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Unexpected heavyweights face off in unlikely anticipated clash
At the beginning of 2018 the scheduling of an early season match between two of last season's biggest disappointments appeared to be an uncontroversial choice for the dreaded Friday 6pm fixture. With the Warriors rounding out last year with a nine-match run of enduring mediocrity and the Dragons producing an unfathomable late season capitulation having set the pace during the opening months of the competition, the prospect of a top of the table fixture between these two teams appeared as likely as trickle-down economics resulting in an equitable distribution of wealth.
Remaining at Mt. Smart Stadium for the third consecutive week following contrasting showings against North Queensland and Brisbane, the Warriors will be hoping to make amends in front of their home supporters as they oppose the competition frontrunners. Holding a dismal record against the joint venture with a mere 5 wins from 26 meetings, the Dragons have proven to be a notoriously difficult prospect for the Warriors to contend with, a fact that extends back to the origins of the club in which the then Auckland Warriors managed a single win over St. George, while faring slightly above average over Illawarra. Making minimal changes to the squad that suffered their first loss of the season at the hands of the Broncos last Saturday, coach Stephen Kearney has elevated former captain Simon Mannering into a star-studded backrow to replace the injured Leivaha Pulu, while despite naming Solomone Kata in the centres, it appears likely that former Wigan premiership winner Anthony Gelling will make his first start in the NRL after spending the past three weeks coming off the bench in the late stages of matches. In addition to the omissions of Kata and Pulu, prop Albert Vete will make his first appearance in first grade since July last season ahead of Chris Satae and Isaiah Papali'i who have been included as part of the extended squad for Friday's match.
As the only unbeaten team after six weeks of the competition, the adulation afforded to St. George Illawarra's strong start to the season is not an uncommon occurrence in recent times, but despite notable examples of being unable to remain dominant across the duration of 24 home-and-away matches, the development of the Dragons from the collapse of last year has pundits feeling optimistic about the clubs' fortunes in 2018. Often criticised for lacking attacking prowess, the Dragons have identified the need to keep the scoreboard turning by boasting the best offensive record in the league with an average of 32 points per match, while retaining a strong defensive resolve second only to the Tigers. Aided strongly by the high-profile recruitment of Ben Hunt and James Graham, the side has unearthed an attacking dynamo in fullback Matt Dufty whose raw speed has already provided countless highlights akin to the breakthrough of Brett Morris a decade ago. Keeping the faith with the same squad that has served the Dragons so well over the first quarter of 2018, Friday's clash will hold special significance for captain Gareth Widdop who will celebrate his 100th appearance for the club since shifting from Melbourne in 2014, joining the exclusive ranks of only 23 other players to achieve the feat of featuring in a century of matches for the joint venture.
Last meeting: Round 11 2017 - Warriors 14 Dragons 30
Who to watch: In a side full of much-improved players, one of the major benefactors of the Warriors newfound confidence has been Ken Maumalo. Having delivered glimpses of promise since debuting in 2015, the Samoan international has taken a proactive approach towards eliminating costly errors from his game, while retaining a strong work ethic with the ball that has seen him average in excess of 150 metres per game over the past 18 months. Tasked with the responsibility of filling the void left by the man dubbed ‘The Beast', the 23-year-old winger has yet to replicate the try-scoring prowess that endeared Manu Vatuvei across the rugby league spectrum, however in forging his own path alongside the collective success of the team as a whole, Maumalo may experience a level of success that alluded Vatuvei over the course of his time in the NRL. As one of many players indicative of the Warriors plight over recent years, Maumalo's performance in what is unquestionably the biggest domestic fixture of his career may well prove to be a pivotal point in determining whether the Warriors are the real deal in 2018.
Poached from Cronulla six years ago under the premise of becoming a regular first grader, Tyson Frizell has proven to be one of the finest purchases made by St. George Illawarra in turning unknown potential into fully realised talent. Developing into one of the form forwards of the game with his bruising forcefulness and physicality, the 26-year-old has thrived on the right edge for the Dragons this season, while having the versatility to charge with no thoughts of self-preservation in the middle when called upon at representative level. Having been one of NSW best performers since being elevated to higher honours two years ago, Frizell will be eager to consolidate his position in the Blues line-up by showing his clout as a game-breaking player in a match of such high importance and likely intensity. As part of a formidable forward pack that has laid the foundation for all the success experienced by the Red V in 2018, Frizell may not have received the acclaim afforded to some of his teammates, but with his actions on the field it is irrefutable to see how valuable he is to the continuing success of the Dragons on Friday night and into the future.
The favourite: As the only side yet to record a loss in 2018, the Dragons are expected to continue their winning ways across the ditch.
My tip: Remaining resolute in defence while posting points with vigour rarely sighted in recent times, the Dragons have produced an accomplished start to the year that should continue despite the challenge posed by the much-improved Warriors. Dragons by 7.
1. Roger Tuivasa-sheck 2. David Fusitua 3. Peta Hiku 17. Anthony Gelling 5. Ken Maumalo 6. Blake Green 20. Mason Lino 8. Bunty Afoa 9. Issac Luke 10. Agnatius Paasi 11. Simon Mannering 12. Tohu Harris 13. Adam Blair 14. Jazz Tevaga 15. Sam Lisone 16. Albert Vete 21. Isaiah Papalii
1. Matthew Dufty 2. Nene Macdonald 3. Euan Aitken 4. Timoteo Lafai 5. Jason Nightingale 6. Gareth Widdop 7. Ben Hunt 8. James Graham 9. Cameron McInnes 10. Paul Vaughan 11. Tyson Frizell 12. Tariq Sims 13. Jack de Belin 14. Jeremy Latimore 15. Kurt Mann 16. Leeson Ah Mau 17. Hame Sele
Referees: Ben Cummins, Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials: Kasey Badger, Jeff Younis; Video Referees: Jared Maxwell, Ben Galea;