Dragons hoping to breathe fire against purring Penrith.
Written off before a ball has been kicked, the Dragons face a difficult task heading into the new season as they look to unearth an attacking spark sorely missed in recent times. Possessing a forward pack comparable to the best in the league, an inability to produce points has plagued Paul McGregor's side, with the Dragons managing more than four tries on just four occasions throughout 2016. A poor showing against South Sydney in the Charity Shield failed to settle the vacant halfback debate, with coach McGregor hedging his bets by naming experienced playmaker Josh McCrone to start, while impressive youngster Jai Field will make his first grade debut off the bench. Among the other new faces to represent the famous Red V, winger Nene MacDonald, prop Paul Vaughan and hooker Cameron McInnes will all line up for their first game at the club. In the only other contentious selection, Samoan international Tim Lafai has been named at starting centre, ahead of Kurt Mann and Taane Milne, despite falling out of favour towards the end of last year.
Among the sides expected to feature prominently during the business end of the season, Penrith will look to maintain the promise exhibited throughout 2016 and stake a challenge for the title. Highlighting the remarkable depth on offer at the foot of the mountains with an unexpected runners-up finish at the Auckland Nines, the Panthers will be hopeful of a fortuitous run with injuries, but should casualties occur the likes of Oliver Clarke, Corey Harawira-Naera, Zach Docker-Clay and Jed Cartwright will be more than capable if required. Fielding a side packed with graduates of the clubs lower grade successes, Kangaroos prop James Tamou will make his club debut in the front row, while former Bulldogs forward Tim Browne has been selected to come off the bench. With regular wingers Josh Mansour and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak sidelined, New Zealand internationals Dean Whare and Peta Hiku will be hoping to make the most of their opportunities, while youngster Moses Leota has been rewarded for an impressive pre-season by beating out Sitaleki Akauola for a place on the bench. Unable to come away with the points in their past two matches against the Dragons, the Panthers have performed strongly in recent meetings including victories in their past two visits to UOW Jubilee Oval.
Who to watch: While much of the focus has centred on his halves partner, the Dragons hopes of bouncing back from a disappointing 2016 will depend on the performance of Gareth Widdop. Suffering a drop in form across club and International fixtures last season, the 27-year-old captain will be looking to recapture the form that saw him cement his place as an elite playmaker after shifting from the Storm three years ago. Blessed with speed and a quality kicking game, Widdop has shown his worth in the past; the question for Dragons supporters will be whether he can silence his detractors.
Touted as a possible NSW utility by none other than Andrew Johns, Tyrone Peachey will be out to continue the form that saw him provide a new attacking dimension to Penrith last season. Primarily known as a back-rower with ball-playing skills early on in his career, the former Shark progressed from stopgap centre to fully-fledged attacking threat in 2016. With Kiwi representative duo Dean Whare and Peta Hiku fully recovered after injuries forced them to watch from the sidelines for much of last year, the 25-year-old Indigenous All Stars representative will have his work cut out to remain in the backline. However, should Peachey replicate the form that saw him cross for 13 tries in 17 matches at centre last year, higher honours may be well within his grasp.
1. Josh Dugan 2. Nene Macdonald 3. Euan Aitken 4. Timoteo Lafai 5. Jason Nightingale 6. Gareth Widdop 7. Josh McCrone 8. Russell Packer 9. Cameron McInnes 10. Paul Vaughan 11. Tyson Frizell 12. Joel Thompson 13. Jack de Belin 14. Tariq Sims 15. Leeson Ah Mau 16. Jacob Host 17. Jai Field
1. Matt Moylan 2. Dean Whare 3. Waqa Blake 4. Tyrone Peachey 5. Peta Hiku 6. Te Maire Martin 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou 9. Peter Wallace 10. Regan Campbell-Gillard 11. Bryce Cartwright 12. Isaah Yeo 13. Trent Merrin 14. James Fisher-Harris 15. Leilani Latu 16. Tim Browne 17. Moses Leota