The Brisbane Broncos (10-10) have handed the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (11-9) their fourth consecutive defeat with a 41-10 Broncos victory. The Bulldogs have plenty of cause for concern and it can safely be said that they are in quite the slump. Here are the ups and downs.
- Return of the injured: Both Aiden Tolman and Josh Morris not only made their respective returns from injury, they both started, and perhaps most importantly for their comeback efforts, finished the game. Neither were all that impressive, but seeing both Bulldogs stalwarts on the field and not on the sideline was a welcome sight nonetheless.
- Quality of Eastwood: In amongst the very talented (and currently vastly underpforming) Bulldogs forward pack, New Zealand international Greg Eastwood is often overlooked. But make no mistake, Eastwood is a valuable contributor for the Bulldogs. He came off the bench rather than start, likely to make way for the return of Aiden Tolman. But his touches were of the highest quality, constantly making defenders miss and frequently carrying them with him well and truly after contact was made. He was the lone bright spot in a very poor Bulldogs performance. He was also a constant menace in defense, displaying sound technique and lots of power almost every time he brought a Bronco to the ground, something Eastwood does routinely.
- Williams, the enigma: I have opined previously on the truly polarising figure that is Tony Williams. Make no mistake, this season he has, in my mind, done more than enough to erase the futility that he previously presented in a Bulldogs uniform. However, this week we were served another dose of the enigmatic tendencies that make him so polarising.
Williams is an immensely gifted athlete, there is no doubt about that. And even in this game, he played rather well. He was the only forward in the much touted pack the Bulldogs boast to exceed 100m gained. However, we also saw glimpses of the Williams of old where ball handling, decision making and defense have been an issue.
Please don’t misconstrue my point here, and it is in the ‘up’ section of this post for a reason. Williams has played very well this season, and did so against the Broncos. But I just find it so fascinating to watch a player so ridiculously talented and skilled also at times be so prone to errors that are by and large, fundamental in nature. He was the best player on the field in a Bulldogs jersey not named Greg Eastwood, but he also made some very frustrating mistakes. In fairness, I do believe the one-on-one strip by Broncos Halfback Ben Hunt was far more an impressive play by him than it was a poor one by Williams.
- Attacking void #1: The immensely poor attacking play of the Bulldogs as of late (covered here and here just this week) plummeted to new depths against the Broncos. It was absolutely abysmal. The team made little to no effort to rectify the issue, and plain and simply, they need to. I have covered this attacking deficiency in great length in those aforementioned links, so please give them a read for a point of reference. However, I have much more to add after the latest colossally disappointing offensive output.
Yet again, only one forward eclipsed the 100m mark in terms of metres made with the ball (Tony Williams). The Broncos on the other hand? Every single one of their starting forwards (aside from their hooker Andrew McCullough, who shouldn’t be anyway) went over the 100m mark, many of which did so by a long way. Even one of their bench players did so (Ben Hannant). That’s 6 forwards (every starter, and an interchange player) who exceeded 100m. That is the ultimate contrast in the concept of ‘laying a platform’ for an attack. To put it simply,the forwards are usually the ones to get crucial carries of the football early in sets of possession. If they are effectively making metres, then the team in attack builds momentum and puts stress on the defense. Once the ball is utilised creatively by the halves and backline (often on tackle #4), they are afforded the opportunity to do so on the back of this platform of momentum created by the forwards.
The Broncos well and truly established that platform, hence they out-gained the Bulldogs by 476 metres (1700 vs. 1224), and unsurprisingly scored 41 points on the once vaunted Bulldogs defense.
This isn’t the first time in recent weeks that the Bulldogs forwards have failed to set an effective platform. With the talent at their disposal in the position groups within the forwards, it is often taken for granted when the team does in fact lay that platform in attack. For much of the season, it has been a formality. However, as is the case yet again, when they don’t dominate the opposition in the forwards, the Bulldogs are in trouble offensively. If they are to pull themselves out of this slump, the forwards must return to their dominating best. One player over 100m marks simply won’t get it done. Especially when the opposition can do so with six players.
- Attacking void #2: The other aspect of the attack is another position group that was lauded as some of the best in the NRL not all that long ago: the halves. Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds have been beyond poor the past two weeks. Again, the salient points in attack such as organisiton and execution, and why they are so crucial, are thoroughly examined here and here, and I implore you to take a look at the points pertaining to the halves.
They aren’t organised in attack, and they need to be. Their execution has been slow and lacks cohesion, when it needs to be swift and clinical, particularly in the absence of a potent attacking player. However, I will digress from pointing out the deficiencies that exist, and their solutions to take a moment and discuss the players the responsibility for these aspects of the game falls to; the halves, Hodkinson and Reynolds.
Let’s not forget just how mercurial Hodkinson has been this year. Until recent weeks, he has been nothing short of phenomenal. The three game stretch of one point victories and even in State of Origin in particular, he was excellent. He had seemingly overnight become the form playmaker in the NRL, and had achieved things at Origin level very few have. He was on top of the NRL world, and he did so merely two years after being almost resigned to retiring from professional Football altogether.
Just for a moment take the time to empathise with that position. Hodkinson’s ascendancy defines the term ‘meteoric rise’. But on top of the fact that no player in NRL history plays at their highest levels every single game over a single season, the rise itself is a lot for a player to take in. What I’m suggesting here is that there may be an element of burn out involved. Going from rehabbing an injury in perhaps your last attempt at merely returning to elite level sport, to regaining a spot in the NRL, to playing your way into contention as the form player of the NRL and Dally M leader, to NSW Origin saviour, all in the span of 24 months.
