Round 21: Canberra v St George Illawarra preview
Crunch time for fading finals hopes.
There's little doubt that both Ricky Stuart and Anthony Griffin will be looking to throw everything they've got at this clash on Friday evening. Canberra and St George Illawarra both sit just outside the top eight and if we're honest, on current form neither side looks like they belong in finals contention.
The Green Machine have been a rollercoaster to watch. They've managed to snag wins over Parramatta, Cronulla and Manly in the past month, but somehow failed to get past Newcastle last weekend, and even lost to the Dragons back in Round 15.
The Dragons since Round 15 though? Ooh boy. Snuck home against the Warriors and have lost every game after that - including last week's shellacking at the hands of Souths. In their defence, injuries and suspensions have decimated their lineup - a good chunk of which is back on deck this week - but it's still not great for a team that has spent the bulk of 2021 inside the top eight.
In a quick squiz at the team sheets, we can see Canberra have made a forced change in the backline. Seb Kris (HIA) comes out of the lineup, with rookie Matt Timoko to play in his spot at centre. Ryan Sutton returns from injury at lock, pushing Hudson Young to the back row and in turn, Corey Harawira-Naera to the interchange. Iosia Soliola moves out to the reserves, while Elijah Anderson is named to debut from the pine.
The Dragons lineup is awash with changes after Sunday's demoralising 50-14 loss to Souths. Josh Kerr and Gerard Beale are the 'COVID suspensions' from *that* incident over a month ago - the last such the Dragons will have to endure after four weeks of hell on the field. Joining Kerr and Beale on the sideline are Ben Hunt (arm), Tyrell Sloan (omitted) and Tyrell Fuimaono (1 game suspension).
The resulting changes are sweeping. Jack Bird returns and will play fullback, Cody Ramsey and Zac Lomax are back and will play in the centres, Mikaele Ravalawa returns on the wing, Corey Norman moves to five-eighth and Adam Clune replacing Hunt at halfback. Blake Lawrie and Josh McGuire are the new front row pairing, Jack de Belin returns at lock, Kaide Ellis is benched, and Jayden Sullivan & Poasa Faamausili drop to the reserves.
As referred to previously, these sides met in Round 15, just six rounds ago at a windy Wollongong, just days before the COVID-19 surge in NSW gripped the competition. St George Illawarra were 22-20 winners that day, with Ben Hunt and Corey Norman leading the Red V to a win on a confusing evening which saw now-injured Raiders rookie Xavier Savage make a controversial debut
Who to watch: Both these sides find themselves with makeshift fullbacks and halfbacks after a tumultuous season. The Raiders' fullback curse is yet to claim Jordan Rapana and after a handful of solid performances in the role could be key to helping the Green Machine break this game open. Sam Williams meanwhile has been thrust into the 'lime' light following the high-profile departure of namesake George Williams mid-season. While a capable fill-in, he's struggled with shifting sands alongside him at the scrumbase, with regular stand-off Jack Wighton in and out of the side with rep duty and injury.
Jack Bird is the latest man to don the Dragons' #1 jumper, with rookie Tyrell Sloan taken off the teamlist and Canterbury-bound Matt Dufty remaining in the reserves. Literally a Jack-of-all-trades, could Bird be the solution to the Dragons issues at the back? Elsewhere, the loss of Ben Hunt will be felt by Adam Clune, who will carry the pressure of guiding the Red V around the park on Friday evening. He's joined by five-eighth Corey Norman who had a - shall we say - below par performance in his brief stint as a centre last week. It's Clune's first starting gig since Round 6 - when the Dragons were still flying high on the NRL table.
The favourite: Canberra are solid favourites given the Dragons' last-start thumping.
My tip: The impact of the returning Dragons' cavalry shouldn't underestimated. St George Illawarra by 10.