Round 21: Dragons v Warriors preview
Early season heavyweights look to regain confidence
Returning from the representative bye to salvage two competition points against wooden spoon favourites Parramatta, initial qualms of an anomalous showing have grown into serious concerns for the St. George Illawarra Dragons. Managing a single win over the past month while conceding more points in that time than their opening eight weeks combined, the form that led some pundits to speculate the grand final was merely a matter of who the Dragons would oppose has disappeared in a stunning decline in quality to give rise to accusations of choking with the finish line in sight. Appearing weary and unable to maintain early season standards, the implications of the side's fall from premiership favouritism looks set to cost the joint venture the minor premiership and potentially a top four finish. Needing to bounce back from a poor performance against the Roosters last Sunday, coach Paul McGregor has resisted the urge to make any changes from the team beaten 36-18, instead opting to persist with the same playing group as a means of seeking redemption for the disappointment of the previous weekend.
Since their last finals appearance in 2011 the final weeks of every subsequent season have been disastrous for the New Zealand Warriors. Whether squandering a top four position to see out the year winless or dropping the ball with the finals line wide open, the pessimism of critics towards the Warriors impressive start to 2018 appears to be coming to fruition following a shambolic second half on the Gold Coast last Sunday. All but confirming a top eight finish had they won against the out of contention Titans, what should have been a relatively painless prospect given their 12-8 halftime advantage capitulated into the worst loss endured by the club this season. Needing to make amends to ensure the ninth-placed Tigers maintain enough distance from overtaking the perennial underachievers, the inclusion of experienced trio Issac Luke, Tohu Harris and Adam Blair should bring about a significant change in performance as the side endeavours to record their first win in Wollongong since coach Stephen Kearney opposed the Illawarra Steelers as player back in 1996.
Who to watch: Rewarded with a deserved New South Wales debut following a strong start to season, lock forward Jack de Belin has encapsulated the Dragons' form over the course of 2018. Leading from the front during the opening rounds with his determined efforts in attack and defence, the 27-year-old has struggled in the week's following on from State of Origin to maintain the ferocious intensity that saw the joint venture assume premiership favouritism. Managing over 100 metres in just one of the Dragons' losses this year, the experienced campaigner will be out to bounce back from an underwhelming personal showing against the Roosters last Sunday to help the Red V stabilise in preparation for their best chance of claiming a premiership since the start of the decade.
Identified as the best man to channel the erratic form of the Warriors into a constructive style of play, seasoned playmaker Blake Green has been a key figure in transforming the NRL's consistent underachievers this year. Poached from Manly over the off-season on a lucrative multi-year deal, the 31-year-old journeyman has undoubtedly helped the Auckland-based outfit defy limited expectations prior to Round 1, but with the side experiencing waning form and a notorious record of failing to perform over the final competition rounds, the classy number six will need to seize control of the on-field performance to prevent another embarrassing final third collapse. Having played in major end of season fixtures locally and abroad, Green's experience will be invaluable for the Warriors as they fight to build momentum heading towards September.
My tip: Lacking form and confidence respectively, Saturday's contest should see points in scarcity or abundance as the two early season heavyweights fight to ensure their strong starts to 2018 amount to more than recent performances. With neither side displaying great confidence following the representative bye, a moment of individual brilliance or madness looks set to determine the winner. Dragons by 6.