The Bulldogs’ recent run of sterling effort has come to an end, being completely out-enthused by a young Tigers team, who posted a 46-18 scoreline. Here are the ups and downs:
- Rise for Alex round: The story of Alex McKinnon is truly tragic, and is very well known by now so I won’t spend any time detailing it. However, the NRL dedicated all Week 19 games to his road to recovery, with sales of tickets, wristbands and much more going towards a fund for his recovery efforts. Teams also saw captains play in Alex’s number 16, and walk out together and stand in team lines brandishing the wristbands on the players held to their chest. It was a great idea by the NRL, and it was good to see the professional community engage in something far bigger than the sport that often defines them. Both the NRL itself and the clubs who played over the weekend deserve commendation for their efforts to such a worthy cause. The NRL shouldn’t abandon young Alex, and their handling of the situation to this point seems to suggest that this is not lost on them.
Here’s hoping the league continues to support Alex, and the others like him who not only need it, but deserve it. McKinnon was also the name on the kicking tee of Trent Hodkinson. All the best, Alex.
- Fast start: The initial two sets of six saw each team go the length of the field with the Football in a highly entertaining opening sequence. It saw the Tigers make a Linebreak and go very close to scoring, then saw the Bulldogs do the same but were able to finish with a Try. These sets of six seemingly set the tone for the remainder of the game; defensively absent. There was a lot of attacking football, and very little defense (53 missed tackles in total by both teams).
- Kasiano’s versatility/Hasler’s creativity: As of late, Sam Kasiano has not only been his typical disruptive self in the middle of the field, he has also been employed on the egdes with the outside backs. Why? His tremendous ball skills for his size, and the strategic ramifications having someone so big and explosive against much smaller defenders imbues.
Let me explain. In the traditional block play that is the backbone of the Bulldogs (and almost every NRL team’s) attack, one simple concept is executed: a ballplayer (normally a Halfback or Five-Eighth) will run to the defensive line with at least two players outside him running specific angles. Of the two players (sometimes more) outside the ballplayer, the widest (outermost) player will normally run the ‘block’ aspect of the play, running relatively short from ‘outside-in’ to the ballplayer ready to catch a short-pass. This player is always an option to receive the ball, but is often a decoy for the defense to have to account for, and is usually a bigger player, often a forward. The other dynamic to the play is the second player outside the ballplayer (innermost), who essentially sweeps behind the player running the ‘block’, and is the one most likely to receive the ball. This is usually a quicker player with ball skills who can either capitalise on the defense falling victim to the decoy runner by attacking himself or passing the ball to a teammate in a better position, likely on their outside.
For example, you’ll often see Trent Hodkinson or Josh Reynolds running towards the line, then throwing a pass behind bigger players to a player like Mitch Brown or Sam Perrett. However, recently, Sam Kasiano, more in the mould of the ‘block’ runner has actually been employed in the sweeping role. Why? Because out on the edges of the field, defenders are often matched up in strict ‘man’ coverage where each defender is accountable for one player, man-to-man. This means that attackers and defenders are presented with many one-on-one situations. In the block play, the ideal outcome is for the defense to freeze to account for the ‘block’ runner, meaning the player sweeping behind will have more space once he catches the ball on the run against the now staggered defense. However, if that sweeping player is someone of the size and skill of Kasiano, more than one defender will be required to bring him down. So, even if the defense reads the play well and isn’t fooled by the decoy, a bigger player like Kasiano, who is also a real threat to pass the ball effectively, will still command more defenders than what are likely out in that area of the field to bring him down. The defense is then asked to respond, and can do so in two ways: remain one-on-one in defense, meaning someone must take Kasiano down solo – an unenviable task given his size and strength, particulalry close to the Tryline. The other option is to commit more than one defender to him, meaning a player assigned to another player leaves his assignment to account for Kasiano, a very attractive prospect for the more clinical attacking teams. In this situation, Kasiano should pass the ball to the next player in the sequence, who should have more space to attack and assess the remaining overlap.
Essentially, it’s an added wrinkle or variation to a well-known and commonly run play, something surely Hasler himself concocted. It has yielded positive results thus far, and is mainly only run in attacking situations on the opponents Tryline. It can also only really be executed efficiently if the player used is talented and gifted as Kasiano is to not only present an atypical match-up problem, but also be skillful enough to outlet pass to other players with very little time to make the decision, a skill more akin to a Halfback like Trent Hodkinson.
The Bulldogs are lucky to have players with such complex blends of talent such as Sam Kasiano, along with the football mind of Head Coach, Des Hasler.
