Schick Hydro Preview: St George Illawarra Dragons v Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
An all-or-nothing final-round tilt awaits Paul McGregor's Dragons at ANZ on Sunday afternoon. The equation is simple: win, and move into September. Lose, and it's Mad Monday tomorrow.
(OK, technically if Penrith and Manly draw and the Cowboys win then the Dragons could win and still miss out but let's not overcomplicate things).
It's not like the Dogs have nothing to play for; having emerged from the mire of a disappointing season – one in which they are certain to finish as the worst attacking side of the year – they have at least shown some spark of late, recording their two biggest scores of the year in their past two games to give fans some encouragement ahead of 2018.
They'll also be desperate to send departing favourite son Josh Reynolds out a winner, though whether he plays (he has been named in the reserves in his comeback from a calf strain) remains to be seen. They have lost in-form winger Brett Morris to a rib injury with Chase Stanley starting in the backline. It's also the final game in blue and white for Sam Kasiano and Michael Lichaa.
McGregor has named Josh Dugan to start in the centres after he was a late omission last week for disciplinary reasons, which pushes Kurt Mann to the halves and Josh McCrone to the bench.
Why Dragons can win: The Dragons are fifth for attack and sixth for defence so the fact they currently sit in ninth seems a bit of an anomaly. It's a legacy of their huge early-season dominance with some huge wins followed by a string of narrow losses. Having won a tense nail-biter against the in-form Panthers with their season on the line last week should have steeled them perfectly for a big final effort here. Keep an eye on game-breaker Tariq Sims if he is again moved into the starting prop role. Sims was impossible to contain last week, rampaging for a team-high 185 metres and coming up with the game-defining (and potentially season-defining) play with a late one on one steal and runaway try to bag the victory.
Why Bulldogs can win: As mentioned above, Canterbury's two best scores and arguably two of their best performances this year have come in the past fortnight. It's almost as if the shackles have been removed and while fans are probably entitled to wonder why this couldn't have happened earlier, it's been good to see. Arguably the biggest contributor – and biggest benefactor – of the more open style has been departing hooker Michael Lichaa. The maligned No.9 has finally had a chance to show what he's made of, and come to the party with 95 metres, three offloads and two try assists last week. All three are season highs (they were actually his first two try assists of the year) while he's also maintained his high defensive workload. Look for him to open up again in his final game in blue and white.
History: Dragons v Bulldogs: Played 33; Dragons 11; Bulldogs 22. The Dogs have been dominant against the Red V since St George merged with Illawarra and plenty of that is down to recent history between the two teams. The Dogs are on a five-game win streak against the Dragons and also have 10 wins from the past 11 matches. It may be a Dragons home game but their three wins from their past 12 games at ANZ won't inspire confidence.
Match officials: Referee: Ashley Klein; Assistant Referee: Chris Sutton; Touch judges: Chris Butler and Belinda Sleeman; Review Official: Bryan Norrie; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine and Fox League – Live from 7.30pm.
NRL.com predicts: Both teams are in this one up to their eyeballs but with everything to play for and given the determination we showed last week, we'll back McGregor's men to get the job done in a close one. Dragons by two.