ANZAC Day Clash Preview: St George-Illawarra Dragons vs Sydney Roosters

We typically like to banter in the intros of these previews. I rip the opposition team, their fans and the region they represent despite having a vantage point of one Roosters win, hoping opposing fans have forgotten all about it by the time the end of the game arrives. And the St George-Illawarra Dragons (emphasis on Illawarra) this year are eminently rippable: they score less than most eunuchs and they’ve won 12 fewer titles than the Chooks.

But Anzac Day is less about the banter and more about the pomp, the occasion and the chance to remember. Footy is the merely the sideshow.

We go to the dawn service. We play two-up all day. We have a drink and hold up our cups on more than one occasion to cheers the nearest digger. We share a moment of silence and are moved by the Last Post.

Anzac Day, and the day that both clubs put on to remember the fallen and those in combat, makes us realise that the game soon after is just that. A game. Not life or death. The result, win or lose, doesn’t really matter.

Monday’s game is special because, for once, it’s not all about the game.

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Source: Twitter.

Sydney Roosters

It’s been touted that Jared Waerea-Hargreaves — sidelined since August last year — and Boyd Cordner would both be named to play the Anzac Day clash versus the Dragons, but neither made the Tuesday lists… though we should all watch this space. The next time the Roosters play a game in the same form as the team they named on Tuesday will be the first time since Round One. I’m expecting at least Boyd Cordner this week, if not the big fella — though my mail from “The Source” was to expect a return by Round 10 at the earliest (although that mail did come in a few weeks ago).

For whatever this is worth, Boyd, Pearce and JWH all trained together in a session that was shown on Jared’s Instagram… and they looked goooooood.

Connor Watson has been named in the 17 after his debut last week, with Abraham Papalii 18th man. Meanwhile it’s Mitch Aubusson’s 200th game and Roosters Radio interviewed him this week on the milestone and what it means to play on Anzac Day — it’s well worth a listen.

1 Latrell Mitchell; 2 Daniel Tupou; 3 Brendan Elliot; 4 Blake Ferguson; 5 Shaun Kenny-Dowall; 6 Jayden Nikorima; 7 Jackson Hastings; 8 Sam Moa; 9 Jake Friend (c); 10 Dylan Napa; 11 Mitchell Aubusson; 12 Aidan Guerra; 13 Isaac Liu. Interchange: 14 Kane Evans; 15 Mitchell Frei; 16 Eloni Vunakece; 17 Connor Watson; 18 Abraham Papalii.

The Roosters aren’t the only team with issues on their right edge defence, it seems. The Dragons play a compressed defence and leave that left wing wide open. This play was just a glaring stuff-up in which the since-released Peter Mata’utia comes in far too deep thanks to his inexperienced inside man Euan Aitken over-capitalising:

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But that’s hardly an isolated incident. Just last week, following a Titans offload Kalifa Faifai Loa — who is the wing on the right edge defence this week — comes in waaaaaay too deep and again opens up the wing, for this:

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Two different right-side wingers, and both way too far in. Now, getting the ball out there would imply the Roosters can do two things: throw a cutout, and go left. They don’t do either very well, and certainly not together. But that wing is open and you could see some lob kicks from Jackson Hastings to get that ball to Tupou, like he did against the Bunnies:

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Additionally, the Roosters could do worse than going right and the shirty-grabby defence of Gareth Widdop on the left-edge defence. Ben Hunt’s strength is running the ball, sure, but this is soft-sauce from Widdop on a much smaller man:

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Couldn’t Ferguson take advantage of that as he did against Jamie Soward last week? Per NRL.com Widdop’s averaging nearly four misses a game and the Roosters would be irresponsible not to target him with Ferguson or someone like Mitch Aubusson.

St George-Illawarra Dragons

You know the Dragons aren’t going well when a win against the Titans is considered an upset, and when they head into a game versus a 1-6 team as underdogs. But the Dragons have really struggled to score points this year, coming up with two lopsided donuts and having not won a game when Benji Marshall suits up — though the Kiwi halfback has not been named after missing last week’s win, with Josh McCrone again named to start.

Regardless, they have two more wins than the Roosters have been able to muster, and the Anzac Day clash is always an event in which each side typically turns up to put on a show.

1 Josh Dugan; 2 Kalifa Faifai Loa; 3 Euan Aitken; 4 Timoteo Lafai; 5 Jason Nightingale; 6 Gareth Widdop; 7 Josh McCrone; 8 Leeson Ah Mau; 9 Mitch Rein; 10 Mike Cooper; 11 Tyson Frizell; 12 Joel Thompson; 13 Jack De Belin. Interchange: 14 Russell Packer; 15 Will Matthews; 16 Dunamis Lui; 17 Siliva Havili.

The Dragons have really struggled to get to the line this year, or even break through a defensive one. The have two games in which they were held to nil, they’re second last in line breaks (just 15 in seven games this year, ahead of only the Knights’  14), they’ve made the most errors with 76, and scored just nine tries all year at just over one per game. By comparison the Roosters — who have also struggled to score this year — have scored 20 tries with 25 line breaks and three fewer errors despite winning two fewer games. It’s further proof that position on the ladder is no indication of form.

Regardless, the Dragons’ best bet would be to spin it left and out to their pairing of Tim Lafai and Jason Nightingale, the latter of whom is a 26 Rounds fave even as he passes his prime. The Roosters have right edge defensive issues and Nightingale is a phenomenal finisher, and also gives the happiest haka:

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Still makes me laugh. Source: Twitter.

Amazingly he’s their leading try-scorer with two this year. For comparion’s sake, Charlie Bucket was poor as shit and managed to score as many chocolate bars while hunting for a Golden Ticket as Nightingale’s scored tries, despite every other meal consisting of cabbage water and the occasional piece of bread.

But this is less Nightingale’s fault and more the fault of a piss-poor attacking structure that averaged under a try per game prior to their three-try “explosion” last week.

And Widdop, for all his struggles this year (27 missed tackles to go with just the one try and three try assists) is still dangerous near the line. Against a decently-set defence that covered his outside options well, he targets a forward and is able to use footwork to get his way through the line:

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Prediction?

The Roosters’ season starts now. Well, it should have started last week versus the Panthers, but they should win this game, their next one (Knights) and potentially the one after that (Titans) to climb to 4-6 before a tough game against a hit-and-miss Bulldogs squad, which could go either way pending their form over the next few rounds. They’ll have all bar Siosiua Taukeiaho back on deck by then and the Roosters can, in theory, make a run at a finals berth eif everything breaks their way.

But the players should leave the looking ahead to us at 26 Rounds and the rest of us Roosters fans. For now, they need to concentrate on a very winnable game against a very beatable Dragons squad on quite easily the best non-GF day of the year to watch rugby league. The Merge, despite having two more wins than the luckless Chooks, have been awful in attack this year and while their defence has been comparatively solid, there are still attackable holes all over the park that the Roosters should exploit. Meanwhile, the Roosters’ improved defence — even accounting for their right-side worries — should be able to account for a squad with nothing in attack.

So 26 Rounds is going out on a limb here: Roosters to win… by 13+.

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