- Hodkinson’s class: One particular Canterbury Try came from a combination of the deft skills and impressive awareness possessed by Trent Hodkinson. In the first half, he set up for a kick to the corner on last tackle, but instead altered his choice of kick to a shorter one deployed for himself to regather after sensing an opportunity to capitalise on the way the defense presented itself. Hodkinson is constantly reminding us how special of a player he truly is, and this was another great example. What a season he is having.
- Effort absent: Shockingly, a mere week after one of the most impressive effort performances I’ve seen, the Bulldogs managed to put forward the opposite. Part of it was that the devastating injury toll that has been overshadowed by the grit of the team finally showed up, and the presence of various key defenders was missed. However, this was the case last week, and the juxtaposition of the two games perhaps demonstrates my point on effort even more overtly. The two Bulldogs teams that played against the Storm and the Tigers were almost identical, yet the performances, and results, were vastly different. This wasn’t as much a case of missing talent as it was of missing effort, and it was stunning to see such a stark divide in effort after an impressive display of it last week.
Take this as a perfect example of why sport is said to be far more mental than physical. The Tigers simply ran harder, tackled tougher and carried a higher intensity throughout the game than the Bulldogs. Dare I say it, the Tigers merely wanted it more, and their efforts reflected as such. It’s not like they’re flush with blue-chip talent at the moment either, ravaged by injury themselves.
- Left-edge defense poor: The defensive effort (and effort in general) was quite poor, but much of the Tigers’ 46 points came at the expense of the defensive left-edge of the Bulldogs, who were constantly caught out a player short. This is a result of one of two things, and oftentimes both: the players inside the defense (closer to the middle) did a poor job of flowing with the play to the outside edge, and the outside defenders making poor decisions in when to jump out and nullify the play, or hang back and rely on the inside defenders to flow accordingly.
Sometimes, what looks like a poor decision by a Winger to come up and shut down the play is actually a response to inside defenders simply not doing their job and flowing to the ball. Other times, it’s purely a poor decision. Sometimes, it’s also both. For the Bulldogs, it was all of them respectively, which is a sign of poor defensive communication more than anything else. Guess what communication on the field is a direct result of? That’s right, effort. In particular, Tony Williams, Krisnan Inu and Drury Low just weren’t on the same page often defensively, and the result was 4 Tries to journeyman Tigers Winger Keith Lulia.
This is something the team must address, as you can be assured all future opponents will view the tape of the collapse of their left-edge defense and plan to exploit it accordingly. Block plays (described earlier) particularly wreaked havoc on this edge, with the Tigers often employing two block players with a player sweeping behind.
The very poor effort is worrying, but it is also fixable. This is where coaches ‘make their money’ so to say, and it’s up to Des Hasler to bring these things to the team’s attention, and have the spotlight shone upon it at training.
- Obstruction is still a grey area: The refereeing in this game was overall very hit and miss unfortunately, particularly with the time allowed for players to clear the ruck. The Bulldogs were afforded very little time, and the Tigers seemed to get away with slowing the play the ball down much more than the Bulldogs as the game went on, but I digress. There were 2 occasions obstruction was examined where the results went to opposite to intuition, at least for me. Against the Bulldogs, the Tigers got away with blatantly taking Tony Williams out of the play. It didn’t appear as though it was a poor decision on Williams’ part as much as it was the obstruction of him, hence the rule exists, right? Then much later on, Michael Ennis was rules to have interfered with the marker in a Bulldogs Try for very, very minimal contact after playing the ball. After an on-field Try ruling, no less, meaning what the video referee saw was determind as ‘insurmountable evidence’ necessary to overturn it, which it simply wasn’t.
My point is, the rule is very much still a problem. In no way am I deflecting blame for the result of the game on the officiating, the Bulldogs thoroughly deserved the loss they suffered. However, the obstruction rule is simply impossible to interpret. The rule, or at the least the interpretation of it needs to become clear, and most importantly, consistently applied. The game itself suffers from instances that induce head-scratching by fans and those involved with the game alike. The obstruction rule still induces said scratching, unfortunately.
- Ill-discipline: The Bulldogs conceded twice as money penalties as the Tigers (Bulldogs 8, Tigers 4). Even when playing well, affording the opposition free possession for a lack of discipline is simply unacceptable.
Play of the game: Try engineered by deft Hodkinson kick, regather and pass. Hodkinson continues to impress after his Origin success.
Key stats: More than one key stat this week, as they’re all somewhat interrelated.
Possession – Tigers 63%, Bulldogs 37%. It’s almost impossible to win any game with a mere 37% share of possession no matter how well you play, and especially when you play poorly. The Tigers, as a result, completed 12 more sets of 6 than the Bulldogs (35-23), meaning they made 74 more runs than the Bulldogs, yielding a 1687 to 1038 discrepancy in metres gained in favour of the Tigers. As a result, they Bulldogs had to make 303 tackles, 91 more than the Tigers’ 212.