The Bulldogs stay alive in the NRL post-season with a very comprehensive victory over the Melbourne Storm, winning 28-4. The Bulldogs were a vastly different team than they have been in recent weeks and now look like legitimate competition contenders.
- New breed: The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs took the field against the Melbourne Storm as supreme underdogs, and rightly so. They have been astonishingly feeble as of late. However, they were beyond ready for this game and provided a stark contrast to the disappointment they had defined in the past month or so.
This was a complete and utter form reversal. They were in control of the little things such as effort, intensity and structure. Offensively, they controlled possession, completed their sets and were a picture of execution. They didn’t overplay their hand and played what was in front of them, both a testament to the poise and decision making of both Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds. Both of whom put forth impressive performances in a return to form. Particularly Hodkinson, who controlled the tempo with astute decision making and a sound kicking game, something that had recently been lacking.
Defensively, their line-speed, reads and physicality were tremendous. The normally clinical Melbourne Storm attack was uncharacteristically off the mark on numerous occasions, and this was more a result of the Bulldogs’ defensive pressure than poor play on behalf of the Storm players. Make no mistake, Melbourne’s errors were very much forced by Canterbury-Bankstown pressure.
If the Bulldogs can maintain their ascension to form, they will be the contenders that once lead the NRL competition. This was an impressive dismantling of a very talented and well coached football team. It was exactly the kind of performance this team is capable of when their effort is controlled and their structures are well executed with said effort both in attack and defense. Particularly, they played a very impressive first half filled with enthusiasm, passion, controlled aggression and a high level of execution.
It can be easy to read too much into one performance, but this was a convincing outing, away from home, against elite competition in a do or die match up. Phil Gould summed it up best in saying that the Bulldogs were relentless in every run and every tackle. Hard not to be impressed.
- Offense takes life: The Bulldogs attacking performances this season have been by and large characterised by their ineptitude. Without high levels of order and execution, they seem to struggle mightily. Luckily for them, organisation and execution were two very bright spots in the win over the Storm.
One great example of this was the Try to Trent Hodkinson, the second of the game for the team. The Bulldogs had Aiden Tolman aligned to the left, and then Tony Williams made a surge off the ball outside of Tolman to provide another option for Hooker Michael Ennis as he shaped left from the ruck. This looked like a situation for Ennis to pick either Tolman or Williams for a ‘crash’ (short) ball short at the line. In particular, the late run from Williams is a little detail worth noting as it would have put added stress on the defensive line to make some decisions if they were a hope to pick the right recipient of a potential Ennis pass, much less bring them down before the line. Ennis feigned left to this scenario, but however then turned the ball inside to James Graham, who then took the ball behind the ruck and to the right hand side of the field, were Graham had the option to run himself, or pass to Josh Jackson or Trent Hodkinson, who both ran a ‘block’ play at the line outside him with Jackson the lead runner in to the line, and Hodkinson the option behind him to the outside.
Graham then summed up the play perfectly, electing to pass to Hodkinson after the defense committed to the hard-running Jackson. The pass was perfect and there was a massive hole in the defensive line due to the Storm defense overcompensating for Jackson, which is the desired outcome of the ‘block’ play. Hodkinson broke an arm tackle attempt from Fonua, who was already committed to the options outside of Hodkinson, who then had an easy path to the line.
Try, Bulldogs. This was just one play that highlighted the depth of structure, organisation and detail the Bulldogs utilised throughout the contest. It’s a reflection of both terrific play design and sharp execution. Lots of stress was put on the defense through multiple players in motion off the ball and quick misdirection a close-quarters area of the field defensively for the Storm, where quick decisions, both good and bad, are only magnified, and this particular play design exploited this to perfection. The Storm defense had to quickly decide whether to account for Tolman and Williams with little time to recover after being momentarily frozen by that possibility, which then further rushed the decision making process of defenders once the misdirection from Ennis to Graham and the options at Graham’s disposal became the apparent threat.
As I said, terrific design and excellent execution. Both staff and players can take a bow for that one, and it’s something the Bulldogs did very well all game, but particularly in their near-perfect first half of football.
- Graham’s chase, part two: James Graham was lauded here last week for his incredible effort in chasing the play regardless of the likelihood of him successfully ending up in a position to make a play. He did so against the Storm, but this time his effort saved a certain Try.
The Storm made a break down the left sideline after getting outside the edge of the defense through Koroibete, who made a break, drew the fullback Perrett then passed inside to Mahe Fonua, who looked certain to score. James Graham had been chasing since the break looked likely, and ended up running 60 metres to get to Fonua just in time after he was tripped by a Reynolds ankle tap (Reynolds’ effort was also most important).
If Graham doesn’t put in the exact same kind of effort he did last week, he isn’t even position to make the stop. Yet, because of his relentless effort, sprinting 60 metres to even get close to much quicker players, he put himself in position to even be a possibility of making a play.
