On Thursday Night Football, the Bulldogs (13-9) were able to defeat the Tigers (9-13) 30-10 with relative ease. This earnt the team back-to-back victories, meaning they’re on the right track after a four game losing streak. However, don’t let the scoreline fool you – it wasn’t all good news. Here are the ups & downs.
- Inaugural Save our Sons Cup: Not only did the Bulldogs make it back to back wins, but the win was also their second consecutive victory in a game dedicated to a good cause. This game was the first ever proclaimed as the ‘Save our Sons Cup’, which will reportedly now become an annual fixture, much like the Bandaged Bear Cup (Bulldogs vs. Eels). Save our Sons is a non-profit organisation that is aimed at doing all it can for the cause of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), an incurable disease pertaining to rapid muscle degeneration that is essentially only found in boys (symptoms observed by age 6).
This cause got next to no coverage, which I found very disconcerting. This is yet another example of team and the game making an effort in the community. These kinds of things deserve emphasis in and of themselves, and it would have been great to see more media attached to a significant event such as the inaugural game dedicated to one of many worthy causes.
Regardless, the Bulldogs and Tigers both deserve credit for their role in bringing a cause like DMS into the spotlight. Most teams do more than their fair share in their respective communities off the field, and this is but just one example. Well done, Bulldogs and Tigers. Find out more about the organisation, the disease and how to help here.
- Progression of Mbye: Moses Mbye has been a key player to keep an eye on this year. He was initially slated to get only minimal NRL action due to the caliber of the halves in front of him (Hodkinson and Reynolds). He’s also been quite the heralded player the past few years: the quintessential up and coming young player. So, the idea was that the year would be very much one based on learning and honing his craft in the lower grades with little to no pressure to produce right away. But with Origin duties and Reynolds’ multiple suspensions, Mbye has been thrust into an important role for the team, particularly recently. So, given his status as a player of the future along with his increased exposure to NRL action, I thought it would be a good time to put forth an evaluation of sorts.
The highlight so far has been his kicking game. He appears to be a very natural striker of the ball, with sound fundamental technique. However, his placement does need work. He’s quite inconsistent and often puts too much air under the ball, which allows the returner more time to retrieve his kicks and ultimately end up with better field position. Thus, Mbye needs to find a more consistent balance between finesse and power in the varied kicking arsenal required to succeed at this level.
He also seems to be forging a nice combination with Tony Williams (who was again very good) on the left edge in attack. This is not a new sight, as the same connection has long been utilised by Trent Hodkinson when he was predominantly on Williams’ left hand side of the field (due to Reynolds’ prolonged absence and the left-footed nature of Mbye, Hodkinson is now more often on the other side of the field). Whilst it is smart for Mbye to forge such links, he’s at times guilty of over-relying on Williams, passing him the ball when there are better options available.
The biggest improvement over the course of Mbye’s season so far has undoubtedly been his defense. Early action for Mbye was at the Centre position, where he was often exploited as a smaller, weaker defender against stronger, more athletic outside backs. However, Mbye seems much more willing to initiate contact rather than wait and brace for it. He has made many sound, physical tackles in recent weeks and is holding his own against both opposition forwards and the same outside backs that once gave him trouble.
What needs to be kept in mind here is the fact that Mbye is a rookie. Mistakes and area’s of refinement are a normal part of his development and maturation as a player. They’re to be very much expected. With this accounted for, Mbye has been nothing less than impressive in what has essentially turned in to his debut NRL season. He has much to hone, but also much to be excited about. Time will tell, of course.
- Josh Jackson can play: For anyone who has read my previous work this year, it’s obvious my opinion of Josh Jackson is very high. I had him in Origin contention, and still would in retrospect. But he yet again showcased his abilities in this game. He’s undersized, but extremely athletic. He’s tough, displays sound technique in defense and is efficient in attack. His effort is phenomenal week after week, no matter how long he’s on the field for. He’s not only one of the best young second-rowers in the game, he’s on the brink of being in that group regardless of age.
Jackson played the full 80 minutes against the Tigers. In attack, he took 13 runs for 129 metres, broke 8 tackles, made a Linebreak and scored the Bulldogs’ first Try. Defensively, he tied for the team lead with 28 tackles.
Jackson not only gets through a mountain of work week in week out and is fundamentally sound, he’s also quite a dynamic player with much more playmaking ability than one would think. Despite being one of the best on the field in every game he’s played in this year, he’s still supremely underrated.
The Bulldogs would be wise to lock Jackson up with a long-term contract, before the rest of the league figures out what commentator and NRL great Wally Lewis did last night – that Jackson is an incredibly talented player with a very high motor. If they wait too long, his price may get too high and they risk losing one of the brightest prospects in the game.
- Thompson and Lafai shine: Both Corey Thompson and Tim Lafai impressed in the win. Lafai reaped the rewards of playing simple football in wet conditions. He esnured he used shorter, sharper footwork behind solid momentum and speed, and scored twice because of it. Nothing he did was flashy, but he still did what would work. Sometimes, it’s when a player does less of the exciting stuff yet still succeeds that shows their class, and that’s exactly what Lafai did (despite being incredibly quiet in the 2nd half – more on this later).
