Grand Final preview: What to watch for

On Sunday the 5th of October, the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs will face the South-Sydney Rabbitohs in the NRL Grand Final. With storylines aplenty, here’s what to watch for. (Kickoff: 7.20pm – ANZ Stadium, Sydney. Coverage: Channel 9).

Ennis’ status: In a cruel blow to both the career of Michael Ennis and his team, the Bulldogs captain suffered fractures in his foot during last weeks Grand Final qualifying victory against the Panthers.

So, will he play? If not, who does? With the routinely coy Des Hasler calling the shots, only time will tell. But Ennis’ injury situation has myriad options to account for as kickoff nears. As you will read, there is truly no safe option for the Bulldogs, with every potential choice presenting considerable risk.  Here are all of the main realistic possibilities I can think of.

  1. Ennis plays: The most unlikely option in my opinion as this is not an injury that one can simply grin and bear. These types of fractures are immensely painful. Playing through the pain of broken bones a week after the fact just doesn’t often happen, regardless of the sport. That being said, Ennis has not been declared out to this point. It’s incredibly unlikely that he plays, but with the unrivaled competitiveness he contains, it would be foolish to bank on Ennis not playing some role in the game. Stranger things have happened.

    Ennis’ presence would indeed be a huge mental boost for the Bulldogs, but is a hobbled Ennis truly better than one of the many potential combinations that could replace him? What if he misses a key tackle due to the injury? He could well become one-dimensional in that his mobility will be effected, allowing defenders to key on his passes as his propensity to run/do anything else would be great diminished.

    Point being, even if Ennis is remotely close to well enough to take the field, he will not be his usual self, and the version of Ennis the team will get will have to be deemed, in a football sense, superior to any potential replacement scenario.

  2. Reynolds/Mbye combination:
    1. Reynolds #9, Mbye #6: This is perhaps the most positionally sound combination. Josh Reynolds covered for Ennis last week in the event of his injury. People seem to have forgotten that Reynolds actually broke through at NRL level at the Hooker position for the Bulldogs, meaning he has experience at the position, and skills that translate well to the role. He also adds a dynamic element to the running game from dummy half. However, it would mean a higher work-rate in defense for the relatively small Reynolds.

      Mbye however is a natural in the halves, has sound ball skills and is a talented kicker of the Football, which could be an advantage in a game that has the potential to be a grinding affair where field position is worth more than usual. However, starting a rookie in such a high stakes environment could also overwhelm the youngster. This will come down to the faith Des Hasler has both in Reynolds’ ability to handle the demands of the position along with Mbye’s ability to handle the occasion.

    2. Mbye #9, Reynolds stays at #6: This would allow the combination between the halves to remain intact, which could be a big factor considering the combination will already suffer from a different Hooker acting as the conduit for the attack. However, Mbye has solid ball skills, and his kicking game could be a big advantage from the position. Mbye has also come leaps and bounds as a defender, meaning the consideration of the added defensive responsibility would be less of a concern. Mbye also is a somewhat dynamic runner of the ball with quick feet, much like Reynolds.
  3. Reynolds at #9, Williams or Jackon #6, extra forward (likely Finucane): Playing a forward in the halves is something that the Bulldogs have already done this season, with considerable success, particularly with Tony Williams. However, Williams is in the best form of his career as a forward, and Jackson the best form of his young career in general. Toiling with an already established strength of the team might be too much of a gamble and cost the team a crucial edge they already have at their disposal. Williams has been almost unstoppable, whilst Jackon’s work rate on both sides of the ball is second to none and would be impossible to replace.

    This option also means a new selection on the bench, which could in turn hurt the depth of the teams biggest asset – it’s forwards, as a layer of depth will be taken away. Souths are also likely the team best built to counter a ‘heavier’ set of personnel in attack, given how strong their own forward pack is, which could limit the effectiveness previously experienced by the Bulldogs when employing this scheme.

    In a game of such magnitude, diminishing one of your true strengths could well be far too costly.

