The Bulldogs capitulated in their regular season finale against the lowly Titans. They surged to a big lead early, only to drop off the intensity, let the Titans back in to the game and eventually lose to them in extra time. Their form did nothing to inspire confidence heading in to their do or die clash with the Storm in week 1 of the NRL Finals. Here are the ups and downs.
- Josh Jackson: Much has been said and written about the emergence of Josh Jackson this season, especially in this space. Yet again, Jackson was among the best players on the field, and yet again he showed just how varied his on-field talents are.
Jackson is what is known to be a player with a ‘high motor’; a player who displays a relentless energy in all that they do. Not only does Jackson have a high motor, but he excels in both phases of the game – attack and defense. Defensively, he’s always around the ball. He chases from marker, he has sound tackling technique, he reads the play well on the edges, he makes tackle upon tackle in the same set of six, he covers well and is consistently near the top of the tackle count (second to only James Graham with 48 – Graham had 49). However, very few players at any position, much less in the forwards, are just as impactful with the ball in hand as they are without it. Jackson runs very clean lines in attack and more often than not hits the right holes.
He also does this with deceptive speed and deft footwork atypical of players at his position (despite his ‘undersized’ status). This often catches defenders off guard and he capitalised on this twice in the very early stages of this game with two very strong runs from inside passes, reigniting the solid connection he and Josh Reynolds have built on the offensive right edge.
Effort has been a big issue for the Bulldogs since the Origin period. But even as the effort seems to wane in those around him, it is something that Jackson never seems to lack. His combination of a high motor and his varied arsenal of athleticism and skill make him a potentially great player for years to come.
As I’ve said previously, the Bulldogs need to seriously consider signing him to a long term deal, as he is the kind of player any team would be lucky to have at their disposal.
- Pritchard’s comeback: For as long as he has been injured, Frank Pritchard has been both listed and assumed as out for the 2014 season. That changed against the Titans, where he took the field (from the bench) in the second half of the game. He looked his powerful, tough to tackle self in limited touches. He could provide some stability and leadership in a forward pack and team that seems to lack it at present, which could bode well for the team in finals football. However, Pritchard’s conditioning will be an issue after coming off such a significant injury and the subsequently extended stint on the sidelines. So, his tangible impact on the field will be minor, and expectations should be tempered.
- British Bulldog: James Graham, much like Josh Jackson, is a player with an incredibly high motor who is relentless in any and all on field efforts for every second he is on the field. There was a moment in this game that exemplified this point perfectly. In the second half at the 59 minute mark, the Bulldogs had just gone the length of the field in two plays, and were primed to score a Try on the back of such momentum. They passed the ball from the right hand corner of the field on the Titans Tryline to the left in search of space, but couldn’t connect on the final pass which went to ground.
Titans winger Anthony Dodd picked up the ball and raced away against the run of play to score a length of the field Try. However, in the entirety of his 90 metre run, Dodd had one player chasing him until the moment he put the ball down – James Graham. Graham was at full sprint for the length of Dodd’s effort, despite hope of him eventually catching Dodd fading early in the chase. If there was ever a paragon of the term effort in sports, that was it – a much bigger, slower player chasing a superior athlete without for a second faltering until there was nothing left to chase. He was the definition of exhausted at the end of it. His tackle count was well in to the 30’s at this point in the game (49 for the game), and his hitups were in the double digits. He did not leave the field despite his evident fatigue.
What an inspirational player and key cog of the team James Graham has become in his Canterbury-Bankstown tenure. As a bit of an aside, that chase is the type of play that could see him fill the vast void in leadership Michael Ennis leavies in his wake once he departs. The team named Frank Pritchard co-captain along with Ennis this year, likely with the possibility of Ennis’ departure and the eventual need for a new captain in mind, leaving many to assume Pritchard will fill that role going forward.
However, with the efforts Graham puts in week after week, typified by his chase of Dodd on the weekend, it could be argued that he could well be in contention for the vacant captaincy once Ennis leaves the club. Especially with the contrast of his effort with that of Pritchard the very next play after Graham’s incredible chase. Pritchard committed a cardinal sin in football terms – being an offside chaser on the kickoff, gifting the Titans a penalty at the halfway line.
That juxtaposition of effort could very well come in to play when the Bulldogs brass come to deciding the next captain of the team.