Corey Thompson has also established himself as quite the impressive playmaker. The diminutive yet dynamic Winger showed class of his own in executing a perfect finish for his Try. He got as low as he could and ensured ball security in the process by keeping the ball pinned to his body as opposed to the remarkable (yet risky) one-handed put-downs we’ve seen in recent weeks across the league. He also took many significant runs to get the team out of trouble, something he has been more than willing to do all season despite his size. He’s also become quite sound in defense in executing his assignments in Des Hasler’s oft-criticised ‘up and in’ defense (for all those critical of the team’s edge defense, look through my past posts to see why it happens and how it works in detail, e.g. here under ‘down’ point 4).
Both Lafai and Thompson are playing good football and basically have all year. Their right hand side in attack has fast become the Bulldogs’ most potent weapon, especially with the very down year Josh Morris is experiencing on the left. Also, Lafai picked a good game to score a double – it was his 100th game for the club. Congratulations on the milestone, Tim.
- Why is Josh Morris playing?: As has been quite obvious since his return, Josh Morris is nowhere near 100% healthy. The knee injury he sustained to in Origin 1, & unfortunately rushed back from in Origin 3 only to re-injure himself, just hasn’t sufficiently healed. So, why is he even out there? Depth in the outside backs. Or more to the point, the lack of depth at that position group. The team just doesn’t have much depth in the Centres, much less of quality. The team is still not assured a spot in the NRL post-season, and with the significant drop off in ability any replacement presents, a hobbled Morris has been deemed the best option.
I doubt the team would be foolish enough to put one of their strongest players in harms way. But I’m sure both the circumstances of the both the season at this point and the lack of quality depth at the position has forced the team to play Josh Morris much earlier than it would have liked to.
Morris is still very hesitant to cut off his trademark left foot and his no confidence in his speed. Hopefully the injury isn’t one that makes the decision to play him despite these things an unwise gamble instead.
- Tale of two halves: The Bulldogs played very well in the first half. They didn’t do anything amazing, and they didn’t have to. The importance of fundamentals is only magnified in wet conditions, and the Bulldogs executed them well. Their halftime stats only echo this point. They had an 83% completion rate (20/24), missed only 2 tackles and consequently had 64% of possession. They went on to convert this into 4 Linebreaks, 4 tries and a 24 point lead at halftime. They did the little things well, and against a very average Tigers team in less than ideal conditions, that was more than enough.
However, the second half was a different story altogether. The Tigers outscored the Bulldogs 10-6, mistakes went from 2 at half time to 12 at full time, and it was overall a very uninspired performance where even the basics suffered. Sure, a 24 point lead may have been enough put the Tigers away, but it was only half time and far crazier comebacks have happened.
More to the point, they had the chance to simply impose their will on their opponent. They should have viewed the second half as a chance to reassert the authority that has been missing from their game since they last lead the league table. Instead, they went into a very conservative shell and became a coaches worst nightmare – complacent.
Point being, if the Bulldogs are to be the team they once were this season, they simply cannot get complacent. This was ample opportunity to assert their will, and instead they folded and played to hold on to a lead. Players made fundamental mistakes and key players went missing. Hodkinson was one of them, and subsequently the attack also disappeared. Stirke players such as Tim Lafai barely touched the ball as a result. Hodkinson’s kicks were also quite poor, again (aside one from one perfectly weighted kick).
Most pertinently, since the Bulldogs acquired coach Des Hasler, the expectations for this team aren’t just high. They’re to be one of the final two teams standing every season. Some may thinkg I’m being too hard on the team here, and maybe I am. But this is the time of year where teams who will fit that description start displaying the things that will get them there. The Bulldogs got the win, sure. But it was against mediocre competition from a club that is in utter disarray off the field. If they were the elite team they have previously been this season, could again be and should be given the talent on the roster, the scoreline would have been far higher, and more importantly, the performance wouldn’t have gotten even close to a complacent one.
- Perrett injury: Sam Perrett succumbed to a rib injury after heavy contact and did not return to the field after leaving it. This may have been precautionary with one eye on the finals whilst in the middle of a game they were comfortably leading, but it’s a worrying sign nonetheless. The Bulldogs’ injury toll has slowly climbed, and claimed key players in the process. The Bulldogs will already be without Frank Pritchard and Sam Kasiano in the post-season. Morris is still well and truly below his best due to injury. Add Perrett to that list, and an already thin layer of depth in the backs only gets worse. If the Bulldogs make the playoffs, they are likely to find it difficult without the likes of Kasiano, and with a hobbled Perrett and Morris.
Play of the game: Michael Ennis Try – a typical effort play creatively generated when nothing else was happeing. He read what was in front of him and exploited accordingly. Make no mistake, this team will miss Michael Ennis, not only for his ability to make plays such as this and his wealth of experience, but his leadership is invaluable.
Key stat: Tackles made – Bulldogs, 258. Tigers, 385. The Tigers made well over 100 more tackles than the Bulldogs, showing how poorly they played and how little possession they had. Part of that was the Bulldogs’ execution in the first half, but much of it was the Tigers’ own doing. They also missed 29 more tackles than the Bulldogs (49 vs 20).