Preview: Week 1.

The first Bulldogs team for season 2014 has been announced (listed and analysed here), meaning only one thing: a new season is finally upon us, and the first taste of meaningful on-field action is just around the corner.

The Bulldogs have been lucky enough to draw their home opener in Week 1, meaning they get to open the season at their home ground. Their opponents? The Brisbane Broncos, already a challenge within the normative confines of a contest between two good football teams. But there is one massive storyline that cannot (and will not) be overlooked: Ben Barba’s return to ANZ Stadium, the place his meteoric rise from small, dynamic Fullback to NRL superstar unfolded. But for the first time in his relatively short yet already illustrious career, he won’t be wearing a Bulldogs jersey.

Here’s what to watch for in Week 1.

  • Barba, from Bulldog to Bronco: Surely still a tough pill for Bulldogs faithful to swallow, Ben Barba now hones his craft with another team, the Brisbane Broncos. It will be interesting to see if he gets any extra attention from his old teammates, and just what Des Hasler will concoct, if anything, to best neutralise Barba’s brilliance. The treatment by his former home crowd will also be worth monitoring. Will they withhold their boos in respect for his ability and contributions to the club, or will they admonish him as just another player who thought the grass was greener elsewhere?
  • Replacing Barba: Focusing on the Bulldogs’ side of Barba’s absence, who would best replace him on the field? Head Coach Des Hasler has put in an early vote of confidence for veteran Winger Sam Perrett, naming him in the #1 jersey for the season opener. In my opinion, Perrett’s best work comes on the Wing. However he also performed admirably in replacing Barba last year and was a steady presence in the Fullback role.
  • Stars missing in action: There were four notable omissions to the game day roster; Sam Kasiano, Krisnan Inu, Greg Eastwood and Tim Lafai. Missing any one of them would be a blow to the team. That effect is only compounded by missing them all at once. Their absence will test the depth of the club, but also give those tasked with replacing them a chance to prove themselves. Both Kasiano and Eastwood provide a significant boost in attack, not only in terms of metres gained but also their propensity to offload and ignite second-phase play. Lafai and Inu have also proven to be reliable threats on the edges of the field, and the teams potency in attack is weakened without them.
  • Debuts, dynamic or disastrous?: Both Centre Chase Stanley and reserve Second-Rower Pat O’Hanlon make their debut for the team, whilst Winger Corey Thompson makes his NRL debut. The combination of new faces in the side and the aforementioned loss of starting caliber players to injury will test the cohesion of the playing group, especially in defense.
  • Co-captincy cohesion: The Bulldogs have opted for co-captains this season as opposed to the traditional singular leading figure. Both Michael Ennis and Frank Pritchard have had the honour bestowed upon them, and according to Pritchard, the team is more united than in years past. Let’s see how the unusual leadership dynamic plays out on the field.
  • Atmosphere: The Bulldogs open the season at their home ground. Traditionally, opening home games for the Bulldogs in Sydney have delivered sizable, energetic crowds. After a disappointing season according to the lofty expectations the Bulldogs have imposed upon themselves since acquiring Des Hasler as Head Coach, it will be interesting to see how the fans approach the new season. However, considering the Barba dynamics at play, the tradition of good opening crowds should continue.
  • New Rules, same game?: From more of a league-wide perspective, the NRL has introduced quite a few rule changes that will impact the way games are played in various ways. Here are the main ones to look out for (full list here):
    • 20 metre restarts will now begin from zero tackle, meaning the team restarting play has an extra play to get out of their own end. This will hopefully put some pressure on the accuracy and employment of the attacking kicking game, particularly in the redzone (attacking 20 metres) and encourage teams to take more calculated risks with the football as a set is concluding in an attacking position, such as keeping the ball in hand on last tackle as opposed to an attacking kick. Ideally, this should lead to more exciting football and less instances of 20 metre restarts.
    • Defensively, the late diving tackle at a players legs has been outlawed. What has become known as the ‘cannonball’ tackle is now illegal, and will result in a penalty. This rule has been long overdue as the tackle in question presents an unnecessary, and most importantly, preventable danger to player safety. There are a multitude of way to take down an attacking player legally and with good technique. Diving hard and fast at a players legs when they are already in the grasp of a tackle carries with it a significant risk of career threatening injury (E.g. ACL damage in the knee) that is too great to ignore.  The play is borderline dirty and has no place in the game.
    • A successful 40/20 attempt will now result in a tap-restart rather than a scrum. It seems as though the scrum is slowly being eradicated from the game. Scrums serve no technical purpose and achieve nothing but wasted time. Their removal can only be a good thing, if only by increasing the amount of actual football played.
    • Lastly, within the final 5 minutes of each half of play, the game-clock will stop following every conversion or penalty kick at goal, and will not begin again until the following kickoff to restart play.  This should enhance the excitement factor towards the end of close games, particularly for teams attempting a late comeback.

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