WIZ: Dragons must fire or face wooden spoon

Gary Freeman Columnist

By , Gary Freeman is a Roar Expert

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    Benji Marshall's coming home. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Robb Cox)

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    We are back to a full premiership round after all the excitement of Origin 1 and there are some big games happening this weekend with a heck of a lot at stake.

    Tonight, I’m heading to the biggie at Brookvale Oval and there is much to like about what may transpire there, but I’ll get back to that a little later.

    The game with so much on the line is down at Wollongong on Saturday night – the Dragons versus Sharks.

    The Dragons must stand up in this one or the wooden spoon will become a distinct possibility for the joint venture club. Interim coach Paul McGregor has had a week to sort out some of the major problems with his team and if they can’t beat the depleted Sharks line-up they’ll struggle to finish in front of anyone this season.

    All eyes will be on the struggling St George-Illawarra forwards, even weaker with the suspension handed to one of their better performers, Mitch Rein. But they have simply got to get the job done against Cronulla and give their backs a fighting chance of posting some points.

    I haven’t written off Benji Marshall after just two games at the Dragons but I’d advise him to take a few deep breaths and pace himself as the game goes on. Show some patience, Benji. You don’t have to do it all.
    Gareth Widdop is an extremely good player capable of running the bulk of the attack.

    I’d like to see Marshall sit back and play the role of the experienced team player. He should ditch that flick pass – it isn’t working for him now – and pick the moments to put on something clever. He hasn’t the blinding speed that was one of his trademarks at the Tigers five or so years ago but he’s still got an astute football brain and an instinct to produce something out of the box.

    The Sharks have been absolutely hammered by injuries this year and I feel sorry for them. Hardly any club could remain competitive when their dressing room is looking like a war zone. To their credit, they keep turning up with plenty of ticker and they will relish the chance to chalk up a win down at the ‘Gong. I am expecting a game of great intensity that will go right down to the wire.

    The Wizard was studying the competition table earlier this week and thought back to the start of the year. Who honestly expected the likes of Penrith, Parramatta and Wests Tigers to be in the top eight after three months of NRL action?

    Not me, that’s for sure, but it’s terrific to have some new faces in the top echelon and you can sense the excitement levels rising in these rugby league heartlands.

    All three clubs look to be climbing back to prominence with good, balanced rosters and excellent coaching.
    The Panthers smashed the Eels (minus superstar Jarryd Hayne) at their last start with young winger Josh Mansour showing everyone he is ready for Origin football. I think he richly deserves to win Blues selection next week.

    And that brings me back to Friday night’s battle at Brookvale. What a contest this will be. Aside from the cat and mouse games between coaches Geoff Toovey and Des Hasler, there are personal duels that simply cannot be missed.

    At the scrum base, we’ve got Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran up against the Bulldogs’ Origin pairing of Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds. Who gets the better of this tussle will win the game. There’s Justin Horo versus Tony Williams, Jamie Lyon versus Krisnan Inu and Michael Ennis versus Matt Ballin to also whet the appetite.

    If NSW warrior Anthony Watmough plays, we’ll have to salute a guy who continues to beat a never-ending battle with injuries.

    I’ll be on duty in the ABC radio commentary box and I’ve told the team I probably won’t need a seat. When you attend a game as exciting and colourful as this one, you’re on your feet more often than not.

    Gary Freeman
    Gary Freeman

    Gary 'Wiz' Freeman is one of the great halfbacks in New Zealand rugby league history. Now an outspoken and popular media personality, he joined The Roar in 2012 as an expert rugby league columnist.