The Bulldogs (8-2) returned from their second trip to New Zealand in five weeks once again victorious, narrowly beating the Warriors (4-6) 16-12 in another game that was still very much in the balance in the closing minutes. Here are the ups and downs:
- 7 in a row: The close 16-12 victory marked the seventh consecutive win for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. It is now safe to say that they are currently the form team of the competition, with the streak more than double that of any other active winning streak in the NRL (Cowboys – 3). As telling as this run of form is, it is probably a good time to remind everyone that three of the wins were by a solitary point. Whilst this is of course a positive thing, and that run of single point wins, the first of its kind in NRL history, was quite remarkable, a few missed kicks here and there and they could have quite easily been three losses instead. In no way can anybody take anything away from the Bulldogs’ impressive start to the season, but perspective is also important.
- Hodkinson/Williams connection shining: Both the resurgence of the perennially criticised Tony Williams and the emergence of Trent Hodkinson have a common theme that will likely be overlooked – each other.
Independent of each other, of course both have done wonders. Hodkinson has become the terrific Halfback he has always had the potential to be when truly healthy, and Williams has re-emerged as the freakishly athletic big man who provides an impact in attack very few can. However, with Williams now returning to the form that saw him so highly coveted when he was last off-contract, Hodkinson now has a legitimate attacking weapon to turn to on the Bulldogs attacking left edge. Reciprocally, Williams is now receiving service in an offense predicated upon the ability of a genuinely talented Halfback. Hodkinson has vision and ball-skills in abundance, and these two things are best highlighted by the combination the two have forged this season (further proof lies in the beautiful choice and execution of pass Hodkinson gave to James Graham for a Try in which Graham burst through the defensive line untouched). In particular, the past few weeks have featured heavy doses of Hodkinson-to-Williams, and the results speak for themselves.
- Josh Jackson great, again: I’ve had nothing but high praise for Josh Jackson so far this year, and he yet again proved why against the Warriors. On numerous occasions, he made plays very few others not just on the team, but in the NRL, could. Most of them were a derivative of the combination of the rare heart and talent he has, further punctuated by his relentless effort. This week’s proof, his tackle of big Warriors Winger Manu Vatuvei, who looked all but certain to make a break down the sideline. That was, until Jackson not only ran him down, but took him out of bounds. Jackson personifies effort, and such effort is not only rare, but coveted in footballers, especially at a level where the little things such as effort can diminish when players have ‘made it’. Jackson, however, seems to ooze effort, and the fact he’s been in the thick of Origin selection conversations proves I’m not his only advocate.
How many of you would have thought Jackson would have gone from relative unknown, likely relegated to the bench in a fully fit Bulldogs roster, to genuine Origin consideration? Quite an amazing display from Jackson so far this season, and the effort he’s been displaying week in, week out, I’d safely bet that he’ll only continue to impress.
- Morris’ super effort: Josh Morris showed everybody why you should never give up on a play. His tackle that saw Shaun Johnson end up out of bounds rather than across the Tryline was nothing short of incredible. So much so, that captain Michael Ennis has already annointed is as his play of the year in his post-match press conference.
Morris was beaten in the initial play that saw the Warriors make the Linebreak, ending up on the ground. In a matter of seconds, he picked himself up and sprinted with all the might a player has left in the dying minutes of a physical 80-minute encounter. Then at the final possible moment, he launched himself at full extension at Shaun Johnson, mere metres from scoring. The comination of Morris’ trajectory and his choice of tackle saw Johnson’sshoulders thrust backwards, opposite his line of motion, with Johnson then following Morris’ force over the sideline. Try saved, not scored, when the Try looked inevitable. Incredible stuff.
Interesting to note is the aforementioned trajectory of Morris’ tackle attempt. It was a remarkable last-ditch effort, but I’m not too sure if a conventional attempt at tackle, say around the waist or legs, is enough to prevent Johnson from getting over the line to score what would’ve been a game-tying Try. I think Morris’ attempt, across the shoulders of Johnson, plays a more important role physically than it will be given credit for. Of course, at that point in time in that moment of desperation, it’s highly unlikely Morris, at full sprint, was thinking of physics when making the tackle. However, the fact his effort turned out that way may have been a pivotal factor. Regardless, it doesn’t happen without the immense effort itself to get back up and mow down a player who is no slouch in Shaun Johnson. Phenomenal effort, Josh.
- Matulino/Reynolds mismatch, again: As I noted after the week 6 win (link here), the Warriors made a point of exploiting the mismatch in size between their Prop Ben Matulino and the Bulldogs’ Josh Reynolds, with much success. Come week 11, and the tactic was again employed by the Warriors, again with success as it lead directly to the Warriors’ opening Try. These are the kinds of things teams should anticipate, especially with very recent history of such a gameplan. In fairness, however, this was the only time the mismatch seemed to be made apparent. So, perhaps the Bulldogs did indeed do their homework on the tendency and the Try was just a well executed one-off play dictated by the red-zone situation, where such a mismatch would be best exploited.
- Hodkinson also targeted: In almost the exact same fashion that Reynolds was targeted, Halfback Trent Hodkinson saw a particularly large share of defensive traffic come his way, with some of the bigger outside-backs of the Warriors singling him out on numerous occasions. Even Hodkinson, one of the NRL’s better defenders, isn’t immune to the effective, yet simple mismatch of size. He was bumped off a number of times, thus the Warriors kept employing the tactic, and yet again exploiting such mismatches appeared to factor heavily in the Warriors gameplan. The play also is designed to hasten the onset of fatigue to better players. Tackling is likely the most draining aspect of the game, particularly for players in positions that are not accustomed to a high volume of defense – a description both Reynolds and Hodkinson fit.
- Hodkinson misses: This of course isn’t a true ‘down’, every kicker in the history of kicking misses a few every now and then, even the greats, which Hodkinson is further proving he may one day be with the goal kicking boot. But I’d like to point out that both of his misses in this game, and at least two of the previous misses he’s had this year have come from the troublesome spot on the field I alluded to here (point 2), the point right between the posts and the sideline. Refer to the link for further detail of the spot and why it is so tough to kick from, but I just thought it was worth noting that Hodkinson’s misses of late have come either on, or very close to this spot. Even for extremely talented kickers such as Hodkinson, the spot can prove problematic.
Play of the game: Morris Try-saver: See the point in ‘Ups’ dedicated to the play for the analysis, but the effort was simply outstanding, and potentially game-saving.
Key statistic: Michael Ennis – 45 tackles. This was another extremely physical encounter with the Warriors, and Ennis not only met, but exceeded the challenge, something he has done on numerous occasions this season. Say what you want about Ennis and his future, but this season he is time and time again proving his value not only as a key player (his service to Trent Hodkinson in particular was superb at times in this game, placing the ball perfectly out in front of the Halfback which provides the perfect start to any attacking play – and his tenacity in defense is key to setting the intensity of the vaunted Bulldogs defense), but as a leader. Another impressive performance form the captain, as his game-leading tackle count attests to.