Round 18: Roosters v Dragons preview
Pivotal Matchup Between Top Eight Hopefuls on Central Coast
2022 has certainly been a season of surprises, one of the most prominent being pre-season heavyweights the Sydney Roosters failing to fire a real shot in the first 17 rounds of competition. The fact that it isn't a stretch to say a Round 18 loss to the St George Illawarra Dragons would end their finals aspirations tells you all you need to know.
As for the Dragons, you'd have to grade their season as a pass mark so far. They are only outside of the top eight on for and against and can put some real distance between themselves and the Roosters/Raiders with an upset win on Saturday afternoon. Much of the credit has to go to Ben Hunt, with the Dally M leader basically carrying the Red V on his back so far.
His importance was magnified in his absence, with the Dragons laying an egg in an otherwise winnable game against the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium. It was their fifth tackle options that let them down, squandering multiple opportunities by gifting Brisbane seven tackle sets on various occasions.
As for the Roosters, it's not outrageous to say that we saw them finally come close to their best in an 8 point loss against the Panthers in Penrith. They were leading the game until the 63rd minute against the runaway favourites to take out the competition, and were doing so whilst not being at full strength, with enforcer JWH and leader Luke Keary both missing through injury. It's little consolation however - the tricolours sit at 7 wins and 9 losses and can't really afford to drop any more games cheaply like we have seen ad nauseum in 2022.
What happens in this specific matchup is anyone's guess. The Roosters are favourites, and rightly so as their ceiling is much higher, but they've proven to be unreliable at the best of times and the Dragons are a team that can take advantage of opposition who are off their game, as evidenced by their first half demolition of Souths about 3 weeks ago.
Another factor to take into account is the State of Origin decider, which may have already been played by the time you read this. The Roosters have four players taking part (Tedesco, Tupou, Crichton and Collins), while the Dragons' team carry Ben Hunt is playing the physical number 9 position. Injuries are a major factor, and they could rear their ugly head on Wednesday night, having a severe impact on this calsh. Let's hope it isn't the case.
In team news, underperforming centre Paul Momirovski has controversially been recalled to the right side of the field, allowing Joseph Manu to stay in the halves amid Luke Keary's absence. Sam Verrills is back into the starting side with Connor Watson retaining the bench in the utility role, meaning Drew Hutchison drops back to 18th man. Sitili Tupouniua returns to the second row, pushing Nat Butcher to the bench, while Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is back in for Daniel Suluka-Fifita, who has joined Souths.
For the Dragons, Mikaele Ravalwa has injured his hamstring and is out for 8-10 weeks, to be replaced by Tautau Moga, who is up against the club he made his debut for a decade ago. Ben Hunt is back, pushing Jayden Sullivan to the reserves, while Tariq Sims is out due to suspension, with Jack De Belin taking his place as lock forward. Aaron Woods is also back via the interchange bench.
Who to watch: Joseph Manu staked his claims to be a long term member of the Roosters spine with his performance against the Panthers, with James Tedesco in a news corp article saying that he is the long term five-eighth at the club. Manu ran 17 times for 160 metres against Penrith, recording 14 tackle breaks, a try assist and a line break assist along with 2 offloads. It came after he ran for over 400 metres for New Zealand as fullback in their test match against Tonga, amidst a whole bunch of other mind blowing stats I won't bother listing here. To quote the channel nine/fox sports commentary team, he really is a footballer, and has proven he will excel almost anywhere he plays. It begs the question whether he is wasted in a low involvement position like centre, one that many Roosters power-brokers will be pondering. With another standout performance on Saturday, he may just force coach Robinson's hand.
For the Dragons, Cody Ramsey has unexpectedly emerged as the clear option as the Dragons fullback going forward, with multiple stellar performances in the custodian role in recent weeks. In terms of the eye test, he is the most dynamic player on the Dragons' roster, consistently turning half chances into threatening line breaks and assisting/scoring tries in the process. At only 22, Ramsey is all upside. Despite the heavy loss at the hands of the Broncos, he proved to be a shining light, running 11 times for 145 metres and making 2 line breaks, 6 tackle breaks and scoring two tries. Considering Ramsey likes to attack the outside backs of the opposition with his pace, look for Paul Momirovski to once again be exposed, leading to a Dragons try on the weekend.
My tip: Obviously anything could happen, as evidenced by the Dragons 14-12 boilover win against the Chooks earlier this year on ANZAC Day, but considering this is basically a must win for the Roosters, you have to think that they'll be up for it, despite their poor historical record on the Central Coast. Roosters by 10.