They may be playing the last placed Eels, but this weekend’s game shapes as one of the biggest in the Dragons’ season. I won’t cover old ground by going on about their late season slide, but I will say this: it is hugely concerning that it continues to happen on a yearly basis.
If they go down to the Eels this weekend, what are we to make of their finals hopes?
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that it would rule them out of making the top four. And, let’s be honest, if they can’t beat the Eels they really don’t have a hope of progressing beyond the first weekend of finals.
If they win, and win convincingly, the sky is the limit. Their run into the finals is far from a difficult one so you’d expect that if they get past the Eels this weekend, they will breeze past the Tigers, Bulldogs and Knights thereafter.
Last week’s loss to the Warriors, while disappointing, should not kill the hopes and dreams of the Dragons’ faithful. From what I saw in that game, the Dragons can turn their season around by cutting teams up through the middle of the field with their big pack as they did early in the season. There is quite obviously some fatigue still lingering from Origin for De Belin, Frizell and the likes, but as we’ve seen time and time again, the Dragons don’t beat sides by playing sideways; they beat sides by letting their forwards cart the ball up through the middle of the ruck.
If they can achieve this, Hunt and Widdop will run riot as opposition packs begin to tire.
The Eels might have nothing to lose on Saturday night, but they are also one fast start away from losing the plot altogether. By this I mean that if the Dragons come out with the same intensity as they did in the Anzac Day clash against the Roosters, or against the Titans in Toowoomba, the weary Eels will leak points.
It is also important that the Dragons’ outside backs find some form again. The edges have been off in both attack and defence in recent weeks and the loss of Nene Macdonald has been felt across the board. Pereira has shown glimpses of what he can bring to the table in first grade in Macdonald’s absence but he has, at times, looked out of his depth when defending close to the line.
If Aitken can find the form that put him in the Origin conversation a few months back with Macdonald returning, the Dragons will find more points. And if there is one thing the Dragons need to do more of right now, it is score points.
As it stands, the Panthers are one win away from replacing the Dragons in the Qualifying Finals. No team wants to be a part of sudden death football at the business end, and the Dragons track record in knock-out matches hasn’t been overly flash in recent years. That loss to the Bulldogs in the 2015 Elimination Final still gives me nightmares, as does their loss to the same opposition at the same venue in the final round last season.
Nightingale and Lafai have also struggled in recent weeks. Hopefully the side will lift to send Nightingale out on a high note now that he has announced his retirement. He has been a terrific servant of the club, and while his recent performances haven’t been up to his usual high standards, he still has it in him to see the Dragons through to the top four.
As for Lafai, I’d like to see him return to what he was doing for the Bulldogs when he was at his best: running straight, hard lines like an edge backrower. Too often these days he looks for the miracle pass or blindside raid instead of playing the percentages.
I still remember some of the tries he scored for the Bulldogs back in 2014 and 2015 when he was at the peak of his powers. On a number of occasions back then he would carry three defenders on his back from ten meters out to score a try. His strength is his biggest asset. His performance against the Warriors in New Zealand last year was a testament to this. If he finds this form again, you feel the try tally of his wing partner will also increase.
As I said, the Dragons may be playing Parramatta – a side that has struggled to put a complete performance together this season – but it still feels like a danger game. We must also not forget that the Dragons’ record at ANZ in these kind of games is far from flattering.
Will they keep hold of fourth position this weekend, or will the Panthers turn around a tumultuous week off the field and force them down the table?
A great deal depends on the type of platform the forwards lay for the halves. The Widdop and Hunt of the Broncos, Titans, Sharks and Roosters clashes back at the start of the year are the Widdop and Hunt capable of taking the Dragons to the brink of premiership glory. But only when the forwards fire are these two, in combination with Dufty, allowed to ball play with freedom.