Round 15: Dragons v Cowboys preview
Premiership stragglers eye off vital competition points
The St George Illawarra Dragons host the North Queensland Cowboys in Wollongong on Friday night in a clash set to have major ramifications on both side's chances of playing finals football.
Currently in the midst of a dismal losing streak with one win - against the last-placed Bulldogs - from their past seven matches, the Dragons remain just two points outside the top eight in 13th position, but will need to drastically improve their attack to have any chance of making a late surge towards September.
Struggling to produce points despite the return of Corey Norman from a fractured cheekbone three weeks ago, coach Paul McGregor will be banking on a strong record at WIN Stadium, having won five of their past seven matches, as well as their past two clashes against the Cowboys in Wollongong.
Managing just fives wins prior to Origin II - their worst success rate since McGregor was appointed midway through 2014 - the joint venture will need to produce their strongest finish in over a decade to qualify for the playoffs; a feat made all the more difficult given the side's inability to finish seasons in winning form in recent years.
Naming all six players involved in last weekend's representative fixtures, veteran prop Jeremy Latimore will belatedly bring up 50 appearances for the Dragons at the expense of Jai Field on the bench, while after being initially named as part of the extended squad, Lachlan Maranta has been granted a recall with Tim Lafai still sidelined with an ankle injury.
Looking to bounce back following consecutive losses by the barest of margins at home, the Cowboys will head to Wollongong needing to come away with two competition points in order to remain in touch with the top eight.
Holding a 50 per cent success rate against the Dragons throughout the 2010s, coach Paul Green has named the majority of players involved in last weekend's representative round, excluding off-contract hooker Kurt Baptiste who faces an uncertain future after suffering an ACL tear playing for Papua New Guinea last Saturday.
With Baptiste out for the remainder of the season, Reuben Cotter comes onto the bench having made his first grade debut in the loss to Manly three weeks ago, while vice captain Jordan McLean return in place of Josh McGuire after the Maroons forward copped a one-match ban for contrary conduct in Origin II.
Who to watch: In a side that has struggled to score points this season, fullback Matt Dufty shapes as the man most likely to energise the Dragons' stilted attack. Enduring a tumultuous year chequered by limited minutes off the bench and a stint in reserve grade, the 23-year-old speedster has shown moments of class to rival the finest players in the game, most notably his scintillating effort against the reigning premiers on ANZAC Day. Crossing the line for just three tries in 11 matches this season, Dufty possesses the strike power capable of propelling the joint venture towards a late season run, but unless the talented number one increases his involvement, the congested nature of the competition ladder will almost certainly see the Dragons forced into preparing for 2020.
Earmarked as the man to succeed Billy Slater prior to an ill-timed pectoral tear in the trials, Scott Drinkwater will be eager to make a strong impression in his club debut. Sought after by a number of clubs earlier this season, the 22-year-old former Australian Schoolboys representative will line up for only his second appearance in the top grade with big expectations of filling the void created by Ben Barba's dismissal back in February. Equally adept at playing in the halves if needed, look for Drinkwater to cause plenty of havoc with his support play as the Cowboys chase their first win in Wollongong since claiming the premiership in 2015.
The favourite: Winning the majority of matches against North Queensland at WIN Stadium dating back to the days of the Steelers, the Dragons come into the match as favourites despite poor performances of late.
My tip: With both teams sitting on the precipice of the top eight, this is a match that neither can afford to lose if they hope to challenge the likes of Melbourne and South Sydney in September. Having shown promising signs prior to the bye and with several key players returning from injury, look for the Cowboys to come away with the win. Cowboys by 8.