Canterbury Bulldogs v St George Illawarra Dragons
The Bulldogs will be fresh off a bye while the table-topping Dragons are fresh off a 42-6 walk in the park against local rivals Cronulla.
It remains to be seen which is of more benefit but the big bye round in Round 11 saw three out of eight teams losing their Round 12 match against a team that played Round 11.
The Bulldogs will welcome back their Origin contingent after being without four NSW representatives and injured captain James Graham in an indescribable 41-34 nailbiting win over the Raiders in Round 11.
They have captain James Graham (knee/concussion) back at prop and Origin quarter Trent Hodkinson, Josh Morris, Josh Jackson and David Klemmer also back. Sam Kasiano goes to the bench and Antonio Kaufusi, Danny Fualolo and Tyrone Phillips are out of the side along with injured centre Tim Lafai, with Moses Mbye shifting to the three quarter line.
The Dragons were the only team other than the Roosters to really come out strong after a week off with the bye, trouncing the Sharks 42-6. Gone are the days we can say the Dragons have the best defence and worst attack in the league after 74 points in their last two games pushing them up to 12th-most points scored but first on the ladder with the best differential.
They have just one change from last week with Joel Thompson back from a hamstring injury, pushing Will Matthews to the pine and Jake Marketo to 18th man.
Watch out Bulldogs: The Red V's stingy attack is proving incredibly hard to break down but they are now matching that with some red-hot attacking football. Their forwards are creating the platform and their playmaking trio of Benji Marshall, Gareth Widdop and Josh Dugan are combining brilliantly.
The halves laid on two tries apiece last week and seem to be communicating perfectly and both are kicking to precision, while Dugan has been simply immense over the past month, with yet another 238 metres and a try against Cronulla backing up from being one of the Blues' best in Origin four days earlier.
Watch out Dragons: The Bulldogs threw off the shackles in Round 11 with a host of senior players out, but it was dumped Blues playmaker Josh Reynolds who led the way. The man they call 'Grub' was in everything as the Dogs blasted out of the blocks. He laid on two tries in the opening onslaught then, following Canberra's remarkable comeback to 34-all, kicked a sideline field goal with a minute left that really has to be seen to be believed. Whether or not he has a point to prove about his Origin non-selection or simply has his head on straight and is coming back into his best footy, it spells danger for the Dragons this week.
Key Match-Up: While the battle between the giant Bulldogs pack and much-improved Dragons forwards could decide the result, arguably the most intriguing head to head match up on Monday afternoon will be between the two young hookers. Michael Lichaa is improving rapidly and has done a good job so far filling the enormous hole left by departed skipper Michael Ennis, Mitch Rein has really come along this year after struggling to take his game to the next level in 2014. He is now one of the form hookers of the competition, to the point he is quite seriously being talked about as a possible replacement for Robbie Farah if the Blues rake doesn't recover in time for Origin II. Lichaa himself could well enter rep calculations down the track. Rein's solo try last week bore remarkable similarity to the one he scored in the Round 3 comeback against the Raiders to effectively get the Red V's season on track and he's been one of the more unsung heroes of the Dragons' surge up the ladder in 2015.
The History: Played 28; Bulldogs 17, Dragons 11. The blue and whites have had the edge over the Red V since St George merged with Illawarra. The Dragons were far too good when the sides met earlier this year – a 31-6 win at ANZ Stadium in Round 6 – but the Dogs had won five in a row prior to that.
What Are The Odds: The Dragons opened outsiders but could well be favourites by the time kick-off comes around due to the weight of money. Sportsbet is reporting 5 times the amount placed on the Red V to continue their great form. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton. Assistant referee: Chris James. Touch judges: Nick Beashel and Adam Reid. Video Referees: Shayne Hayne and Ben Galea.
Televised: Fox Sports 1, Live, 4pm.
The Way We See It: Hopefully the Bulldogs can take some of the free flowing football they showed in the opening of their game against Canberra and add the consistency their rep stars should bring, which should make for a fascinating match up against the brick wall defence the Dragons have formed this year. It's yet another statement on the closeness of this year's competition that the ladder-leaders opened up as outsiders and this could go either way but with how utterly clinical Paul McGregor's men were in their last game we'll tip them to grind out yet another win. Dragons by four.