Schick Hydro Preview: St George Illawarra Dragons v Manly-Warringah
With plenty of people celebrating Christmas in July, Dragons fans have one simple wish from Santa Clause heading into their Round 20 clash at WIN Stadium: victory against the Sea Eagles on Sunday afternoon.
It's been a difficult few weeks for Paul McGregor's men who have gone from top-four hopefuls to top-eight maybes. They've managed just one win from their past five matches and will be heartbroken following their last-start loss to the Raiders in a golden-point game they probably deserved to win.
Currently in eighth spot, this is by no means a must-win game for the Dragons, but if they are serious about playing in September then they need to come up trumps against a team they could very well face again in the post-season.
Their cause has been boosted by the return of Tyson Frizell from a rib injury while Euan Aitken also takes his place at right centre. Russell Packer (hip) drops out of the 17, Kurt Mann and Tariq Sims go back to the bench while Jack de Belin returns to the starting side.
The Dragons will need all hands on deck against a Manly side that has crept into the top four following a tougher than expected win over the Wests Tigers.
Trent Barrett's side are no longer dark horses for the competition; they are a legitimate chance to take out the title and the rest of the rugby league world is starting to take notice.
The Sea Eagles have suffered a couple of setbacks, though, with the underrated Apisai Koroisau (calf) and goal-kicking winger Matt Wright (hip) both ruled out. That sees Brad Parker come onto a wing, Cameron Cullen dons the No.9 jersey while Jackson Hastings comes onto the bench against his junior club.
Why the Dragons can win: It was only a matter of months ago that the Red V put the cleaners through the Sea Eagles in one of their most complete performances of the season. The Round 6 shellacking at Lottoland was an ambush of sorts with Paul Vaughan's flurry of early offloads leading to three tries in the first 17 minutes as the Dragons slayed their hosts 35-10. Gareth Widdop scored twice and nailed a field goal while halves partner Josh McCrone had four assists on a day that had Dragons fans thinking they could go all the way in 2017. If they can replicate that form on Sunday then a much-needed win is on the cards.
Why the Sea Eagles can win: It wasn't that long ago that the Dragons boasted the best attack in the Telstra Premiership, but as they've slid down the pecking order, the Sea Eagles have soared to the top of tree with 396 points through 19 rounds. Their success should come as no surprise given the form halfback Daly Cherry-Evans is in, with his 17 try assists the most out of any player in the NRL. Perhaps the most telling part of that stat is who the Sea Eagles are scoring their points against. Against the top four defensive teams in the competition (the Storm, Sharks, Cowboys and Bulldogs), Manly have scored 26, 35, 30 and 36 points for three wins and a loss. The Dragons are the fifth-best defensive unit and the Sea Eagles will want to show how far they've come since the Round 6 defeat.
 Telstra Premiership: Josh Dugan vs Tom Trbojevic
Line Breaks, Tackle Breaks, All Run Metres, Tries.
The history: Played 25; Dragons 16; Sea Eagles 9. The Dragons have dominated this fixture over time but in recent years Manly have had the upper hand with four wins from the past six matches. However, the Sea Eagles have managed just win against St George Illawarra at WIN Stadium and that was way back in 2003.
What are the odds: Sportsbet punters are sending mixed messages in this game so we might be in for a tight tussle according to the money. More money has been staked on St George Illawarra in the head-to-head market, yet Manly 1-12 is the best backed winning margin. Latest odds at sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Ashley Klein. Assist referee: Alan Shortall. Sideline officials: Dave Munro and Chris McMillan.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live coverage from 2pm.
NRL.com predicts: They might be the outsiders with the bookies but this feels like the sort of occasion the Dragons will want to make a statement in. Koroisau has been an integral part of Manly's attack this season and his absence cannot be overlooked. It'll be tight, but the Dragons should get home by four points.