ANZAC showdown looms as match of the year
Demonstrating resilience and experience to down the Knights last Friday, the Roosters will enjoy an 11-day preparation heading into the traditional ANAZAC Day clash. Bouncing back from consecutive losses to sit inside the top four, coach Trent Robinson will be hoping recent form bodes well for the tri-colours, with the side recording six wins from eight clashes against the Dragons dating back the 2013. Having come up with several moments of magic to run out healthy winners in Newcastle, the Roosters will be hoping for similar results on Tuesday against a Dragons outfit unlikely to give an inch. With interchange utility Ryan Matterson sustaining an ankle injury which is set to sideline him for 4-6 weeks, Paul Carter retains his place in the squad after starting ahead of Jake Friend last week. While they may not be apart of the named 17, don't be surprised to see Latrell Mitchell, Dylan Napa or Connor Watson make their way into the squad named an hour before kickoff.
The last time the Dragons sat atop the premiership ladder for consecutive weeks, Steve Price was the coach. Three years later the Red V once again hold the competition lead on the back of a newly discovered attacking flair, as well as a determination in defence which sees the side rank among the best in the league. Benefitting from considerable continuity in their squad, the joint venture has used just 20 players over the opening seven rounds, the least of any side along with Brisbane and Canterbury. Boosted by the return of Josh Dugan at fullback, Kurt Mann drops back to the bench with former Roosters lower grader Taane Milne being relegated to 18th man. On top of the solemn significance of the ANZAC Day fixture, Tuesday marks special occasions for Gareth Widdop and Tim Lafai respectively. Celebrating their 150th and 100th appearances in the NRL, the pair has enjoyed remarkable turnarounds in 2017 to be focal points of the Dragons success. While the Dragons have struggled against the Roosters in recent years, their two wins over the tri-colours have come on ANZAC Day, both by two points as a result of Gareth Widdop penalty goals.
Who to watch: There may have been a great deal of semantic conjecture regarding Latrell Mitchell's omission against the Knights, but if his replacement's form is any indication, the Roosters won't have to qualify future decisions to ‘rest' or ‘drop' players. Brought in from the 2016 Under 20s premiership winning side, Joseph Manu displayed tremendous skill in just his sixth first grade appearance to score the opening try and create plenty of havoc for the Newcastle left edge. At just 20 years of age, the young Kiwi looks set to become a cornerstone of the Roosters future, but if his showings so far this season are to continue, Manu may not need to wait beyond this season to be a part of NRL success.
Having fought his way back into the NRL after several years of infamy, Dragons front rower Russell Packer will be looking to use the ANZAC Day clash to press his claims for a representative recall. Averaging over 100 metres and 20 tackles per game, the former Warriors prop has played a key role in helping the Red V sit atop the premiership ladder with his charges laying a platform for the likes of Widdop and McCrone to capitalise. Making two appearances for New Zealand six years ago, the 27-year-old has shown his ability to reform on and off the field and will have his sights set on a personal duel against Jared Waerea-Hargreaves that could potentially determine which player lines up for the Kiwis in Canberra on May 5.
My tip: Having doubted the Dragons over opening seven weeks, I've seen enough to suggest the Red V will feature in September football. Where they finish at the end of 26 rounds may depend on their performance against a top-tier opponent, but with an extended break between matches look for the Dragons to come out on top. Dragons by 7.
1. Michael Gordon 2. Daniel Tupou 3. Joseph Manu 4. Shaun Kenny-Dowall 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Luke Keary 7. Mitchell Pearce 8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 9. Jake Friend 10. Isaac Liu 11. Boyd Cordner 13. Aidan Guerra 17. Sio Siua Taukeiaho 14. Zane Tetevano 15. Paul Carter 16. Kane Evans 19. Dylan Napa
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. Kurt Mann 17. Hame Sele