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Dragons v Storm preview - 2017 Round 9
Top of the table clash down in the Gong!
Of all the quality matches being played this weekend, this might be the best of the lot. Despite losing last week St George Illawarra are still flying high in second place whilst the ever consistent Melbourne Storm have nailed down top spot after two months of the season. Obviously the talking point of the last week has been the injury to in-form Dragons and former Melbourne Storm playmaker Gareth Widdop who limped off with a medial ligament strain in his knee on ANZAC Day. The Red V looked rudderless once he went off and despite putting in a gallant effort defensively and pushing the Roosters to golden point, they just couldn't get the job done. It may suffer the same plight this week with replacement five-eighth Kurt Mann again thrust into the pivotal number six jumper. Dragons fans will be hoping however that with a week of training under his belt he can perform more consistently than in Tuesday's match.
Melbourne was pushed a long way in its traditional ANZAC Day clash with the New Zealand Warriors but found enough in its reserves to record a gritty and determined victory. Despite not being at its best for the full 80 minutes the Storm was able to let its class shine through at pivotal moments during the match. It has been another consistent start to the season by the Storm who will no doubt be in the top four when the end of the season comes. The return to full fitness of Billy Slater has given the Storm another dimension in attack as well as providing an extremely strong defender in the back. As long as the big three (Slater, Cronk and Smith) are in the same team for Melbourne each week, teams are going to struggle immensely to defeat them.
The Dragons got the last victory over the Storm, albeit with Melbourne missing its origin rep players. The Storm have won five of the last seven clashes between the two sides but have failed to win in its last three trips to Wollongong and have won just four times in ten trips to the South Coast.
Who to watch: The home side will be relying heavily on former Melbourne player Kurt Mann after the injury to Gareth Widdop in this match. Thrown into the deep end last week against the Roosters, Mann will be better for the training run this week and will need to be at his best to unseat the defensively sound Storm outfit. Used sparingly at Fullback and Wing last season (he was the Dragons leading try scorer last season with 10 tries despite playing just 13 games) his desire to play in the halves has been fulfilled with the call up this week. Blessed with a unpredictable step and pace, Mann is a dangerous player and knows how to find the try line (he has scored 22 tries in 48 games). Melbourne will no doubt focusing on keeping him quiet in the middle of the field.
The Storm will know that it has to dominate the powerful Dragons forward pack if it wants to control the game. Felise Kaufusi has been in superb touch so far in 2017 and will be aimed with taking the attack to the likes of Russell Packer, Paul Vaughan and Tyson Frizzell. A real workhorse in the pack, Kaufusi is average 39 tackles a game along with 10 hit ups and 89 metres per match. A technically sound defender he will be aiming up and attempting to minimise the Dragons forward pack has on the match. This battle could be the difference between who wins and loses as the Dragons who are lacking legitimate attacking weapons will rely more heavily on its forward pack to burden the load.
The favourite: The Storm are warm favourites after the Dragons loss last week and the injury to Gareth Widdop.
My tip: Despite not having a flattering record down in Wollongong, it's hard to tip against this Storm outfit. They have all the weapons in attack and have been miserly in defence (conceding just 99 points all season). This will be a titanic battle in the forwards and the Dragons best chance is to try and grind with the Storm for as long as they can and hope to force some errors from the visitors to capatalize on. Storm by 4.
1. Josh Dugan 2. Nene Macdonald 3. Euan Aitken 4. Timoteo Lafai 5. Jason Nightingale 6. Kurt Mann 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 18. Jai Field 20. Luciano Leilua
1. Billy Slater 2. Suliasi Vunivalu 3. William Chambers 4. Cheyse Blair 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Cameron Munster 7. Cooper Cronk 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Cameron Smith 10. Jordan McLean 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenneath Bromwich 13. Dale Finucane 14. Christian Welch 15. Tim Glasby 16. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 18. Joe Stimson 19. Mark Nicholls 21. Curtis Scott