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Dragons look to breathe fire against injury-depleted Cowboys
The Dragons are top of the table. You read that correctly, the side tipped to rival the Knights for the wooden spoon in 2017 are currently in first position having scored nearly twice as many points as they have conceded. In a complete reversal of fortune from the outfit that bumbled along in 2016, the joint venture have surprised everyone over the opening six rounds with a combination of enterprising attack and rugged defence. While their performances over the Sea Eagles elevated the side from also-rans to a team on the rise, coach Paul McGregor will be looking to stress the importance of putting the boot into a North Queensland side missing their primary attacking weapon. Having been in a similar position midway through 2015 only to collapse in a heap, the Dragons will be eager to continue their winning ways and potentially finish the weekend as outright competition leaders.
Widely tipped to put a cricket score on the Wests Tigers last Saturday in Townsville, the Cowboys head to Wollongong in need of a miracle to keep up with their opponents. Suffering a shock loss compounded by an injury to Johnathan Thurston, coach Paul Green has been forced into changes, however a welcome return in the backline should lessen the burden. Former Melbourne utility Ben Hampton will be tasked with the unenviable role of replacing Thurston at halfback, while returning backrower Blake Leary will start at hooker after shifting back from two seasons with Manly. In a major boost for the side, representative centre and dual premiership winner Justin O'Neill will make his return from injury, while the injury crisis offers young prop Corey Jensen with an opportunity to make his first grade debut off the bench.
Who to watch: In a side full of toilers, few players better epitomise the Dragons' change in fortune than Cameron McInnes. Signed from South Sydney after failing to fire for much of last season, the 23-year-old rake has made a tremendous impression upon his new club with his defensive proficiency and service out of dummy half playing a leading role in establishing the joint venture as the surprise packets of 2017. Averaging close to 50 tackles per game, McInnes shapes as a lynchpin of the Dragons attack moving forward, with his arrival bringing out the best in much-maligned halves pair Gareth Widdop and Josh McCrone. With a large degree of uncertainty surrounding the NSW hooker role, a strong showing against an opposition of the Cowboys quality could see McInnes push his claims for a representative berth.
While a great deal has been made about the impact felt by the absence of key playmakers Lachlan Coote, Johnathan Thurston, Jake Granville and Ray Thompson, an unlikely benefactor may come in an unexpected form. Traditionally known as an interchange forward off the radar of opponents, John Asiata should expect to see an increased involvement over the weekend. Having starred as a ball-playing lock during his junior days at the Roosters, the 23-year-old will be looking to showcase his full array of skills against the Dragons in an effort to lessen the burden on Michael Morgan. Off-contract at seasons end, a starring performance could see the Samoan international increase his worth on the market, while also providing an opportunity to make the shift into the starting side.
My tip: If the Dragons are to be taken as genuine title contenders, beating a side missing so many key players has to be a given. While the Cowboys still have plenty of fight left in them, a Dragons win should be a fait accompli. Dragons by 10.
1. Jason Nightingale 2. Nene Macdonald 3. Euan Aitken 4. Timoteo Lafai 5. Kurt Mann 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. Hame Sele 17. Taane Milne
1. Kalyn Ponga 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Justin O'Neill 4. Kane Linnett 5. Gideon Gela-Mosby 6. Michael Morgan 15. John Asiata 8. Patrick Kaufusi 9. Blake Leary 10. Scott Bolton 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Coen Hess 13. Jason Taumalolo 7. Ben Hampton 14. Ethan Lowe 16. Corey Jensen 17. Ben Spina