- Thompson’s climb: Corey Thompson has perhaps been the most underrated player on the Bulldogs team this year. He plays well above his relatively small stature and does all one can ask of a player at the wing position. He takes hard runs coming out of trouble, is an impressive finisher, has become very defensively sound in the oft criticised ‘up and in’ defensive scheme employed by Head Coach Des Hasler, and has also shown he has an uncanny ability to retrieve the ball from the in goal in a pressure situation and somehow get the ball back in to the field of play rather than surrender a goal-line drop out to the opposition. He should be very proud of his efforts this year, and looks to have done more than enough for feature in the team’s future plans.
As he has done all season, against the Titans, Thompson did the little things extremely well. He has become a very dependable player who is adept in all phases of the game.
- Reynolds returns, again: Reynolds found himself again returning from suspension for the second time in recent memory. However, unlike his first return from suspension, this time he flashed the ability that saw him earn NSW Blues selection. He looked impressive early, linking up with the aforementioned Josh Jackson connection, which was initially very effective. He followed that up with sound decision making by then using the Jackson option as a decoy and finding space elsewhere for Tim Lafai after faking the inside pass to Jackson that had worked so well in two previous possessions.
However, his seemingly acute awareness in his return seemed to fade not long thereafter, returning to the Jackson connection a few too many times when he simply just wasn’t the right option in plays where other options were both available and more favourable choices.
An up and down return for Reynolds, but considering there was no ‘up’ to his previous return, these were encouraging signs for his role in the now well and truly stagnant Bulldogs attack going forward. The attacking play needs a massive boost if the team is to succeed in the playoffs, and Reynolds will have a key role in any improvement in attack for the Bulldogs.
- The c-word: No, not that one, although in the world of sport, this one is just as dirty – complacency. The majority of the Bulldogs’ woes in this game, and in almost every game since Origin can be reduced to a form of complacency. The Bulldogs started the way any good team should against what was, with no disrespect to the Gold Coast Titans, inferior opposition. They got on top with an 18-0 lead. However, not long after mounting that lead very early in the game, the Bulldogs capitulated. There’s no other way to put it. Heading in to the Finals, momentum is perhaps the most important aspect of a team’s performance. The Bulldogs basically don’t have any momentum, and they forfeited a very good chance to build some against the Titans. 18-0 up against one of the bottoms teams of the competition, they should have been pressing the issue and imposing their will.
However, the Bulldogs went in to a conservative shell in attack and lacked much, if any, intensity in what eventually turned in to a lazy defensive effort. Bar the consistently standout efforts from players like Josh Jackson and James Graham who give their absolute all every week, most of the team seemed to shift from high execution and intensity to going through the motions by the end, and it cost them the game. Imagine the result if they get complacent against any of the playoff caliber teams left in the competition, much less the Melbourne Storm, whom they have this week.
The Bulldogs shouldn’t have even given the Titans a chance to get back in the game after the 18-0 lead. Yet, they did exactly that, and that is a very worrying sign heading in to the business end of the NRL season. Complacency could prove to be critical against higher quality opposition. After all, it proved to be against a lower quality team.
- Taylor headslam: Dave Taylor committed quite the dirty play against Bulldogs Prop David Klemmer; a head slam. It was a pretty blatant one too. There is never, ever a need for that kind of force and pressure to that area of the body. Everybody from Under 6’s to the NRL knows this, and it’s about time to league got tougher on such egregious fouls in the game that have no competitive or accidental rationale to them, just the deliberate overuse of force to a vulnerable area of an opponent with such a high risk of severe damage being done.
The minimum for such fouls has to be the sin bin. It’s not even an attempt at a tackle. Dirty, dirty play there.
Play of the game: Graham’s chase. There just aren’t enough superlatives to aptly describe how highly that chase reflects upon his intangible characteristics as a player such as effort, will, grit and toughness.
State of the game: Metres gained – Titans: 1845, Bulldogs: 1604. Despite the Bulldogs making 7 Linebreaks compared to the Titans’ 2, the Bulldogs were out-gained by 241 metres, a big indicator that the Titans worked much harder with the ball more often than the Bulldogs did. The Titans did also have more possession, completing 8 more sets of attack than the Bulldogs.