The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs began their post-Origin run to the NRL Playoffs with a close win that, as I will explain, contains much more than met the eye. Here is an extended edition of Ups & Downs in the wake of my recent hiatus.
- Intangibles: The term ‘intangible’ is a polarising term in the sporting context, and is a particularly salient aspect of the coverage of American sport, such as the NFL (the only other sport I follow as passionately as the NRL). An intangible is merely something, anything that can’t be touched. Meaning, it has no physical appearance whatsoever. In sport, it often refers to the qualities of a team or player that set them apart from the rest. Things like leadership qualities, toughness and determination or the ability for a team to ‘gel’ are examples of some common intangibles associated with sport.
Perennially brilliant teams and players have one thing, aside from success, attached to them: these abstract concepts known as intangibles. Just because they can’t be touched, however, does not mean they can’t be seen. On Saturday night against the Storm, the reason they won the game wasn’t just because they scored more points than the other team or better executed a calculated gameplan. It was their intangibles that got them to victory.
As I said, just because they can’t be touched or quantified doesn’t mean they can’t be seen. The best example that conveyed this point for me was in the 74th minute. Cooper Cronk had put a dangerous kick cross field for his powerful, athletic Winger Mahe Fonua. Fonua out-jumped everybody and had enough space to threaten the Tryline. Drury Low and Tony Williams threw their bodies at Fonua with whatever energy they had left to prevent Fonua’s advance. They succeded, stopping him inches from the line when it looked likely that Fonua would cross over for the game-winning Try.
The effort in and of itself was impressive enough. Much less at the 74th minute on a soggy, energy sapping field in an overly physical encounter between two of the best teams in the league. However, the crux of my point is as follows.
Both Williams and Low were entirely spent after that play. In the immediate moments following the effort, both were crippled by exhaustion, barely able to get air into their lungs, much less stand up. Williams and Low, in fact, both spent extra time on their haunches, but not to waste time. They just couldn’t muster the energy to rise again. But just like they did throughout the entire game, they did rise again. And again. And again. Countless Storm raids yielded them just 4 points.
Melbourne made 5 Linebreaks, and the Bulldogs had an official ‘Try Saves’ stat of 3 (I counted 4 in my analysis). Time and time again, this team turned up for each other. Almost endlessly, desperate tackles were made, tough runs were taken, Tries were saved. The effort to keep them to 4 points was nothing short of remarkable. And the operative word here? Effort. The intangibles of effort and will were the driving force behind this victory, and the outcome is much more than just the 2 points a team earns for a win. This team put substance to the moniker of the dogs of war. Yes, their defense was that good. Players individually and the team collectively did their jobs in a football sense, but it was the intangibles necessary to do so that stuck out to me most.
These Bulldogs are beginning to prove they have what it takes to go all the way. That doesn’t mean that they will. But they’ve long had the talent and the game plans necessary. Against the Storm, they seemed to suggest that they also have the intangibles to be realistic contenders come Grand Final day.
- Mitch Brown, effort personified: In the above point, I spent a long time discussing intangibles, such as effort. Mitch Brown, at Fullback, was possibly the best example of this in a game where there were plenty of examples. I also said I counted 4 total Try saves. Mitch Brown accounted for every single one of them. He tackled Billy Slater one-on-one twice when he had the chance to score. He held up the powerful Mahe Fonua, on one wing, and only just beat ex-Tiger Marika Koroibete to a clinical Cooper Cronk grubber-kick to his corner. That’s potentially 24 points (at least 16 even with all conversions missed) that Brown prevented the Storm from scoring.
I make this point as from what I have read and heard over time, Mitch Brown hasn’t been the most popular player since his signing and selection in the NRL team under Des Hasler. He may not be the most athletically gifted (though to say he’s not athletic would be inaccurate), but in almost every Bulldogs performance he’s had, Mitch Brown has personified the intangible of effort.
His performance against the Storm was incredible, and best personified the concept of intangibles I have lead with here. He took the tough runs when the team needed them. He was in the right place at the right time every time he had to be. He, much like his teammates, never stopped turning up. Everyone in a Bulldogs jersey did, but Mitch Brown, even in an impressive display of effort by all, was in a league of his own. Brown deserves far more credit than he has gotten so far in his Bulldogs tenure. Hopefully this performance has people take notice, because I know one person who definitely has. Des Hasler. Brown has been so good at Fullback that Sam Perrett is no longer guaranteed the #1 jersey upon his return, despite how good Perrett himself has been thus far in 2014.
