James: Dragons still pack plenty of punch
Titans captain Ryan James is expecting to see an inspired performance from opposite number Russell Packer on Friday night as the Dragons wrestle with how to make up for the absence of Paul Vaughan for the next month.
Vaughan suffered a calf strain in the opening minutes of his 100th NRL game last Sunday and with an average of 139 run metres per game – including six games in excess of 180 metres that translated to five Dragons victories – there is a large void in the middle that must be filled.
The return of Jack de Belin from a one-game suspension at lock helps to shore up St George Illawarra's middle third but James has pinpointed Packer as the player likely to take their game to a new level at Cbus Super Stadium on Friday.
"[Vaughan] has been playing great footy for them, he's probably been the in-form front-rower of the NRL this year so it's a good thing for us he's not playing," James said ahead of Thursday's captain's run.
"Russell Packer will step straight into that role. He's a big body and hard to tackle and got that aggressive nature about him.
"They just base their game around running hard and trying to tackle harder than everyone else and it's worked for most of the year.
"They've got that stockier build front-rowers, they're not tall and rangy who you can easily tackle; they're totally the opposite.
"If we do a job in the middle it will make it a lot easier for our backs."
When Vaughan left the field after just two minutes last week Leeson Ah Mau stepped into the breach to a record a season-high 172 metres and will start in the front row against the Titans.
Only the Broncos have run for more total metres than the Dragons this season and Gold Coast coach Neil Henry has challenged his team – who make an average of 321m less than the Dragons per game – to meet the challenge that will confront them in the middle.
"They're pretty good at getting a roll on," said Henry. "[Tyson] Frizell has a strong carry, [Joel] Thomspon does his job on the edge, both edge back-rowers are strong and there's a little bit of ball-play.
"Packer's been very consistent up front all year and Leeson Ah Mau coming in has been solid. His post-contact metres are good so you've really got to get in and get him on the ground."
The return of Euan Aitken in the centres has seen St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor partner Kurt Mann with Gareth Widdop in the halves for the first time this season.
On the surface such a move would appear to place the majority of the playmaking responsibilities squarely on the shoulders of Widdop but Henry is not underestimating what Mann offers to the Dragons attack.
"Kurt Mann's form has been very good," said Henry, who has a 50 per cent winning record against McGregor.
"His coach has acknowledged his form in the centres. When Aitken's come back he's kept him in the starting 13.
"Maybe Widdop will kick a bit more because McCrone was doing a bit of kicking as well but he's certainly the most experienced half out there.
"When you look at vision of Kurt Mann playing in the halves before he's been sharp. He's got good footwork and certainly takes the line on.
"He's really a running threat on their left edge so we need to be respectful of the fact that he can play."