Dragons v Raiders preview

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St George Illawarra Dragons v Canberra Raiders Sunday 4:05pm at WIN Stadium, Wollongong

Top 8 hopefuls face off in vital Wollongong battle.

This is a game that will have huge ramifications on the final make-up of the top eight come the end of the season. Both the Dragons and Raiders are amongst five teams (the others being Souths, the Roosters and Manly) that are currently jostling for the last two spots in the finals. Disregarding points for the bye, all five teams are level on competition points (Souths and Dragons with a game in hand though), and as such, games that any of the said five teams play against each other are, at this stage, more important than games against other opponents. Both the Dragons and Raiders are 2-1 against fellow members of the five so far this season, both scoring a close win against the Roosters and a 20-point victory over Souths, while the Raiders fell to Manly earlier in the year and the Dragons lost their original clash with the Rabbitohs. These results would indicate that these two sides are of similar quality and should produce a close matchup on Sunday.

St George Illawarra will draw huge confidence from their last start win over Souths. It was the best their attack has looked all season as they piled on 32 points in the opening half an hour against the 2021 Grand Finalists. It was the kind of performance demonstrated that they are more than capable of winning enough games from here on out to make the finals and potentially cause an upset or two in the early weeks.

In recent weeks the Raiders have showed that they have the ability to hang in there with teams a tier above them on the table in games against the Eels and Broncos, but also that they haven't fully shaken the tendency to give up leads in games they should have already wrapped up. Their most recent game against Newcastle was a prime example of this, with Canberra dominating possession in the first half but only having an 8-point lead to show for it. The fact that winning that match required individual brilliance from Hudson Young is an indictment on them. In good news for Canberra though, star five-eighth Jack Wighton is back from Covid, coming in for Matt Frawley. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad also returns, albeit via the bench, replacing injured utility James Schiller. The Dragons will roll out the same 17 that embarrassed South Sydney a fortnight ago.

It really cannot be overstated how important this game is for both sides. The Dragons are currently sitting in 8th spot, but a loss here could quickly derail their season. Their next five matches are against the Broncos, Roosters, Sea Eagles, Cowboys and Sharks, before a rematch against the Raiders. It's an extremely tough schedule, especially with every week being basically a must win with their ladder position. You get the feeling the Saints are aware of this with the intent they came out with against Souths. The challenge will not only be repeating it this week, but again and again against increasingly tougher opposition. Will they be able to rise to the occasions, starting this week against Canberra? Time will tell. If they do finish the season in the top 8, they will certainly have earnt it.

The Raiders are one of the more perplexing teams in the competition. When watching them, it is clear that there are still remnants of the fairytale 2019 outfit, but the inconsistency and frustration of the 2021 team rears it's ugly head way too often for them to be taken seriously as a contender yet. On their day, I genuinely believe they are capable of matching it with the competitions heavyweights, which is more than can be said of the Dragons, however it's simply too hard to trust them to win enough games between now and the finals to give themselves that opportunity.

Last meeting: Round 21 2021 - Raiders 20 Dragons 12

Who to watch: Zac Lomax, like many Dragons players, enjoyed his best outing of the season last round against the Rabbitohs. It was a welcome change for Lomax, who up to that point was having his most disappointing season since becoming a regular starter in 2019. The fact he wasn't even mentioned in origin conversations despite NSW's best two centre options succumbing to injury should tell you all you need to know. However, there is no doubt that when in form, Lomax is one of the best centres in the NRL, and he reminded everyone of that two Thursdays ago, finishing with the stats of one line-break assist, three tackle breaks, an offload and two try assists, one of which was an outstanding flick pass to Ravalawa close to the line. He will be matched up against Seb Kris and Jordan Rapana, who have each had their struggles defensively, so look for Lomax to make another statement with his performance on Sunday.

Xavier Savage is already without a doubt one of the flashiest players in the game with an outstanding highlight reel, but he is also an 11-game rookie who still has a lot to work on if he wants to become one of the games genuine superstars. The rocks and diamonds of Savage were on full display against the Knights. In the first half, he produced a miraculous effort in the air to leap over 2 or 3 Knights defenders and come down with the ball to score and give his side a 14-point lead. His second half was an unmitigated disaster though. In the 65th minute, Edrick Lee ran over the top of him like a speed bump to give Newcastle the lead, while his effort to try and keep a would-be 40/20 in the field of play would've almost certainly lost the game for the Raiders had Enari Tuala not knocked on afterwards. With CNK nearing a return to full fitness, Ricky Stuart can either go high risk/high reward and keep Savage as starting fullback in first grade, or stick with the known commodity in Charnze and allow Savage to continue growing as a player in NSW cup.

The favourite: After opening as a pick 'em, the Raiders have steamed in to 3.5 point favourites at the time of writing

My tip: The match itself has potential to be the game of the round. It's hard to see the Dragons laying an egg in front of what will no doubt be a packed WIN Stadium on Sunday afternoon, and the Raiders will be buoyed by the return of Jack Wighton. I can see the game being in the balance with 20 minutes to go, and from that point I trust Ben Hunt to get the job done for his team. Dragons by 6.

1. Cody Ramsey 2. Mathew Feagai 3. Moses Suli 4. Zac Lomax 5. Mikaele Ravalawa 6. Talatau Amone 7. Ben Hunt 8. Jack de Belin 9. Andrew McCullough 10. Blake Lawrie 11. Jack Bird 12. Jaydn Su'A 13. Tariq Sims 14. Moses Mbye 15. Francis Molo 16. Aaron Woods 17. Michael Molo 21. Jaiyden Hunt

1. Xavier Savage 2. Nick Cotric 3. Matthew Timoko 4. Sebastian Kris 5. Jordan Rapana 6. Jack Wighton 7. Jamal Fogarty 8. Josh Papali'i 9. Zac Woolford 10. Joseph Tapine 11. Hudson Young 12. Elliott Whitehead 15. Ryan Sutton 13. Adam Elliott 14. Tom Starling 16. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad 17. Corey Horsburgh 20. Trey Mooney

Referees: Peter Gough; Sideline Officials: Jon Stone, Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski; Video Referees: Grant Atkins;

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