Brisbane Broncos v St George Illawarra Dragons
Friday 14 August 7:45pm
After two straight losses there's no need for the Broncos to push the panic button on their minor premiership hopes just yet.
Whether or not you believe Brisbane's back-to-back defeats against the Sea Eagles and Bulldogs were "the losses they had to have", another loss against the improving Dragons has the potential to sow seeds of doubt amongst the playing group.
Yet panic is unlikely to creep in with Wayne Bennett at the helm, as the master coach can point towards the eight wins from 10 matches the Broncos have snared since Round 10.
The race for the Telstra Premiership is a marathon and not a sprint, and Bennett knows better than anyone else how to get his team firing on all cylinders once the business end of the season rolls around.
Consecutive wins for the in-form Dragons has seen the Red V inch back up the ladder to seventh place after sitting in 12th spot at the conclusion of Round 20.
The Dragons dropped seven straight games prior to their 46-24 win over the Knights in Round 21 and proved that they have rediscovered their winning touch with a 36-0 thrashing of the Warriors last weekend.
Paul McGregor's men left Auckland in high spirits and have spent their entire week preparing for the Broncos under glorious Brisbane sunshine.
In team changes, Broncos skipper Justin Hodges will miss Friday's clash after accepting a one-match ban for a grade one careless high tackle on Canterbury's Brett Morris.
His place is taken by Dale Copley, while Corey Oates (knee) is absent through injury and will be replaced by experienced prop Adam Blair.
For the Dragons, Will Matthews' dislocated shoulder sees Peter Mata'utia return to the centres and Nathan Green comes on to the wing. Eto Nabuli and Mark Ioane join an extended bench.
Halfback Benji Marshall is in doubt after suffering a hamstring strain in last Saturday's drubbing of the Warriors and is set to be replaced by under-20s half Drew Hutchison.
Watch out Broncos: Unheralded prop Leeson Ah Mau is coming off a season-high 202 metres against the Warriors and has been a pillar of consistency for the Dragons this season. Alongside five-eighth Gareth Widdop, the Auckland native has played in all of St George Illawarra's 20 games this season and averages 107 metres and 26 tackles per match.
The 185-centimetre, 111-kilogram utility has benefited from a move to the front row this season after playing the majority of his 104-game career in the back row. The 25-year-old has played nine Tests for Samoa and is the younger brother of former Broncos and Cowboys forward Isaak Ah Mau.
Watch out Dragons: The one Bronco with the most to gain from Justin Hodges' retirement at season's end is outside back Jordan Kahu. The highly rated 24-year-old is off contract at the end of the year and is set to benefit from money made available by Hodges hanging up the boots one year early with an increased offer to remain at the club.
Kahu has played all over the backline this season and lines up on the wing against the Dragons hoping to impress the man who holds the key to his future, Wayne Bennett. The young Kiwi made 180 metres from 18 carries against the Bulldogs and will be desperate to add to his tally of five tries for the season having failed to cross the stripe in over two months.
Key Match-Up: The halves battle. Five out of the Dragons' six tries against the lacklustre Warriors came when Benji Marshall was off the field suggesting his influence isn't as prevalent as it once was.
Gareth Widdop and hooker Mitch Rein picked up much of the attacking slack left by the 235-game veteran, but repeating that performance against Brisbane halves Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford will prove to be a sterner test.
If Marshall is ruled out, Widdop is set to be paired in the halves with promising 20-year-old Drew Hutchison, who would play just his second NRL game after making his debut against the Sharks in Round 18.
The Dragons lost by 20 points on that day with Hutchison forced into making more tackles (26) than metres gained (25) and he could expect a similar amount of traffic to be directed his way on Friday night.
The History: Played 33; Broncos 19, Dragons 14. The Dragons' 12-10 win over Brisbane at Kogarah in Round 7 snapped an eight-game losing streak against the competition leaders, although the Broncos have still won 10 out of the past 12 clashes against the Red V.
The last time the Dragons won in Brisbane was Round 4, 2009 – a record stretching back seven games.
Three out of the past four clashes between these sides have produced 50 or more points with the only exception coming earlier this season.
Did You Know: The Broncos haven't beaten the Dragons with Wayne Bennett as coach for over 10 years now.
Round 6, 2005 was the last time Bennett coached the Broncos to victory over the team he led for three seasons between 2009 and 2011.
Wind back a further year to Round 12, 2004 and you'll find the last time Bennett guided the Broncos to victory over the Dragons at Suncorp Stadium. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
What Are The Odds: Broncos $1.25 v Dragons $3.95. Sportsbet customers are jumping off the Broncos by betting twice as much on the Dragons to knock them off. The Dragons have been very well backed to get home in a close one by a margin of 1-12.
Match Officials: Lead Referee: Jared Maxwell; Assistant Referee: Gavin Morris; Touch Judges: Nick Beashel and Chris Sutton; Video Referees: Ashley Klein and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – 7.30pm (Qld and NSW), GEM (Victoria).
The Way We See It: This Friday night blockbuster could go either way but having home ground advantage is a big boost for the Broncos. Out of 10 games at Suncorp Stadium this season, the Broncos have only lost twice and have scored 288 points at an average of 29 per game. On the other hand, they've been conceding an average of just 16 points at home in 2015. Despite some early-August hiccups against the Sea Eagles and Bulldogs, the Broncos should be able to get back on track with a win over the Dragons. Broncos by 8 points.