhardt and New Zealand looming, followed by visits from Melbourne and the Rabbitohs in the lead-in to the semis, a win here would ease the increasing possibility of them missing out on a crucial top-four berth, from where no side has lifted the premiership since the inception of the eight-team finals system.
As far as the team sheets go, the Dragons are unchanged from their last-start 28-12 win over the Tigers, while for the Roosters Michael Jennings makes a welcome return from the back injury he picked up in Origin II, offsetting the losses of Sonny Bill Williams (thumb) and Mitch Aubusson (ankle) somewhat, while Heath L'Estrange and youngster Vincent Leuluai have been named on an extended bench.
Watch Out Roosters: The Dragons' three-quarter line is boiling over with confidence at present, and as a result packing quite a punch in attack. Against the Tigers, NSW Origin pair Brett Morris and Josh Dugan, and Kiwi duo Gerard Beale and Jason Nightingale, ran for 562 metres (that's an average of 140 a man for those of you missing the '4' on your calculators), made seven line breaks and busted 12 tackles between them. Nightingale in particular will be standing a foot taller after Sunday's showing. When you weigh 93 kilos you don't get too many chances to plough over someone in the NRL, and while Luke Brooks isn't exactly rugby league's answer to a brick wall, word is the Tigers youngster is still trying to catch the number of the red and white bus that cleaned him up on the way to a 12th try for the season.
Watch Out Dragons: It wasn't quite on the same level that made Buddy Franklin the Swans' 10 million dollar man, but rest assured the deal that ties Jake Friend to the Roosters until the end of 2018 is a very handsome one, and with very good reason; the kid's very, very good. Friend's eight try assists out of dummy-half rank second only to Robbie Farah (11), and at 46.1 tackles a game, he is second amongst hookers only to his brother from another mother with the same last name – the Warriors' Nathan Friend. The Dragons found out just how potent the Noosa Pirates product is back in Round 8, when his sniping around the ruck and second half try saw him awarded the Ashton-Collier medal as man-of-the-match on Anzac Day, and they'll need to be on high alert particularly at the start of each half, when Friend has been making a habit of catching marker defence napping.
Plays To Watch: The sight of that man Friend jumping into acting half late in the tackle count should have alarm bells ringing for both the Dragons markers and back three. Against the Knights Friend's short kicking game out of dummy-half produced a second-minute try and forced a drop-out, while a week prior against the Panthers he picked off a 40/20 easy as you like.
And if the Dragons break into the backfield don't be surprised to see them dropping the ball onto the toe either – Gareth Widdop bagged a double against the Tigers when first Morris and then Mitch Rein found themselves in open space but with defenders between them and their support players, before grubbering ahead for the Englishman and proving there's more than one way to skin a cat.
Where It Will Be Won: For all the firepower these two sides possess out wide, the last encounter between two of Sydney's glamour clubs was decided by those rolling up their sleeves and bending their backs in the middle, and it'll be the big boppers slaving away at that coal face that will again hold the key come Saturday night. The Dragons have added some muscle up front since being labelled 'soft' by former coach Steve Price a few months back, and have gobbled up more hit-up metres than all-comers bar the Bulldogs and Cowboys, but they've also conceded the most yardage through the middle third of the field than anyone else in the comp. Given the way Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Sam Moa powered through the Red V pack like it was wet dry-wall to the tune of a combined 297 metres back in Round 8, the Kiwi bookends will fancy their chances of putting one over the Dragons' big men.
The History: Played 31; Dragons 17, Roosters 13, drawn 1.The Dragons may hold the historical advantage, but they've been little more than cannon-fodder for the Tri-Colours of late, with the Roosters gunning for their fifth win in a row against the Red V, with their winning margins averaging out at a hefty 24 points a pop.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet has received a flood of money on the Roosters, not just head to head ($1.32), but 80 per cent of the hold is on the defending premiers to win giving away 9.5 points start. There’s more money on the Roosters to win 13+ than all of the other options combined. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Grant Atkins; Touch Judges – Jeff Younis & Nick Beashel; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Luke Patten.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live , 7.30pm.
How We See It: The Dragons have the under-strength Chooks at least matched if not trumped out on the edges, but it's in the middle where they still have to prove their stuff against the Tri-Colours all-representative forward pack. Should be closer than in recent times, but we've got Captain America's power proving too strong a test for Iron Man's mettle up the middle. Roosters by 12 points.