Tonight, the Bulldogs face the Cowboys at ANZ Stadium, where they will look to bounce back from last week’s uncharacteristically sub-par effort against the Tigers. Here’s what to watch for. (Kick-off: 7.30pm AEST, ANZ Stadium, Sydney – TV coverage: Fox Sports).
- Morris returns: The Bulldogs received some good news on the injury front this week, with Origin and International Centre Josh Morris set to make his first appearance for the Bulldogs since prior to Origin 1, where he initially sustained a knee injury. Morris did return in Game 3 of the Origin series, however he did not appear sufficiently recovered to do so, as he seemed tentative and lacked any real explosion when running. He unfortunately re-aggravated the injury in that game and has been out of action since. It was a shame for him to essentially be rushed back too early, only to succumb to injury once more. I sincerely hope this is not the case this time. The team is not in a situation remotely close to one where considering bringing a player back form injury prematurely should be on the cards. We’ll find out come game time, but his return is a good sign nonetheless. Especially for the recently exposed left-edge defense.
- Mbye starts: Moses Mbye was a surprise inclusion on game day last week, and received a substantial amount of game time. The young half appears to have made sufficient progress with his own injury and didn’t appear hampered by any complaints last week against the Tigers. He will tonight start at the Five-Eighth position vacated by the suspended Josh Reynolds.
It will be interesting to see where Mbye is in his development as an NRL calibre player. He showed flashes of the talent he’s widely known to have at his disposal when he saw action in the NRL earlier in the season when Origin afforded him the opportunity to start at his natural position of Halfback. He was also noticeably raw and many aspects of his game need refining (as is the case with any young player). This also signals the end of Head Coach Des Hasler’s experimentation of intriguing Halves combinations that included forwards such as Josh Jackson and Tony Williams. The Hodkinson/Mbye duo is much more conventional in terms of personnel, perhaps a choice related to the impending return of Reynolds and the more typical structure he and Hodkinson present.
- Offensive platform: The loss against the Tigers last week was quite ugly, as many of the statistics in the analysis of the game alluded to (see here). Perhaps the most damning number to come out of the game? 92 metres gained. That was the most any of the vaunted Bulldogs stable of Forwards was able to generate. For a team who constantly sees numerous Forwards surpass the 100m mark by a significant margin, that was perhaps most telling. No team, no matter how talented any of its playmakers are, can play any sort of consistently dangerous Football behind a platform of go-forward as weak as this.
Thus, the battle between the Forwards tonight will be under the microscope. The Cowboys boast a talented bunch of Forwards themselves, so it will be a significant test for the Bulldogs’ pack. As was seen against the Tigers, they can’t afford to lose the Forward battle, much less so severely. The Bulldogs’ big men need to lay a far better platform this week to give Hodkinson and co. room to maneuver and momentum to capitalise on. The team’s attack, spare a few moments early in the contest, looked rather lifeless last week. The lack of anything resembling a platform to work with was the biggest reason why.
By the way, the Forward behind the meager 92m total to lead the team? Sam Kasiano. He, James Graham, Tony Williams, Josh Jackson and Greg Eastwood need to be much, much more effective than they were last week.
- Grit, or no grit?: As the season has gone by, I have at times touched on the grit and toughness the team has displayed far more often than not. Intangibles like these have been the key to several impressive performances, ranging from the absurd three week streak of one point victories, to the efforts against the Sea Eagles and Storm more recently despite a depleted roster. However, against the Tigers last week, any semblance of sustained intensity was seemingly a distant memory, despite it being in full force a mere week earlier.
If the Bulldogs are to make the NRL Playoffs with any sort of momentum, much less last deep in to the post-season, they need to resurrect their trademark toughness. Tonight, in wake of the the loss to the Tigers that so woefully lacked any such grit, and in front of a home crowd hungry to see a return to form, is the perfect place to start.