From the Couch ? 3rd Qualifying
Final Analysis: Dragons v Sharks

September is here and that means Finals.

From The Couch returns after an injury induced layoff of 3 months to analyse the 2005 Telstra Premiership Qualifying Finals.

Qualifying Final Three

#2 St.George Illawarra Dragons v #7 Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, at WIN Stadium.

FTC Picks:

Dragons by 20

Where it will be won:

Don?t think for a second that by predicting the Dragons to win by 20 that it will be one way traffic at WIN Stadium Saturday night. When the full time hooter goes however, expect the Dragons to have skipped away from their gallant opponents with a few late tries. With seven wins on the trot and a relatively small injury list (Ben Creagh and Mathew Head) the Dragons seemed primed to continue on their merry way and send the Sharks back to Cronulla title-less once again. But this game will be far more even than the final score will suggest.

The Dragons will attack the corners of the ruck relentlessly with front rowers Bailey, Ryles, Sims and Poore taking the ball into the defensive line wider than the traditional ?up the guts? method. Saints can do this because Dean Young and Michael Ennis have great lateral passing from dummy half and Ben Hornby and Trent Barrett love getting into first receiver and finding their big bopper running off their shoulders.

Then once the initial yards are made the Dragons use a similar structure but with Gasnier, Cooper, Thompson and Timmins running wider (although they will miss Creagh on the left side) and the extra speed the centres have in particular forces the defensive line to make quick decisions and either rush up or hold back ? with each option having a drawback that Gasnier and Cooper can capitalise on. The pressure on Paul Mellor and Nigel Vagana to shut down these two excellent centres is immense and vital to any chance the Sharks have of staying with the Dragons on the scoreboard.

The scary thing here is Barrett and Hornby have hardly rated a mention, yet both are considered the straws that stir the drink. But that?s not entirely true; with the size and speed the Dragons have across the park the need for a dominant playmaker to dictate every aspect of attack is not as critical to scoring points. Barrett and Hornby will do their damage running the ball and kicking the ball respectively.

Brett Kimmorley and Adam Dykes must conjure something for the Sharks to worry the Dragons on the scoreboard, both have great ball skill and are dangerous running the ball but their biggest contribution to their team?s chances will come defensively. Phil Bailey and Paul Gallen protect these two playmakers by lining up inside them in defence but will have enough on their plate to significantly reduce the defensive workload of Kimmorley and Dykes. Regardless of how many tricks these two can produce in attack the Sharks whole season will come down to how strong their defence is on the edge of the ruck.

How it will play out:

Saints love to score points and once they get a sniff of blood in the water the Sharks are done for. If the Sharks can match the Dragons up front they will go a long way to ensuring Kimmorley and Dykes have enough juice to run their attack. Danny Nutley will be a man on a mission out there, so the Dragons will concentrate hard on limiting his yardage gains with the ball.

If the Dragons have a weakness in the defensive line it is Ben Hornby. Expect Cronulla to shift their attack heavily in his direction as they try and limit the former fullback?s effectiveness with the ball. They also need to pressure him on his kicks and generally harass him as much as possible to open up a weakness in the Dragons makeup.

Expect the Sharks to make this a genuine contest and to lift their effort levels considerably from last week?s poor performance against Souths. They will leave nothing in the tank and should score some points like Newcastle did last weekend by simply keeping the ball alive and chancing their hand at every opportunity. For the Sharks it is now or never, for St.George-Illawarra they will rely on momentum, size, speed and strength to wear the Cronulla team down and ultimately run over them in the end.

Bottom Line:

If the Dragons lose this game then they will have no one to blame but themselves. That is not to take anything away from the Sharks who will really throw themselves into the contest, but everything is going the Dragons way lately and they can?t afford to slip up and let big Mo (momentum) stop pushing their title bandwagon.