Elimination Final 1
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v St George Illawarra Dragons
While Canterbury have surged into the finals in fifth place on the back of five straight wins, one-time ladder leaders St George Illawarra have limped in at eighth with four wins from their final five, reversing what had been a seven-match losing streak prior to that.
The Dogs were far from convincing over the past fortnight but five wins is five wins, and the return of Josh Reynolds last week in time to replace Trent Hodkinson (wrist, season) was a timely boost and he'll be better for the run.
Coach Des Hasler will be hoping his troops blew out the cobwebs in a last-gasp win over the Warriors last Sunday night. Having come from seventh place last year to make the grand final, finishing fifth won't worry him but with three sudden-death games between now and then they obviously can't afford any slip-ups and a Dragons side that has at times shown an ability to grind out tough games will present a sturdy finals-type challenge.
Meanwhile the Dragons left it even later to claim their two vital competition points last week, confirming their top-eighth billing only in golden point when Tigers skipper Robbie Farah was penalised at marker and stand-in goal kicker Josh Dugan guided one between the sticks after having had a mixed night with the boot prior to that.
He'll be the go-to man off the tee once again with five-eighth Gareth Widdop still not fit and Drew Hutchison once again named in the halves. Coach Paul McGregor has named an unchanged 17, though new names Justin Hunt, Nathan Green and Mark Ioane have been added to a lengthy bench.
Hasler has just one new face in his 17, that of fullback Brett Morris who was rested last week. That pushes Sam Perrett back to wing and Chase Stanley out of the side. Aiden Tolman returns to the starting side with Sam Kasiano reverting to the bench, while Lloyd Perrett has been added as 18th man.
Watch out Bulldogs: The Dogs may want to brush up when it comes to their aerial defence – the Dragons are the best side in the comp at defusing kicks, safely negotiating 83.9 per cent that come their way, while the blue and whites come unstuck in this area, with 71.7 per cent of kicks defused, making them the third worst in that category. Even with Widdop out the Dragons still have the devious boot of Benji Marshall in their arsenal and the Dogs back three of Brett Morris, Sam Perrett and Curtis Rona can expect a few spiral bombs and skidding grubbers to come their way.
Watch out Dragons: It's no secret where and how the Dogs look to dominate their games – up the middle through their big men, dominating the ruck and possession and wearing their opponents down. Their forward running game is effective too: their 179 runs per game is the league's second best, their total run metres of 1,620 per game is third best and post-contact metres of 574 per game is also third best.
Key Match-Up: Brett Morris v Josh Dugan. Teammates last year with Morris on the wing, this Saturday they are opposing No.1s. Morris has certainly taken no time to warm into a full time shift to the back and while the longer term fullback Dugan bosses some of the stats, there are areas where Morris has the edge. Dugan leads the run metres by 182-146 per game and has 102 tackle breaks to Morris's 61 (although taking into account the seven fewer games Morris has played this tallies just half a bust per game better). Morris has an 8-7 edge in tries scored despite playing fewer games and averages two dummy half runs per game against one for Dugan. Interestingly Dugan has saved eight tries this year (just one behind the leaders in that category) with none yet for Morris.
The History: Played 29; Bulldogs 18, Dragons 11. The Bulldogs have had the edge over the Red V since the merged club was formed. The regular season matches this year were split one apiece, but Canterbury won five straight prior to that.
Match Officials: Jared Maxwell & Gavin Morris; Touch Judges: Rick MacFarlane & Russell Turner; Video Referees: Ashley Klein & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 5.30pm.
The Way We See It: All bets are off once finals hit and both sides come in with winning form, albeit it somewhat unconvincing last week. However Widdop appears a bigger loss than Hodkinson given how central he has been to the Dragons' better performances of recent weeks. Both sides take a hit with the goalkicking and experienced playmaking as well, though at this stage of their careers Moses Mbye looks a safer replacement for Canterbury than Hutchison for the Dragons. On the strength of that we'll tip the Bulldogs by six points.
This article first appeared on NRL.com