Schick Hydro Preview: St George Illawarra Dragons v Brisbane Broncos
Both St George Illawarra and Brisbane prepare to face each other after enduring a horrible six weeks that has seen each side lose four of their last five matches.
The Dragons' early-season scoring woes have returned, and with that their top eight hopes have diminished as they've slid down the NRL ladder at a rapid rate.
It hasn't been much better for the Broncos, with Brisbane hitting a new low last week as they lost to the 15th-placed Sydney Roosters.
St George Illawarra come into this one desperate to keep their faint finals hopes alive, but they'll have to do it the hard way after losing two key players in the lead up to Thursday's match.
The Dragons are still without star fullback Josh Dugan, and they will now also have to play without Joel Thompson and Tyson Frizell, with both missing this week because of suspension. Tyrone McCarthy has been named on the bench instead of Will Matthews.
Brisbane haven't been full strength since their Round 11 loss to the North Queensland Cowboys, but their luck appears to be returning with the inclusion of three big names.
Josh McGuire and Sam Thaiday both return from suspension while Matt Gillett returns from a shoulder injury. Jai Arrow, Alex Glenn and Jaydn Su'A drop back to an extended bench. Joe Ofahengaue and Herman Ese'ese haven't been named.
Watch out Dragons: St. George Illawarra need to rediscover their point scoring ability if they are to have any chance against Brisbane. The Dragons have only managed to score 30 points in their last three games. In the same period they have conceded 93 points – losing all three matches. The Broncos might be struggling of late, but they still have the fifth best attack in the NRL. If St. George Illawarra don't find a way to score more than 10 points against Brisbane then they will get beaten. The last time these two teams met Josh Dugan ran for 312m and was the Dragons' only attacking threat. Dugan is still out with a broken jaw so it's up to halves partners Gareth Widdop and Benji Marshall to take control and create something in attack in Dugan's absence.
Watch out Broncos: Brisbane simply can't afford to lose this match. A loss against a depleted Dragons side will not only end the Broncos' chances of a top-four finish, but also put their spot in the top eight in jeopardy. They've now lost seven of their last nine matches and are tumbling down the NRL ladder. Once sitting pretty at the top of the standings, Brisbane are now two wins outside the top four in sixth spot. With just five games left in the regular season, the Broncos are running out of time to find form. Three of Brisbane's last five matches are at home so a win against St George Illawarra away on Thursday night might just kick-start the Broncos' run into the finals. This clash is a must-win and it may just be Brisbane's most important match so far this season.
Key match-up: Jack de Belin v Corey Parker. The best lock in the game comes up against one of the competition's biggest improvers in what will be a huge match-up. de Belin will need to lift in the absence of the suspended Tyson Frizell, with the 25-year-old set to be the leader of the Dragons' pack. It's a job made harder by the inclusion of Broncos stars Gillett, McGuire and Thaiday, but De Belin has proved this season that he loves a challenge. De Belin averages ten hit-ups a match and 113 running metres, but it's his work in defence that highlights his importance to St George Illawarra. He averages 42 tackles a match and his impact will be vital against Brisbane's attack. Parker has continued his consistent season, running for 128m in a beaten side last week against the Roosters. The 34-year-old averages 132m a game and 31 tackles – shouldering the workload in a side that has been well beaten of late. The Broncos captain will be sure to put in a mammoth effort against the Dragons, with time running out to turn Brisbane's season around. This battle in the middle of park looms as a key contest that will have a huge impact on the result of the match.
The history: Played 35; Dragons 14, Broncos 21. The Broncos have dominated the Dragons in recent history, with Brisbane winning 12 of their last 14 against St George Illawarra. The two teams played each other twice in 2015, splitting the honours at one win apiece. Their latest meeting took place at Suncorp Stadium in Round 6 of this year, with Brisbane running out 26 - 0 winners. In a worrying sign for Red V fans, St George Illawarra have only managed to score a combined six points in their last two clashes against Wayne Bennett's men. The two sides last met in Wollongong in 2014, with the Broncos cruising to a 36-20 win. The Dragons have not defeated Brisbane in Wollongong since 2010 – the same year they won the premiership.
What are the odds: Dragons $3.85, Broncos $1.26. Just over 90 per cent of money has gone on the Broncos in Sportsbet's head-to-head market but while it appears punters are giving Brisbane one more chance, they’re only backing them to win 1-12 in margin betting rather than 13-plus. Broncos winger Corey Oates is the heavy favourite in the first try-scorer market, paying $6.50 to cross the line first. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee: Dave Munro; Touch Judges: Nick Beashel & Dave Ryan; Standby: Phil Henderson; Review Officials: Steve Chiddy & Luke Patten; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live coverage from 7:30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7:30pm.
The way we see it: A full-strength St George Illawarra side might have been enough to push Brisbane all the way, but the Dragons are heavily depleted and looking a shadow of the side that snuck into the top eight just a few weeks ago. The Broncos have every reason to win and are approaching full strength. If Brisbane can't win this clash then they are in some serious trouble. Broncos by 14.