The Bulldogs were the away team at ANZ Stadium for the second time this year, and for the second time under such conditions, they prevailed victorious. In no uncertain terms, the Bulldogs (7-2) imposed their will upon the Dragons (4-5) in a memorable Mother’s Day performance. Here are the ups and downs:
- It’s lonely at the top: Sometimes lopsided scorelines aren’t truly indicative of the discrepancy between the performance of the two teams, and although the Dragons weren’t terrible, they weren’t very good either. The Bulldogs however were quite impressive, displaying their patented physicality followed by a much improved attacking performance. In this case, the scoreline is an accurate representation of the chasm between the two teams in the game. Make no mistake, the ‘Dogs were dominant in this one.
Are they the clear-cut best team in the NRL? Absolutely not. A lot of good teams are a mere 2 points behind the Bulldogs. But they’re cementing themselves as competition heavyweights.
- Stanley’s back: As was the case with the return of Sam Kasiano from injury, Chase Stanley was added to the team at the last possible moment on game day, replacing Corey Thompson on the wing, who was solid in his first stint of NRL action. Stanley impressed in his return, showcasing his physicality with the ball whilst also displaying his athleticism with his role in the early Try to Tony Williams, having to jump high for a cross field kick on the Tryline and ended up batting it back to Williams. His transition back in to NRL action was a seamless one.
- Reynolds’ talent: In what was one of his best performances to date in Blue & White, Josh Reynolds was simply all over the place. He was energetic in defense, often seen rushing up to pressure the opposition, which in one instance he successfully stripped the ball one-on-one for a turnover. He often showcased the uncanny ability he has to get on the outside of defenders and pose a threat almost every time he runs with the ball. He even took an intercept the length of the field, escaping noted speedsters in Brett Morris and Josh Dugan to score an emphatic Try to seal the game for the Bulldogs late in the second half. In short, Reynolds was most impressive, and had what was likely his most complete performance to date.
The name Josh Reynolds and the position of NSW Five-Eighth have been mentioned in the same breath a lot over the past month or so, and he is certainly embracing the run of form he is in and stating his claim for that jersey. Earlier in the season when his name first started being touted for Origin consideration, I wrote about how he is a little too inconsistent for the job and that the finer points of his game needed refining (link here). I also said that there was a lot of time between then and Origin 1. With Origin now fast approaching, my opinion on his immediate representative future has change a little, but not entirely. I still think he is a little too raw and unpolished as a conventional Five-Eighth to be what NSW needs.
However, displays like today highlight the immense upside the inconsistent Reynolds presents. He’s gritty, physical and has that edge some players just have. He loves the game. He takes chances (as seen with the intercept, for if he doesn’t make that play, the Dragons winger was unmakred for a Try) and he is unpredictable. As far as his temperament and attitude go, he is tailor-made for Origin Football. He also has that x-factor of unconventional attack that is difficult to defend and can change games. What I believe he still lacks however are the less exciting parts of the game at the position: the ability to control a game. Things like a sound overall kicking game and direction/execution in attack. He also often goes missing for periods in a game, and things tend to get sloppy in attack when this happens.
It is entirely possible that the more standard facets of the game he doesn’t quite excel in currently may come at the expense of his unpredictable style of play. Am I saying he needs to dumb down his instincts and conform to the norms of the position? Absolutely not, that would be a travesty. But I also believe he can just find a little bit of a better balance between the flamboyant and the necessary. I’m referring to the refinement of some of the things he does, particularly his kicking game, rather than a dramatic overhaul or addition/subtraction of anything.
Some of you may think I’m being a bit harsh on Reynolds here, and might think the equation of Reynolds in sky blue is a simple one. But bare in mind that the standard of Origin I am holding him to is headlined by the likes of Thurston and Cronk in the halves, and it is indeed a high standard. What I’m trying to say is that Reynolds lacks some of the finer points the aforementioned players have in abundance. These things are also the things his direct competition, James Maloney, often excels at. However, those players also lack the attacking spark and it factor Reynolds contains.
Considering the current status of the incumbent NSW halves (Maloney out of form/Pearce’s impending legal woes and form slump of his own), seeing Reynolds named for NSW would not surprise me in the slightest, and his selection would be deserved – let me be clear in saying this is not something I am disputing. But while I do believe Reynolds would potentially play well for NSW, I just don’t think it’s a sure-thing. I could be completely wrong and he may be the answer. Reynolds is a good player. A very good one. But I just don’t believe he is a truly great player. Yet. In my opinion, anyway. But performances like his against the Dragons may make his pros too tantalising to ignore, regardless of his cons.
- Forwards flourish: This is a simple one, but Tolman and Graham got through a mountain of work. Kasiano and Williams were downright destructive, bumping off defenders and getting many offloads away, as seen by the 19-8 offload count in favour of the Bulldogs. Josh Jackson was all over the place from start to finish. Finucane was physical. Ennis continued to prove how big a loss he truly would be if he was lost to the club. Eastwood was dangerous in both attack and defense.
