Holden Cup Preliminary Final
Dragons v Broncos
ANZ Stadium, Friday, 5.15pm
Having suffered a hiccup against the Eels in Week One of the Holden Cup Finals Series the Broncos were staring down the barrel of an inglorious exit from season 2014 when they trailed the Wests Tigers 18-8 at half-time in last week's semi-final.
But a stunning second 40 minutes where they piled on 34 unanswered points set up a showdown with the Dragons, a team that inflicted two heavy defeats on the Broncos during the course of the regular season.
Coached by Dragons legends Ben Hornby and Dean Young, the young St George Illawarra team earned themselves a week off with an upset win over minor premiers Newcastle in Week One and have been bolstered by the return of a number of key players.
Centre Euan Aitken, second-rower Wes Lolo and towering interchange forward Andrew McCarthy all missed the win over the Knights but are fit to take their place in the team to play Brisbane. Hornby and Young have again named an extended bench with Drew Hutchison the only new name from the 20-man squad that was originally selected to play the Knights two weeks ago.
The Dragons may have racked up 30- and 40-point wins over the Broncos earlier in the year but if we have learned one thing from this year's Finals Series is that past results count for nothing in the cauldron of finals football.
Broncos coach Craig Hodges has named an unchanged line-up from that which accounted for the Tigers with super sub Jayden Nikorima staying on the bench and Kalolo Saitaua again named as 18th man.
Dragons: 16 wins, eight losses (fourth)
Broncos: 16 wins, seven losses, one draw (second)
Key match-up: Matt Dufty (Dragons) v Kodi Nikorima (Broncos)
You would never confuse these two in a line-up but the long-striding Dufty and the nippy Nikorima both represent major attacking weapons for their respective teams from fullback. Through the regular season Dufty led the Holden Cup in line breaks with 27 that helped him to rack up 20 tries and has a number of strings to his bow according to Dragons coach Ben Hornby. "I like the variety he's got in his game. He can beat someone with his speed and evasion but he can also beat you with a pass so as a fullback these days, if you've got those attributes it makes you very hard to handle," he said. Nikorima shot to prominence at the Broncos with some eye-catching pieces of play at the Auckland Nines and his speed off the mark and low centre of gravity make him hard to get hold of, as his 116 tackle breaks attest to. Also look for Nikorima's combination with younger brother Jayden close to the Dragons' line when Jayden is introduced to proceedings late in the first half.
2014 results: Dragons 44 def. Broncos 14 (Rd 4); Dragons 58 def. Broncos 18 (Rd 25)
Dragons coach Ben Hornby: "We tried to keep the week off as normal as possible so we trained our normal days and trained on Saturday and treated it like a game. Their intensity and energy has been really good so the boys seem focused and ready to go. We had to leave a few blokes out with injury from the first finals game but they're all back so we've got a full complement to choose from which makes the coaches' job a little harder but I'm sure the boys will do themselves proud.
"You've seen from the finals so far that regular season form doesn't count for a great deal once you get to the finals and that's how we've looked at it. I'm sure the Broncos will come ready to play and I'm sure it will be a good match. They've got strength across the park, they don't have many weaknesses; they've got good halves, big outside backs and mobile forwards who can offload the ball. For us we've got to try and do a good job on their go forward and that will give us a better chance of having a look at what they're going to do out wide."
Broncos coach Craig Hodges: "I thought for 30 minutes last week we were building nicely and were in control and then we had a 10-minute period where we went away from the things we pride ourselves on defensively and they gave us a really good wake-up call and burned us for 10 minutes. I thought we were pretty strong for the whole second half, I thought we were dominant. Our last month we have travelled to Melbourne, Townsville and Sydney twice and there are plusses and minuses to that. It's draining and affects your preparation but you spend more time together, there's no one else around asking for anything so all you've got to worry about is footy and the team really enjoys each other's company.
"Using Jayden Nikorima off the bench isn't a tactical thing, he probably hasn't got 80 minutes in him at the moment so we need to get him on at the right time and making sure we get the most value out of the 30 or 40 minutes we can get out of him. The Dragons are certainly the best team we've played all year. They're very well drilled, got an outstanding young back-rower and an outstanding young centre and some good big front-rowers and some clever halves. That's a really good footy area down there and over the years they've consistently produced good junior teams and this is no exception."
Dragons: 1 Matt Dufty, 2 Sitiveni Moceidreke, 3 Euan Aitken, 4 Brent Anderson, 5 Izaac Thompson, 6 Shannon Crook, 7 Adam Clune, 8 Addin Fonua-Blake, 9 Thomas Freebairn, 10 Vincent Stowers, 11 Wes Lolo, 12 Jack Bird, 13 Jay Gallagher. Interchange: 14 Andrew McCarthy, 15 Hayden McCrae, 16 Jack Kavanagh, 17 George Lolo, 18 Drew Hutchison, 19 Luciano Leilua, 20 Jacob Host, 22 Hame Sele. Coaches: Ben Hornby and Dean Young.
Broncos: 1 Kodi Nikorima, 2 Paul Byrnes, 3 Tom Opacic, 4 Jordan Drew, 5 Jack Tuttle, 6 Duncan Paia'aua, 7 Ashley Taylor, 8 Aaron Rockley, 9 Jayden Berrell, 10 Joe Ofahengaue, 11 Brett Greinke (c), 12 Brendon McBryde, 13 Jai Arrow. Interchange: 14 Jayden Nikorima, 15 George Fai, 16 Ajuma Adams, 17 Alex Barr, 18 Kalolo Saitaua. Coach: Craig Hodges.