Schick Hydro Preview: St George Illawarra Dragons v Wests Tigers
This Round 20 clash between the 10th-placed Dragons and 11th-placed Wests Tigers really couldn't be more critical for the finals hopes of both clubs.
Desperately needing to string together a few wins to stay in touch with the top eight through the final stages of the season, a loss here to their closest rival on the ladder could be disastrous.
The Dragons are the lowest-ranked of the four sides placed equal seventh on 20 competition points courtesy of a terrible four-and-against. The ledger doesn't read much better for the Tigers but they will at least leapfrog the Dragons with a win.
Both teams are coming off a disappointing loss last week; the Dragons saw another one of the sides scrapping to get into the eight leapfrog them when they were easily disposed of by the Titans in their own backyard at Kogarah. The Tigers were more encouraging, sticking with heavyweights Canterbury up to the dying minutes despite missing their captain and half their playmaking roster to Origin.
Those three key men in Aaron Woods, James Tedesco and Robbie Farah have all been named to return this week – although it has since been confirmed that Farah will play in the Intrust Super Premiership this week – meaning Tim Grant goes back to the bench and Jordan Rankin to the wing, with Josh Addo-Carr, JJ Felise and Jacob Liddle all dropping out.
The home side are boosted by the return of halfback former Tiger Benji Marshall for what will be his 250th NRL game. His return pushes Josh McCrone out of the side while winger Kalifa Faifai Loa (cheekbone) and Tim Lafai (dropped) also make way with Jason Nightingale shifting to the wing, Adam Quinlan called up at fullback and Taane Milne recalled at centre for his second ever NRL game.
Lock Jack De Belin has a milestone of his own, notching up 100 games in the top grade this weekend.
Watch out Dragons: Teammates this week tipped Origin debutant James Tedesco to get even better after his winning interstate debut in Origin III last week, if that's even possible. Even on current form the 23-year-old is a colossal threat; in just 13 games this year he has 11 tries and 11 try assists, a whopping 80 tackle busts, and a handy five try saves as well.
Watch out Tigers: The Dragons have struggled for points of late and in an effort to correct that, ball-playing fullback Quinlan has been called up and out-of-form centre Lafai dropped for promising youngster Milne. With the likes of tackle-busting centre Euan Aitken and in-form Blues forward Tyson Frizell a constant threat with ball in hand, coach Paul McGregor will be hoping the addition of some extra finesse this week will help turn field position into points.
Key match-up: Benji Marshall v Luke Brooks. Not so long ago this would have been billed as 'Master v Apprentice' but Brooks now has almost three full seasons in the top grade and has matured considerably since his debut in late 2013 – his one and only NRL game alongside Marshall (coincidentally, against the Dragons). And despite some bright form shown by Marshall prior to his most recent injury setback it is clearly Brooks who enters this one in superior form. Looking at try assists – the bread and butter of any playmaker – Brooks is fourth among all players in the NRL with a heady 14 in his 16 games this year. In a sputtering Dragons outfit Marshall has notched just five so far in his 10 appearances.
History: Played 31; Dragons 17, Wests Tigers 14. Things are pretty even in the past decade-and-a-half of these two merged clubs and that's true in the recent history as well: the past 10 meetings are split five apiece. The previous meeting, also at ANZ, was a high-scoring thriller taken out 32-30 by the Dragons.
What are the odds: Wests Tigers opened as outsiders but have been crunched into favouritism ever since the Dragons went down to the Titans last Friday night. Two and a half times the dollars have been invested on the Tigers in the head to head market but Sportsbet customers believe they'll get home by 1-12 rather than 13+. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Ashley Klein. Assistant Referee: Adam Gee. Touch Judges: Jason Walsh and Dave Ryan. Review Officials: Ben Galea and Matt Cecchin. Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 3.30pm. Fox Sports – Live from 4pm.
How we see it: A relatively neutral venue, two big names back for the visitors and the Red V's recent attacking woes have us leaning towards the Tigers by six points.