Dragons v Titans preview
Dragons v Titans
Call them 'interim' or 'caretaker' coaches if you like but both Paul McGregor and Neil Henry enter this game with their respective futures on the line, with the possibility that both are auditioning for the same position.
Although Henry has indicated his desire to parlay his interim role at the Titans into a full-time position from the 2015 season and beyond, he has also been linked to the vacant Dragons job for which McGregor has been endorsed by everyone bar the club board since taking over from Steve Price on May 26.
During McGregor's tenure the Dragons have won six of their past 11 games with their only losses coming against the top four teams in the competition in the Rabbitohs, Sea Eagles, Roosters and Panthers (twice).
Having captained the Dragons to a rare win in Canberra in his final season in 1999, McGregor has little regard for supposed hoodoos and is unlikely to be concerned with the Titans' perfect two-from-two record at WIN Jubilee.
He has hardened up St George Illawarra's soft underbelly and is in the process of helping Josh Dugan transition into becoming a top-class centre. Even when he dropped Adam Quinlan ahead of last week's game McGregor opted to shift Gerard Beale to the back rather than return Dugan to his original position.
For Titans coach Neil Henry this shapes as a second opportunity to stamp his assertiveness on the playing group and build on an encouraging first-up performance against Manly last Sunday. He has opted to take the same 17 to Sydney but Tom Kingston will be taken as cover with Paul Carter battling a shoulder injury.
The match will mark a couple of significant milestones for Titans players with Greg Bird to play in his 200th NRL game and Luke Bailey becoming just the second player to reach the 150-game milestone for the Titans.
The Dragons have not named captain Ben Creagh and prop Dan Hunt to return from injury but they will be monitored throughout the week and a final decision made closer to game day.
The Sydney weather may conspire against a big crowd but if you're in the vicinity, there are few better experiences in the NRL than jumping off the train at Carlton, popping into the Royal Hotel for a thirst-quencher and then joining the masses of footy fans on the stroll down Jubilee Avenue towards a rich vault of rugby league history.
Watch Out Dragons: The first time James Roberts stepped onto Jubilee Oval in 2010 he was 17 years of age and a relative newcomer to a South Sydney under-20s team that would finish the season as minor premiers. Spectacular feats in junior footy were replicated when he fielded a grubber just inside the South Sydney dead-ball line and proceeded to race as far as anyone possibly can to score a rugby league try. Since that time he has had first grade stints at both the Rabbitohs and Panthers that have ended due to disciplinary breaches but after a couple of serious injuries is starting to showcase his extraordinary talents on a more regular basis. Against the Sea Eagles last weekend the 21-year-old scored a try that the on-field referees couldn't believe with their own eyes, ran for a total of 153 metres and made 10 tackle breaks and for the most part looked like the only Titan capable of creating try-scoring opportunities. His confidence is rising, so Dragons beware.
Watch Out Titans: In a 2011 season when the Junior Warriors carried all before them in the NYC competition many expressed surprise when the name 'Jack de Belin' was read out as the Player of the Year but the tough forward with the surfy good looks is beginning to assert himself at NRL level. Since making his NRL debut in that 2011 season, de Belin has alternated between the lock and prop forward positions but in the past month has contributed greatly to his side's late season resurgence. Promoted to the starting team in the absence of captain Ben Creagh last week, de Belin amassed 157 metres (his second-best haul of the year), 26 tackles and two tackle breaks against the big Canberra pack. He possesses one of the most bone-jarring tackling techniques in the NRL and will be key to winning the middle for his team on Sunday.
Plays To Watch: With two of the finest wingers in the game it is perhaps little surprise that the Dragons rank equal second for tries scored beyond their own side of halfway in 2014. Brett Morris scored his first hat-trick in more than two years to take his tally to 12 but Jason Nightingale got a double of his own to extend his total to 14 for the season. With quality halves in Gareth Widdop and Benji Marshall willing to chance their hand from any point on the field, the Titans will need to be prepared to have their defence regularly stretched from one sideline to the other. The Titans attack has spluttered through various halves combinations all season but will look to create space for blistering centre James Roberts on the right edge who has scored five tries in nine appearances to date for Gold Coast.
Where It Will Be Won: Two honest forward packs with some back-rowers capable of playing some footy on the edges will likely cancel each other out so the fortunes of both teams will rest with the men in the halves. In Widdop and Marshall the Dragons boast a combination with 34 Tests between them while Sezer and Mortimer are two players still establishing themselves as NRL-quality playmakers. Where Widdop and Marshall have laid on 29 try assists and 29 line-break assists for their team, Sezer and Mortimer have a total of eight try assists and six line-break assists for the Titans so creativity appears to favour the home side.
History: Played 13; Dragons 9; Titans 4. A Gareth Widdop field goal was all that separated these two teams when they last met back in Round 15, the third game in succession where the winning margin has been two points or less. All told eight of the 13 games they have played since 2007 have been decided by six points or less with field goals to Mat Rogers (Rd 20, 2010) and Aidan Sezer (Rd 9, 2013) securing one-point wins for the Titans. It was all one-way traffic to start this rivalry with the Dragons winning the first five on the trot but since 2009 neither side has managed to string two consecutive wins together.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet slashed the Dragons' premiership odds from $251 to $67 after their win over Canberra, and they’re a favourite with punters against the Titans this week, with a stack of money on them to cover the line of 6.5 points. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referee – Adam Devcich; Assistant Referee – Grant Atkins; Touch Judges – Paul Holland and Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – 4pm (delayed).
How We See It: The Titans may be a perfect two-from-two at Jubilee but they are coming up against a Dragons team desperately clinging on to finals aspirations and having conquered their Canberra hoodoo with a comprehensive second half display. With a negative points differential the Dragons must win their remaining three games to be any hope of September football and they should have too many points in them to have their season curtailed by the Titans. Dragons by 12.