Make no mistake. Without the efforts of Brown, the Bulldogs don’t leave Melbourne victorious. Outstanding performance from him.
- The Blue Bulldog: Trent Hodkinson proved he belongs among the NRL’s elite with his State of Origin heroics. He was brilliant in his Blues debut, playing a key role in the history making NSW series win. And it seems his stint in the representative arena has already paid dividends for his game. Hodkinson was his trademark clinical self against the Storm. His decision making was consistently on point, as was his kicking game. But the most impressive aspect of his game? His Defense, which I have alluded to many times before. His cover defense is second to none, and as a defender in and of itself, he is very impressive. His one-on-one tackle of a much bigger Tohu Harris, which featured on the Fox Sports ‘ref cam’ was a micro clinic on the art of tackling. He was also incredible and chasing his own kicks and making the tackle, as usual.
To make this all the more impressive, Hodkinson had more responsibility on his plate than normal, with Blues brother Josh Reynolds missing time serving a suspension. The team seemed almost better served by Hodkinson assuming more control and handling the majority of the kicking duties. Hodkinson, as his stellar Origin stint solidified, is a cerebral player. It showed in the greater opportunity he had to showcase not only his kicking ability, but such ability combined with his formidable decision making and awareness.
Hodkinson appears to only be even sharper post-Origin. That’s great news for Bulldogs faithful, and not so good news for the rest of the NRL.
- Big men have skills, too: Tony Williams appeared to reprise his role of quasi-halfback from last week, ballplaying frequently and even kicking every now and then. However, the monstrous Williams wasn’t the only big man showing off his bag of tricks. Greg Eastwood too put a neat little cross field chip in for Drury Low that was just a touch too strong, or Low would have been in for quite the sensational Try.
- Kasiano strong: It’s quite simple – Sam Kasiano is a great prop-forward. There aren’t many, if any other forwards in the NRL that can match the threat he poses every time he touches the ball and throws his colossal frame into an opposing defensive line. He’s also becoming quite the effort player himself. His Try came off second phase play and was quite ad-lib. He was more or less flat footed upon receiving the ball, but made headed straight for the Tryline as soon as he had the ball in hand. He gets dangerously close to the line every time he takes a Hit-Up in the opposing red-zone. This time, he got the ball on the line for a crucial scoring play for the Bulldogs. Another impressive all around effort from Kasiano.
- Phenomenal Finucane: Dale Finucane is slowly proving to be a dependable member of an the Bulldogs league-best set of forwards. His stats for the game are impossible to ignore. Finucane made 140 metres from 21 possessions, and made 30 tackles.
From the bench.
- Graham the workhorse: James Graham lead the game in metres gained and was second in tackles, with 158 metres and 42 tackles respectively. Every week, Graham ends up with incredible statistics. What an outstanding edition the Englishman has been to not only the Bulldogs, but the NRL. He is a player of very high quality.
- Opening play: The Bulldogs received the opening kickoff of the game and did something rather unique. They ran a set play. It may not sound like much, but the fact they didn’t merely hand the ball off to a straight runner signaled their intentions from the beginning of the game. They very much bucked the trend there, and it was great to see the team confident enough to do something out of the ordinary. It was quite well executed, too. Surely a pre-game command from Hasler, and a good one at that.
- Me: I’d like to sincerely apologise for the recent absence. I have no idea if anybody was actually reading my work regularly, but even so, this is something I love doing. However, life has thrown a few curveballs as of late that have required the time I can normally allot to writing. I now have said time back, and will be using it accordingly. Expect a lot of content covering the Bulldogs, the NRL, and perhaps even the NFL in the coming weeks and months. I look forward to sharing it all with you.
- The Storm grapple: Melbourne have long been touted as the masters of the wrestling techniques that have been dominating the rucks of the NRL for years now. However, they’re also synonymous with taking it too far at times, and this was on show against the Bulldogs. In the first half alone there were 3 examples of Storm players overworking the arms of Bulldogs players in the ruck. Much like the hand between the legs should, such incidents should incur an on the spot penalty. It’s unnecessary, preventable, and can lead to severe damage.
Play of the game: The Try save from Williams and Low in the 74th minute. Incredible efforts, and there were plenty of them throughout the entire game.
Key stat: 4 Try saves (officially 3 by NRL.com, but I counted at least 4, not counting the above play of the game). And every single one was by Mitch Brown. Any one of those Tries is scored, and the game is likely lost.