The key to any good offensive productivity is the platform laid by the forwards early in the tackle count, and boy did they lay a platform in this one. Dominant doesn’t do the display justice. Incredible performance by the Bulldogs pack of forwards.
- Speaking of Josh Jackson..: One of the silver linings of the loss of Co-Captain Frank Pritchard has been the emergence of Josh Jackson. He quite literally does it all and typifies the term ‘effort player’. Whatever he does, he does it with all of his effort. He makes sound tackles. He hustles from marker. He runs good lines with the ball and creates attacking opportunities. He also just takes the ball up with power in to the teeth of a defense when a tough run is all that is needed.
Probably the most apt way to describe Jackson is he does all of the things coaches at all levels of the game preach and implore from their players – the little things, and he does them very well despite being slightly undersized for his position. He has long been underrated and under the radar, but he would not look out of place in a NSW jersey whatsoever. He has both the tangible and intangible aspects necessary for representative football. He’s a great defender. He’s physical with and without the ball. He has above-average ball skills. He makes good decisions, has good footwork and displays effort in abundance. The next Bulldogs game you watch, keep an eye on the way Jackson plays, or re-watch the Dragons game and pay close attention to his performance to see why I’m so high on him. He literally does everything, and does it all very well. He is the prototypical workhorse, and with Greg Bird now likely to miss some Origin time through suspension, Jackon could very well be in the mix to fill the role he does so well for the Bulldogs.
- Eastwood reaches 150: The big victory over the Dragons marked the 150th game in the career of New Zealand international Greg Eastwood. Eastwood has been in tremendous form this season as he works his way back in to the mix following an injury that limited his time early in the season. He was sure to celebrate the milestone too, scoring a great Try supporting Josh Morris, who made a Linebreak following a terrific offload from the once again dangerous Tony Williams. Eastwood had to beat two defenders to do it, but made it look easy with his deft footwork getting the best of the defense. Congratulations, Greg.
- Tim Lafai is legit: Tim Lafai has been very good since his return to the NRL earlier this season. He came back to the side much bigger, putting on a fair bit of size since we had last seen him in what was likely a bid to better endure the physical rigors of the NRL. Some, myself included, were worried that a bigger Lafai meant a less dynamic one. How wrong we were. His footwork is back to sublime status, and his nifty moves with the ball saw him score 3 tries against the Dragons. He’s a constant threat with the ball, and is not just a finesse runner of the ball but now also physical one with his more imposing frame. His development will be one to monitor as the season progresses. If early form is any indication, he’ll add a legitimate attacking presence on the opposite side of the field to the potent Josh Morris not seen since Krisnan Inu, who is still in reserve grade. Lafai’s form is why.
- Hodkinson on report: Trent Hodkinson was involved in what has become known as a ‘scorpion tackle’. Hodkinson went to finish off a low tackle on Joel Thompson, but as he did, Thompson’s leg was caught under his arm causing it to pull back unnaturally (and painfully) bend a little too far at the knee. Hodkinson has never been a dirty type of player and at full speed it looked quite accidental. It was deserving of a penalty and a report, I just don’t think it was deliberate. I’m not saying it couldn’t have been. I just don’t see it.
- Tolman to miss time?: Aiden Tolman limped off the field towards the end of the game, favouring his heavily strapped right knee. He walked off under his own power, but from experience that can mean very little for the severity of an injury. Hopefully it’s not anything serious. Tolman defines the term productivity, consistently atop the stats charts for hitups, tackles and metres gained. In fact, he currently leads the entire NRL in hitups with 141. Needless to say, he would be a significant loss, despite the significant depth the club has in the forwards.
- Wrong line, Reynolds: This one is more tongue in cheek than legitimate ‘down’. In the second half, a Dragons kickoff was kicked out on the full thanks to a heads-up one foot in/one foot out catch by Sam Perrett. Reynolds received the ball and hastily went to take a quick tap to restart play, which he did. Only problem was, he took the tap on his own 40 metre line, not the 50 where the mark was. It took him 30 metres of running and what he thought was a Linebreak for him to realise the error, much to the delight of commentator Phil Gould who found it rather funny. Much like the rest of us.
Play of the game: Eastwood Try – Tony Williams received a beautiful cut out pass from Halfback Trent Hodkinson and was hitting a hole at speed. Looming on his outside was Josh Morris, who turned up on Williams’ outside at just the right time for Williams to offload as he was going to the ground. Morris then showcased his speed, escaping all defenders in his vicinity before meeting the Fullback, Josh Dugan. On his inside? Greg Eastwood, who then had to beat two defenders with his notoriously size-defying agile footwork to get over the line. A perfect way to celebrate game number 150.
Stat of the game: Dragons – 1041 metres gained, Bulldogs – 1794 metres gained. The Bulldogs outgained the Dragons by 753 metres. That’s over 7 lengths of the field. Other than the scoreline, this statistic best conveys the dominance displayed by the Bulldogs. They were almost impossible to stop with the ball in hand.