Round 18: Dragons v Wests Tigers preview
Dragons look to regain stability against out-of-form Tigers
In the time predating the moment the fulltime siren sounded on October 3, 2010 the label ‘chokers' proved synonymous with the St. George Illawarra Dragons. Considered to be certainties in years gone by and with the weight of expectation looming large given the unparalleled feats recorded by the Red V between 1956 - 1966 with 11 premierships in a row, the 2018 Dragons appeared to be logical candidates to feature in the final match of the season with the only question being who would oppose them. However in the wake of a get-out-of-jail win against imminent wooden spoon holders Parramatta and a defensively inept showing in Melbourne, the Dragons premiership credentials have begun to be called into question. Regaining the five Origin representatives who sat out the 52-30 loss to the Storm and reverting Jason Nightingale back to the wing after a brief stint as a bench forward, the Dragons will fancy their chances against the Tigers having come away with two competition points in four of the six meetings held during Paul McGregor's tenure as coach. While the makeup of the final 17 will be dependent upon the fallout of Wednesday night's final Origin, an imposing historical record against the Tigers at Kogarah should keep scoreboard attendant busy with the Dragons recording a combined 214-88 scoreline in the pair's previous six meetings at the venue.
Beginning the season with a large turnover of personnel and modest expectations of finishing in the lower half of the top eight, a stunning opening to 2018 saw the Tigers surprise many with five wins from their first six matches. Sitting as high as fourth after seven rounds, an inability to retain the defensive edge that endeared pundits following two hard-fought wins over the defending premiers resulted in the Western Suburbs - Balmain venture falling six points outside the top eight with just two wins from ten matches dating back to mid-April. Acquiring the services of Moses Mbye and Robbie Farah prior to June 30, the injection of class had many predicting a Tigers resurgence heading towards September, but following a poor showing against the Gold Coast a fortnight ago the importance of Sunday's clash won't be lost on coach Ivan Cleary given the club's difficult run home. Gaining the services of representative players David Nofaluma, Ben Matulino and Benji Marshall in a direct swap with Josh Reynolds, defence will be the primary objective on Sunday afternoon having conceded as many tries in their past two matches as they did over the first seven rounds. Making their first appearance at Kogarah since 2012, only Farah and Marshall have experienced victory at the suburban venue when representing the Tigers in the clubs lone win from six appearances at the spiritual home of the Red V.
Last meeting: Round 13 2017 - Dragons 16 Wests Tigers 12
Who to watch: Touted as a contender for the vacant New South Wales number nine jersey in the weeks leading up to Origin, Dragons hooker Cameron McInnes will be looking to step up as the run towards September heats up. Coming into first grade with South Sydney during their record breaking premiership campaign four years ago, the 24-year-old has been a strong contributor for the Red V this season, but with the competition front runners showing signs of faltering in recent weeks the need to remain steady will rest largely on the shoulders of the City Origin representative. In a spine boasting the blinding speed of Matt Dufty, international class of Gareth Widdop and competitive nature of Ben Hunt, McInnes may not boast the same reputation as his colleagues, however with teams making a point to target the other three spine members, the underrated rake may prove to be the dark horse the Dragons need in pursuit of the premiership.
Making his debut against the Dragons at the Sydney Cricket Ground five years ago, the heights predicted of Luke Brooks have yet to eventuate for the talented halfback. Set to play his 100th game in the NRL on Sunday, the 23-year-old playmaker has delivered his best season to date without the off-field burden of contracts hanging over his head, but given the hype that earmarked him as ‘the next Andrew Johns' before he had reached first grade, the on-field results have yet to leave an enduring impression. In a side featuring the experience of premiership winning club heroes Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah, along with mid-season pick-up Moses Mbye, the need for Brooks to assume control of the Tigers style of play should prove telling in whether the strong start produced by the club results in a return to the finals.
My tip: Needing to make up three wins to draw level with the eighth placed Warriors, the importance of Sunday's clash should instil the urgency required for the Tigers to pull off an upset. Wests Tigers by 2.