That’s a lot for someone to handle in a relatively short period of time. He was also quite impressive after Origin. But it’s entirely possible that, for whatever reason, Hodkinson has hit the metaphorical wall. He may be burnt out. The meteoric rise, now compounded by the dizzying heights of the new levels of expectation thrust upon him, may just have become difficult to balance in the masterful way he has done thus far.
This is all entirely speculation. I have no inside information or anything of the sort. But as a former relatively talented player myself who has also endured the throes of injury and expectation, and also as a human being who gets burnt out every now and then like the rest of us, I just think all of these things are worthy of consideration when exploring the slump the Bulldogs, and Hodkinson himself, seem to be in.
- Reynolds out of form, in trouble: Josh Reynolds has also been almost non-existent since his return from injury. I also think that the burn out discussed with regard to Hodkinson may allay Reynolds at present. However, the fact remains for both of them that the team isn’t performing, and their individual performances are a part of both the problem, and the solution. As baffling as Reynolds’ lack of productivity since his return has been (and he has been seriously inept on the field), this is also not the reason why Reynolds has his own point here.
Josh Reynolds is also going to be in the headlines for all the wrong reasons this week. He was put on report twice, and by the time he committed what was in isolation a very minor high-tackle, he was already on his last warning and was consequently sent to the Sin-Bin. The first incident with Thaiday wasn’t as malicious as it appeared in slow motion. Anybody who has been tackled around the legs has likely tried to also kick out of the predicament when the defending player seems to hold on to you for too long. It happens in every second tackle in an NRL game, sometimes coming very close to an unfortunate contact between boot studs and face. In this instance, that contact happened and Reynolds was rightly put on report. However, the NRL can’t merely crack down on it when it goes wrong, much like with the lifting tackle. Either penalise the tackler for holding on too long, or begin to penalise players for unnecessarily lashing out with their legs in an attempt to break the clutches of a defender.
The trip on Barba, much like the kick on Thaiday, looks markedly worse in slow-motion, and really shouldn’t be analysed through that lens. Neither should be, but they will. The more salient point here is that Reynolds definitely does extend his leg, even if a part of a tackling maneuver (which isn’t as uncommon as you’d think) and will be charged accordingly. It’s highly likely that due to his other recent transgressions that Reynolds will be seeing some extended time on the sideline, which is obviously a blow to the Bulldogs’ playoff aspirations.
Fire, passion and aggression have become synonymous with Josh Reynolds. So have aspects of unsavoury, dirty play, most of which has been unjustified to this point in his career. Incidents like this however will do nothing to help that at times contentious image. It also costs his team on the field, and it needs to be addressed.
With regard to his form, I also believe there may be an injury concern that is more than meets the eye. He has had quite a serious elbow/biceps injury since the start of the year (take note of the very heavy strapping to his right arm if you haven’t already). During Origin, NSW medical staff lauded Reynolds’ toughness for playing and training through the injury. Perhaps that injury worsening, and the emergence of other injuries are contributing to the feeble nature of his play since returning. Just a thought.
- Defensive tactics: Des Hasler has long employed an ‘up and in’ style of defense. This is where the defensive line compresses in the middle at the expense of leaving more space than usual on the edges of the field. It is also predicated on the players on the edges (Centres and Wings in particular) interrupting play before it gets to them, often defending one player inside than what they’d usually be accountable for (for example, Corey Thompson may mark the Centre opposite him, not his opposing Wing player, leaving that player open), and are tasked with stopping the attacking play from reaching it’s end point by interrupting it earlier than expected.
This ploy, a staple of the Bulldogs under Hasler, and Manly before that, has been both exploited by opposition teams, and poorly executed by the Bulldogs. In particular, Morris had the chance to nullify a Try scoring movement but simply missed the tackle on Corey Parker one-on-one. The Broncos went on to score their first Try.
When executed correctly, it’s an effective strategy. But it puts a lot of pressure on the defenders on the edges of the defensive line to make the right reads and come up with the tackle. If not, they can be easily exploited, and the Broncos were able to capitalise.
However, it seems like forever ago that the Bulldogs had earnt the ‘dogs of war’ moniker. And earlier in the season, even mere weeks ago, they had indeed earnt that title. But the past few weeks have been disappointingly weak defensive efforts.
I’ll sum up this point as follows. Broncos Halfback Ben Hunt ran a straight line at the Bulldogs defense, and went on to score, untouched. When a Halfback runs a mere straight line into the teeth of a defense, and makes it through untouched, there is genuine cause for concern.
- Ill-discipline: Simply put, the Bulldogs conceded twice the penalties the Broncos did (Bulldogs 12, Broncos 6). The lack of discipline only compounded the poor play exhibited by the team. It’s hard enough to win at the best of times, much less when you keep giving the opposition second chances. Especially 12 of them.
- Kasiano Injury: Sam Kasiano was turning in another reasonably impressive performance. That was, until he unfortunately succumbed to an ankle injury. The severity is not yet known, but he did limp off the field shortly after sustaining the injury and did not return. The injury did also require crutches. Losing Kasiano for any period of time is a massive blow to the team, much less in the wake of the not only the overall slump of the team, but the run of poor form his position group is experiencing.
Play of the game: The opening Try of the game for the Bulldogs was a rather impressive piece of ad-lib Football. I’m not too sure what to make of the offside player contention, and the rulebook isn’t entirely clear on the matter (which is ridiculous) meaning it came down to discretion. Regardless, it was a great display of awareness from all players involved. Particularly Reynolds, Tim Lafai and Mitch Brown.
Key stat: Metres gained by forwards (including best interchange performer).
- Broncos: 873
- Bulldogs: 515
The Broncos best six forwards outgained the Bulldogs’ best six by 358 metres. That’s over three and a half lengths of the field. This is a monumental disparity between a team who effectively laid a platform, and a team that didn’t.