The Bulldogs (6-2) made it 5 wins in a row against the Knights (2-6) on Saturday night, prevailing victorious from what was admittedly a scrappy affair. It may not have been another 1 point nail-biter, but this one too went down to the wire. Here are the ups & downs:
- Moses debuts: For those who have followed the Bulldogs closely over the past few years, the high opinions of young player Moses Mbye have been apparent. It’s now quite easy to see why. Des Hasler has named him on the extended bench every week this season, only to see him normally omitted as the ’18th man’. He made his NRL debut against the Knights, and the best way to describe his performance is solid. He ran hard, he made sound decisions and proved a capable defender.
However, the most impressive part of his debut? The fact he played out of position. Mbye has a lot of experience in the halves, particularly at Halfback. The skillset between the positions is markedly different. For example, compare the role and abilities of current Halfback Trent Hodkinson and Centre Josh Morris. Their respective positions have vastly different demands, yet Mbye handled his out of position debut with aplomb, a testament to his ability as an overall football player.
On a side note – in the race to secure his long term future, the Bulldogs edged out the Newcastle Knights to attain his signature earlier this year prior to the start of the season. The Knights ironically ended up his debut opposition.
- Jackson shining: In the wake of the loss of Frank Pritchard, I surmised that it would take the effort of many rather than just one replacement to account for the productivity usually accounted for by Pritchard. The likes of Kasiano, Williams and Eastwood have been stellar in doing so, and all deserve a mention here for their efforts.
However perhaps the most impressive part of the replacing-Frank equation has been Josh Jackson. For a somewhat undersized Second-Rower, he gets through a mountain of work and looks impressive doing so. He pops up all over the field and seems to always be around the ball, be it in attack or defense. He runs hard lines in attack and is deceptively quick on his feet, whilst also possessing above average ball skills. In defense, I’m hard pressed to find someone who shows more, particularly out of marker than Jackson does. He’s constantly near the top of the stat sheet in terms of tackles and hit-ups and is the type of workhorse player any team would be lucky to have. He’s consistently working hard, and I think it’s about time he loses his status as underrated. His play has been superb and his effort even moreso.
- Classy Bulldogs: Most are by now aware of the unfortunate situation that Alex McKinnon has been enduring since a fateful tackle gone wrong against the Melbourne Storm. This week, he made his first public appearance at an NRL game since that tragic on-field accident, and the results were heart warming. It was truly great to see. As were the efforts of the Bulldogs organisation top to bottom.
The club’s officials made a concerted effort to be a part of whatever solution they could for Alex, dedicating the day to him under the catch cry ‘Rise for Alex’ that has emerged from the tragedy. For the game, the #16, McKinnon’s jersey number, was retired and not worn for the clash as a mark of respect. The club cheerleaders, the Sapphires, teamed with mental health awareness initiative Beyond Blue to collect donations for McKinnon as fans entered the stadium. Cards of support were also available for fans to sign which would later be given to Alex. Together, the fans, along with significant donations from the Canterbury Leagues Club and major sponsor Jaycar, $25, 000 was raised. Even the official supporter group of the Bulldogs, the Bulldogs Army, made and held signs of support for Alex. And in a particularly touching moment, mid0way through the first half, footage of McKinnon watching the game was shown on the in-stadium screen, and the entire Bulldogs home crowd responded with a strong showing of cheers and applause.
The latest reports for McKinnon seem to suggest he has made a steady improvement in the movement of his extremities. I’m sure I speak for everybody in wishing him nothing but a continuation along that trend as his recovery continues. All the best, Alex, and well done to the Bulldogs for going out of their way to be a part of his journey. Very classy move by the organisaiton.
- Hodkinson a man of many talents: All the talk recently has been about his kicking prowess, especially in big moments. Rightly so as his efforts in that category have been nothing short of phenomenal. But Hodkinson also excels in another area: tackling. He has long been one of best defenders in the game, and not just in light of his relatively small size and attack oriented position. He is a talented tackler full stop, and is an especially impressive cover defender. A very underrated skill for a long too underrated player. He is far more than just a goal-kicker, but an impressive all around Halfback as well, in much the same way former Bulldog and goal-kicker Hazem El Masri was an incredulously underrated Winger and overall Football player and not merely an immensely talented goal-kicker.
- Temper expectations, please: Yes, the team has made history winning more 1 point games than any other in history, is on a five game winning streak and now sits in first place in the NRL. But such success should not breed complacency, as there are undeniable flaws with this Football team. For weeks, the propensity for the team to seem disorganised and stagnant in attack, particularly within the middle period (roughly minutes 20-60) of games has been highlighted as a worry.
Despite the wins, this trend of long periods of stasis and sloppy play has continued. Wrong players receiving the ball on last tackle. Poor 5th tackle options and a below average kicking game, particularly from Reynolds. Players essentially looking ‘lost’ at times. Poor execution with many passes missing intended targets and hitting the ground. Entire sets where players look confused. Some of these were poor decisions on a player to player basis, but most of these issues highlight a lack of assertiveness, at least consistently, from those bestowed with the burden of boring yet essential aspects of the game like organisition and communication – Reynolds, Hodkinson and to a lesser extent, Michael Ennis.
Games don’t have to be as close as they have been as of late. In all fairness, if the Bulldogs were clear-cut competition heavyweights, they would have beaten the 15th (second last) placed Knights far more convincingly. They’re winning, which at the end of the day is of course what counts, but they are by no means dominating. If any of the teams beaten by 1 point managed to score 2 more points, they are all losses. The NRL is close and unpredictable, especially in the top half of the competition. The gritty games have been without a doubt impressive, but are to be taken in context. This team has played incredibly well these past few weeks, but are by no means perfect, and the aforementioned flaws could become crucial as the season progresses.
