Sorry Dragons fans, but the eerily familiar, déjà-vu like circumstances of this preliminary final are too blatant to overlook: in 2005 the week-rested Dragons trotted out as firm favourites to advance to the NRL grand final, but were ripped to shreds by the underdog Tigers – who went on to win the title the following week. Gulp.
So what’s changed to suggest that won’t happen again?
The Dragons have two years of grinding consistency behind them under the best coach in the business, including two minor premierships. Yes they were bundled out in ‘straight sets’ in last year’s finals race but their ruthless 28-0 demolition of the Sea Eagles a fortnight ago showed they have the mental focus required to take the title in 2010. For 60 minutes the Dragons strangled the Sea Eagles, repelled their best attacking efforts, then unleashed a barrage of tries in the final 20 minutes. It showed they are a disciplined, measured unit who can still turn on the strike-power when they need to.
Meanwhile the Tigers are riding a wave of enthusiasm and good form. They’ve won four of their past six, the two defeats narrow ones to the Titans (21-18) in Round 26 and Roosters (19-15) in Week One of the finals, when a try to Shaun Kenny-Dowall against the run of play in the 100th minute sealed the result.
Supposedly busted and riddled with injuries, they were given no chance against the Raiders in Canberra last week, but took that game by the scruff of the neck early and repelled a brave Raiders comeback.
Benji Marshall showed no signs of a knee injury that many feared would sideline him for the rest of the season, and all their troops left the nation’s capital fairly healthy.
Which brings us to this week.
The Dragons have had a fortnight to drill their squad, which is unchanged from the Sea Eagles win. Meanwhile the Tigers have made the odd shuffle on paper – Todd Payten moves from the back row to start at prop, with Liam Fulton elevated from the bench to start in the second row. Bryce Gibbs will enter the game off the bench, which also boasts Ben Murdoch-Masila, Sean Dwyer and Daniel Fitzhenry. Mark Flanagan is in jersey no.18 with the promising Andrew Fifita – who has only seen 23 minutes of game time in the Tigers’ past two matches – in no.19. (We doubt he’ll get a run.)
Some random points of interest: the Dragons have won 14 of the 16 times they’ve led at halftime in 2010; Neville Costigan, Jeremy Smith and Michael Weyman have each lost to the Tigers just once in their careers – but the Dragons have won only five of 13 games when playing in front of crowds in excess of 40,000.
Watch out Dragons: They need to watch Lote Tuqiri, Benji Marshall, Robbie Farah and the back-rowers Liam Fulton and Gareth Ellis… although not necessarily in that order.
Farah and Marshall are masters of the lateral drift, where they inflict pain on oppositions one of three ways: they’ll dummy outside before picking up Ellis, Fulton or Chris Heighington on the inside… or they’ll dummy to inside runners and shift wide to the flanks… or they may even run themselves.
The biggest worry for the Dragons is reading Marshall – the Tigers have thrown more dummies at the line than any other team (462). But the double whammy is Marshall is likely to throw four dummies in two seconds – then put on a sprint of his own. He doesn’t need to score points from such moves – he just needs to get the Dragons in two minds and start to break up their rigid defensive structure. If he can achieve this, the points will come.
On their side of the weakness ledger, Jamie Soward needs to have his best goal-kicking boots on. Over the past few weeks even the most accurate kickers in Michael Gordon and Jarrod Croker have missed ‘gimme’ shots at goal that have consigned their sides to defeat and an NRL exit. Soward is ranked 13th in the comp for goalkicking with a worrying 72 per cent.
The Dragons need to improve on their pressure-building down the other end too – they have forced their opponents into the fewest line drop-out restarts all year (just 24).
Watch out Wests Tigers: The Tigers need to unsettle the Dragons and not allow them to get into their rhythm. The Red V have completed more sets than any side all year (78.5 per cent), missed the least tackles (659) and conceded the fewest line-breaks (3.2 per game).
Also, they need to somehow find a way to limit Mark Gasnier’ impact – he’s scored 20 tries from his past 13 games against the Tigers, to become the most prolific tryscorer against them.
While they are the masters of razzle-dazzle within their own half (see below) the Tigers need to make sure they don’t surrender possession down their end of the field – something they’ve done far too often in 2010 (78 handling errors in their own half – second most in the NRL). They can’t afford to do that in a grand final qualifier.
Where it will be won: Defence. That might sound strange given the Wests Tigers are arguably the biggest entertainers in the NRL, but hear us out.
Tim Sheens’ boys are the masters of innovative attack – they’ve thrown the most passes within their own half (2480). They also lead the comp for tries scored from long range, with 23 originating from within their own half – the latest to Lote Tuqiri off a beautiful set play from a scrum last week. But here they come up against the most disciplined side in the competition, one that has given up a miserly 299 points all year (just 11.9 a game!) and let in just four tries from long range – the fewest by any side.
Neither team really has a weak side of the field – the Dragons have conceded an even spread of 20 tries on their left side and 19 on their right, while the Tigers have conceded 31 tries on each of their left and right sides. So, good defensive reads will be crucial for both teams.
But the Dragons’ scramble defence might hold the key – they led the comp with 121 try saves through Round 26, while the Tigers had a middle-of-the-road 88.
The history: Played 19; Dragons 10, Wests Tigers 9. The Wests Tigers have won five of the past eight clashes and hold a 3-2 advantage in games played at ANZ Stadium. But the Dragons have won the past two encounters, including a 34-10 win at Kogarah in Round 16.
The last time the sides met at ANZ Stadium, in 2007, the Wests Tigers scored their biggest ever win over the Dragons (27-8).
Conclusion: The pace of play in the first 20 minutes will provide a great guide as to how this game will pan out.
The Tigers are the masters of getting a roll on, having recorded the smallest percentage of slow play-the-balls all year (7.8 per cent). Meanwhile opposition sides have tried to negate the Dragons by slowing them down, restricting them to the highest number of slow play-the-balls (11.8 per cent). That suggests the Tigers are in with a show of dictating terms – although it should be remembered that despite all the muzzling efforts of other sides all year, the Dragons still won the minor premiership.
It should be a close game for a while, although logic suggests leg weariness from a hard past few weeks should affect the Tigers at some stage. When it does, the Dragons have the firepower to rip their opponents apart. Look for that to happen in the final 20 minutes. Dragons to win.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Russell Turner; Video Ref – Steve Clark.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.