Two early season contenders battle at Wollongong on Saturday afternoon as the fourth-placed Dragons (13-6) host the eighth-placed Warriors (11-8), with both looking to improve on disappointing showings last week.
The Dragons seem to have hit a bit of a lull since Origin, being turned over by the Tigers two weeks ago, before being outclassed by the Roosters 36-18 last week. Such is the log-jam in the top eight, that they are only one win from top spot, but have the Panthers, Sharks and Broncos chasing them just two points behind. It's not panic stations, but they need to replicate some of their successful early season methods if they want be in the top four come finals time.
The Warriors missed a golden opportunity last week against the Titans. After taking a half-time lead, they capitulated in the second-half to let in 28 points, going down by a disappointing 36-12. They had held firm in the top four for the first two-thirds of the season, but the wheels are becoming disjointed. They now find themselves in lone eighth spot, and while they are only two points behind the Sharks, Panthers and Broncos, they are just four points ahead of a resurgent Wests Tigers, and with a points differential of -20. They haven't lost three in a row yet this season, and they won't want this to be the week that happens.
2018 - Warriors 20 def. Dragons 12 at Mt Smart Stadium
2017 - Dragons 30 def. Warriors 14 at Waikato Stadium
2017 - Dragons 26 def. Warriors 12 at UOW Jubilee Oval
2016 - Warriors 26 def. Dragons 10 at Mt Smart Stadium
2015 - Dragons 36 def. Warriors 0 at Westpac Stadium
Despite coming away with a win in round seven earlier this year, it flattered the Warriors' record against the Dragons who are far and away their bogey team. The Dragons lead the head-to-head by a lopsided 21-6.
One worrying statistic is the Warriors' away record against the Dragons - they have never won at WIN Stadium in ten attempts against the merged side. Their last win at the venue came in 1996. In fact, of the 13 away matches against the Dragons, the Warriors have only won a single one, way back in 2003 when they prevailed 30-20 at Kograh. Incidentally, the Warriors made the finals that year, and the only other thing they have going for them is their better away record this season (7-3). The Dragons will definitely fancy their chances.
Paul McGregor has named an unchanged line-up from the one that lost to the Roosters last week.
*Stephen Kearney originally named Tohu Harris to make a return from a knee injury but unfortunately he has injured his other knee and is looking at further time on the sidelines. Simon Mannering will slot back into the back-row while they name a replacement on the interchange bench. Issac Luke also returns at hooker, his running a much-needed boost. Adam Blair comes back from suspension while Karl Lawton is out though he scored a good try from dummy-half last week against the Titans.
|Position||St George-Illawarra Dragons||New Zealand Warriors|
|1||Matthew Dufty||Roger Tuivasa-Sheck|
|2||Jordan Pereira||David Fusitu'a|
|3||Euan Aitken||Gerard Beale|
|4||Timoteo Lafai||Solomone Kata|
|5||Jason Nightingale||Ken Maumalo|
|6||Gareth Widdop||Blake Green|
|7||Ben Hunt||Shaun Johnson|
|8||James Graham||James Gavet|
|9||Cameron McInnes||Issac Luke|
|10||Paul Vaughan||Agnatius Paasi|
|11||Tyson Frizell||Isaiah Papali'i|
|12||Tariq Sims||Tohu Harris*|
|13||Jack De Belin||Adam Blair|
|14||Jeremy Latimore||Jazz Tevaga|
|15||Kurt Mann||Simon Mannering|
|16||Leeson Ah Mau||Leivaha Pulu|
|17||Luciano Leilua||Bunty Afoa|
|18||Patrick Herbert||Peta Hiku|
|19||Blake Lawrie||Mason Lino|
|20||Zac Lomax||Sam Lisone|
|21||Mitchell Allgood||Joseph Vuna|
The facts that matter
If there's one thing the Dragons know how to do, it's score points. They lead the competition with 459 points, scoring an average of 24 points per match. They haven't been able to show it the last couple of weeks against strong defensive opposition, but they should see a chance against an opposition who tend to let the floodgates open once they are up against it.
The left edge was of concern for the Warriors last week and it would not be surprising to see Gareth Widdop and Ben Hunt target that area again come Saturday. Their match-ups against Shaun Johnson and Blake Green loom as a key ingredient of which team will get the better of the other.
To get their playmakers into the game, they will need their forwards to put up, as they so often did during the earlier stages of the season. They understandably did a lot of tackling last week, but only two of their Origin quality pack made over 100 metres - Tariq Sims running for 121m while Paul Vaughan did an even 100. They are more than capable, ranking third for all-run metres each week (1,490) whilst their 36 tackle breaks is top of the league. When they are running metres, their 243 offloads ranks only behind the Warriors this season. That will be when they can unleash some of their backs to exploit the Warriors' fringes.
Issac Luke is approaching his 250th game and his side certainly missed him last week. He's a live wire at hooker, ranking second this season for dummy half runs behind Damien Cook with 84. He can be a menace up the middle for opposing defenses and the metres he makes can be crucial for a Warriors side that will need that sort of territory more often than not to put some points up.
While Tohu Harris is out, Adam Blair is also back in and should make some difference to the defense from last week. Making around 25 tackles per game, Blair needs to ensure his team rally around him, and he'll have Simon Mannering outside him for support. The Warriors' 29 missed tackles last week were just than their season-leading average of 33, and if they give the Dragons half a chance, it may rain points.
Their discipline will also be of concern, with 12 errors plaguing any attempt on attack. None of the forwards made over 100 metres, which made it very hard for the likes of Green and Johnson to have any proper chances of attacking the Titans' line. 1,100 metres will not get you far in a match, especially when you average closer to 1,400 each week. They need to pick this up and match it with the Dragons' pack in the middle to give themselves a decent shot.
Speaking of Green. He ranks fourth on line engagement with 79 this season, and it will up to him and Johnson to direct their players on the field. If they are not getting to the line often enough, it could be a long afternoon for the New Zealand outfit.
It's a crucial contest for both sides, if not more so for the Warriors who want to stay in check with the top eight and keep the Tigers at bay. But the Dragons will not care about that; I expect they will regroup from last week's loss to the Roosters and go back to what works for them. Make some decent metres in the middle, force the pressure on a Warriors side who are susceptible to missed tackles and let their playmakers do the rest. The Warriors have a couple of welcome additions but it seems as if they have lost direction lately. They will really have to work hard and be disciplined if they want their first away win against the Dragons in 15 years.
Tip: Dragons by 12