- Losing team again had an advantage: For the second consecutive week, there was a notable discrepancy worth highlighting between the two teams. Against Souths last week, it had to do with attacking identity. This week, the difference exists on the defensive side of the ball. As was surely a ploy from the mind of Newcastle Head Coach Wayne Bennett, the Knights had a noticeably quick defensive line-speed – meaning that once onside, their defensive players were quick to advance from the referee’s 10 metre mark towards the Bulldogs attack. The tactic seemed to work, as the Bulldogs appeared somewhat stunned and struggled to gain metres early on. This defensive tactic by the Knights however also highlighted and likely exacerbated a long-time Bulldogs defensive deficiency under Des Hasler – their lack of line speed. More often than not, the line-speed of the Bulldogs has been slow and poor, gifting opposing teams plenty of metres in attack. Part of me wonders whether this is part of a ‘bend but don’t break’ philosophy by Hasler in which the team will allow some metres to be given up with more energy devoted to making the right decisions and putting in extra efforts when they need to in the redzone. This could indeed be a part of Hasler’s ‘up and in’ style of defense where the line slightly compresses toward the middle of the field, leaving the edges slightly exposed on the wings and relies on quick decision by outside defenders to nullify that weakness by closing quickly on players with the ball once the attack approaches the edges of the field. At the end of the day, only Hasler and the players truly know.
- Missed tackles: The Bulldogs are currently branded the best defensive team in the NRL, and rightly so. That doesn’t mean their defense hasn’t been without fault however, and this game saw them miss 39 tackles. The Knights only missed 23. Efforts like that make games more difficult than they need to be. That number is too high and will need to be improved as the season moves forward.
Play of the game: Kasiano Try – The game saw a rare sight on Saturday night: the two biggest players on the field in a 2 on 1 situation against the opposing Fullback. The Bulldogs were on the edge of the Knights’ red zone with the ball, and Hodkinson attacked the line with two giants in Sam Kasiano and Tony Williams outside him. Both Kasiano and Williams attacked the gap in the defensive line either side of Knights defender Beau Scott. With the prospect of two huge runners potentially getting the ball, Scott had to make a quick decision to commit to one of them if he was a chance of making the tackle if either received the ball. Hodkinson fired a pass across the chest of Kasiano, cutting him out, and into the arms or Williams. Stuck in two minds about who to commit to, Scott never contacted either of them as Williams broke the defensive line. Kasiano read the play perfectly and pushed up on the inside of Williams despite not getting the ball, and his vision was rewarded. As Williams approached Newcastle Fullback Darius Boyd at speed with the Tryline in sight, Williams ran slightly away from Boyd, aware of the fact Kasiano loomed in support. Once Boyd had committed enough to the imposing sight of Williams charging at the Tryline, he popped a deft pass inside to Kasiano, who caught the ball and scored the Try untouched. Phenomenal choice of pass by Hodkinson and isolation of Scott, great Linebreak by Williams finished off with a great decision to pass the ball to Kasiano who did equally as well as anybody in the play to stay alive in support despite initially acting as a decoy. Solid Football all around.
The final game winning Try is also worthy of mention here, not just for its importance in the outcome, but the athleticism of Corey Thompson to jump high and bat the ball backwards where Aiden Tolman was doing incredibly well to be supporting the attacking kick at the back end of yet another busy game from the Prop. He managed to get to the loose ball, bobble it upwards and regather it with control before it hit the ground to score the Try. Great efforts from both Thompson and Tolman when the Bulldogs needed to score.
Stat of the game: Sam Perrett – 212 metres gained. Perrett was the only player to surpass 200 metres, highlighted by a big gain from a scrum in the first half. He turned in another solid overall performance and it was good to see some uncharacteristic errors last week didn’t hurt his confidence going forward.
Special mention: Unfortunately, my family endured a great loss this weekend. On Sunday afternoon, my great grandfather passed away. He was a kind, gentle old soul who lived a full and happy life. His sincerity, indomitable kindness, humility and passion for the little things will leave never me, nor will the vivid memories of visiting with him as a child growing up. The hours spent with him in his garden are innumerable. We share the same Birthday, and we always marked the occasion by travelling down to Mittagong from Sydney to celebrate together.
Towards the end of his life, he was immensely proud of his garden. To sum him up succinctly, he was passionate about what he enjoyed, and he loved his gardening. So much so, his sprawling oasis of flora often left passers by stopping and staring, taking a moment to soak in the beauty. Being the person he was, my great grandfather would always come up to these people, have a chat with them, invite them inside for a coffee or tea and of course, a tour of his pride and joy – the garden.
The only other thing I can recall rivaling the joy and passion he had for his garden? The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. Every time we went to see him, he and my Mother would trade memories of afternoons spent at Belmore Oval watching the Bulldogs (or the Berries as they were known in his heyday) like they were all that mattered. Every conversation between he and I started the same way. He’d ask how I was, and he’d ask what I thought about how the Bulldogs were going, not necessarily always in that order.
Not only has my family lost a great man that I am proud and privileged to have had in my life, the Bulldogs have lost a truly passionate supporter of the club they have had for almost a century. Rest In Peace, Ernie. You’d be so proud of your beloved Bulldogs right now. Thank you for everything.