There truly aren’t enough superlatives capable of doing justice to these kinds of efforts. They’re so rare, and so hard to describe. Yet Graham has made them two weeks in a row, and I’m still unable to find words apt enough to describe just how phenomenal these efforts are. Incredibly inspirational yet again, and at a time when it was needed, as the Storm were trying to instigate a comeback.
This time however, at a crucial juncture in the contest, a fatigued prop could have been a crucial disadvantage to the defensive effort required following a penalty after the Graham tackle. He was thus given a well earned rest, being substituted off, which wasn’t the case last week.
- Forward platform: All five of the starting Bulldogs forward exceeded 100 metres gained and thus won the battle for field position on early tackles between the opposing forward packs. For contrast, only two of the Storm forwards managed to do the same. The forwards dominated the ruck from the start of this one. Along with Tolman, Graham, Williams, Jackson and Eastwood, interchange player Dale Finucane too made over 100 metres, and David Klemmer reached 99, just 1 metre shy of the benchmark. Eastwood was particularly impressive, making a bruising impact both with and without the ball. There was a stage in the first half where he made two tackles minutes apart that saw both recipients of his brutal hits in defense winded on the ground after the fact. He headlined the physical presence that was the Bulldogs pack of forwards.
- Lafai triple: Tim Lafai has fast become the most potent attacking threat the Bulldogs have at their disposal. He’s very athletic, strong and aware as a player. It’s a testament to his offseason work which saw him put on a fair bit of muscle to better cope with the physical rigors of the NRL, and also adapt to playing on the opposite side of the field that he is accustomed to.
He scored three tries against a good defensive team and was very impressive almost every time he touched the ball. He looks to be in great form heading in to the business end of the NRL season, and the Bulldogs’ success will be partly contingent upon his ability.
- Playing a full game: The Bulldogs did well to weather the Storm (pun unintended, I promise) of a resurgent Melbourne effort in the second half. The Bulldogs were nowhere near as efficient or dominant, but the result was the same – they kept the Storm at bay despite multiple raids on their Tryline in large part due to their unwavering, relentless effort. Very similar to their second half against the Storm last time when they won 6-4, having to continuously turn up for each other. Only with more of a buffer with the scoreline this time, making the situation less desperate.
This was pleasing to see after their capitulation last week once they similarly appeared to dominate early in the game, and is the kind of effort needed to be successful in this part of the season.
- O’Hanlon injury: As a tragic consequence of Graham’s sterling effort, Pat O’Hanlon, who replaced him, suffered a ddevastating lower leg fracture mere minutes after taking the field. O’Hanlon has been a quiet contibutor for the team all year coming off the bench, and I wish him nothing but a speedy recovery.
Two side notes with this as well. Firstly, O’Hanlon had to be stretchered off the field. This may seem innocuous, but nowadays it’s commonplace to have a medicab, the little medical cart, come on to the field and speed up this process. I’m not sure for what reason there wasn’t one down in Melbourne, but it was odd to have it absent.
Secondly, I’d like to credit the sportsmanship of Melbourne Halfback Cooper Cronk. Cronk, who showed his class remaining with O’Hanlon in the immediate aftermath of the injury. Playing groups across the league are a collective brotherhood, and nobody wants any player to get hurt so severely. It was good of Cronk to remain with O’Hanlon, who would have been very much undergoing shock.
- No Try fuss much ado about nothing: The No Try call was absolutely the right call. The ball clearly touches Bromwich who bobbles it, and it then in turn hits Reynolds, which is the definition of a knock on. Phil Gould (who runs the Panthers, by the way) was so very far off the mark in his disdained assessment of the call. He may have a point with regard to his critique of the systems of replay and their protocol of use. However, with regard to the call itself, there is no controversy. The ball very clearly goes off Bromwich’s hands into Reynolds, constituting a knock on. Very simple. Unfortunate for the Storm, as it would have been an incredible Try at a key point in the game for them. But they were in no way hard done by, just merely unlucky.
As an aside, the Channel 9 commentary team was ridiculous in their condemnation of the decision. I understand the frustration of something very simple negating a beautiful sequence of rugby league, but the way they carried on, particularly Gus Gould and Ray Warren, both of whom I respect greatly, showed what was borderline ignorance in lambasting the decision the way they did. The decision was unequivocally correct. The only travesty here is the lack of professionalism and seemingly also a lack of understanding of the game itself from people who are meant to be very experienced observers of the game. The game suffers from a serious lack of professionalism off the field as it is. Perpetuating ignorance and naivete does nothing to help that, especially from people who should be doing the exact opposite.
In fairness, Gould did make a valid point with two penalties and reports, which when played in slow motion looked much worse than they really were. As was the case with Slater’s knee of Reynolds which appeared to be an accident, and Morris’ tackle of Waqa’s arm where Morris just did all he could not to let him go after a contest between the two in the air.
Play of the game: Graham’s chase, again. See the ‘up’ point dedicated to him.
Key stat: Offloads – Storm 17, Bulldogs 3. Despite making 17 offloads, the Storm only managed 4 points. With such high levels second phase play, attacking output is usually benefited. It wasn’t, which is a true testament to the Bulldogs defense,