  4. Maitua to #9: Reni Maitua has relieved Hooker duties when necessary at certain points this season. He also adds a wealth of experience to the team, including the last time the Bulldogs won the Grand Final (2004). However, his ball skills are average at best, and with the Hooker playing such a key role in the attacking plays the Bulldogs commonly utilise, this could place a massive restriction on what the team is able to execute offensively.

    Maitua is also not the same player he once was. He’s not as fast and his defense has dropped off a touch. His effort however has definitely not waned, meaning Maitua could add much of the effort the team loses in the event Ennis is unavailable.

  5. Damien Cook at #9: Cook is the only legitimate, true ‘Hooker’ option, playing the same position as Ennis. However, in limited action this year Cook has done nothing to catch the eye. That’s not a knock on Cook, but he just doesn’t appear to be playing at a desirable level for this level of football, especially in the biggest game of the season with so much on the line. However, the fact he has experience in the position would no doubt be playing in his favour.
  6. Jackson at #9, Finucane starts: Josh Jackson is also capable enough of a ballplayer to fill in the role of Hooker, and probably the best equipped defensively to do so. However, he himself has been insanely productive in his natural position of second-row. Moving him would remove that productivity, which the team would likely need more than it would need his services at Hooker.

Ennis is essentially the conduit for the Bulldogs’ attack – everything runs through him. His knowledge of the system is vast and will be sorely missed if absent, as well as his ability to control the ruck with his adept ball skills, solid awareness and decision making. He is also a key figure in defense, providing a physical and emotional spark for the team, particularly when in need of a boost. Regardless of who his replacement is, if Ennis is out, the shoes left to fill are monumental in significance for the Bulldogs. UPDATE: Ennis has officially been ruled out of the Grand Final.


Luke’s replacement: The Rabbitohs are also without their own Hooker, Isaac Luke, who failed to appeal his dangerous lifting charge at the judiciary this week. However, unlike the Bulldogs, they have a safe, ready-made. replacemt, Api Koroisau is a very similar player to Luke, and presents many of the same troubles. He is quick and dynamic out of dummy-half, possesses good ball skills and is a sound defender. He is also slightly quicker the Luke, who is no slouch himself, which presents a key matchup against the Bulldogs. As recently as last week, the Bulldogs struggled to contain a similarly quick player out of dummy-half in James Segeyaro, who often tore up the middle of the defense.. Particularly at the back-end of each half of play, Segeyaro exploited the mismatch of his quickness against the fatigue factor among the forwards, especially at marker, and this is something Koroisau has proven capable of doing in his NRL appearances thus far.

So, the Bulldogs need to be privy of young Koroisau, as he has the ability to deal a lot of damage to a team that so heavily relies on bigger, slower players such as the Bulldogs.

Battle of the big men: These two teams both boast some of the best players in the position group known as the ‘forwards’. This equals a brutally physical encounter that will have the tendency to turn into a grinding, low scoring affair. Regardless, the battle between the teams opposing sets of talented big-men should make for delightful football viewing. Especially keep an eye out for the teams’ respective British imports, Sam Burgess for the Rabbitohs and James Graham for the Bulldogs. This has the makings of an explosive game, and no matchup should provide more spark than the clash between two of the leading groups of forwards in the game. Gaining the physical and territorial edge in the middle of the field cold go a long way to deciding the outcome.

Bulldogs captaincy: If Ennis is indeed out for the Bulldogs, who will be their captain? Frank Pritchard was named co-caption prior to his lengthy stint on the sidelines due to injury, and seems a logical option. However, he isn’t even in the starting side as of yet in making his comeback from said injury. For me, this leaves two leading contenders – Origin winning Halfback Trent Hodkinson, and the captain of the English international team, James Graham. Both have desirable leadership qualities and both play instrumental roles in the team. Graham has put in monster effort upon monster effort this Finals series, and Hodkinson has returned to defining the term ‘clutch’ in big game moments. Could easily go either way, and neither would be a bad option. UPDATE: With Ennis officially ruled out, the Bulldogs have named Trent Hodkinson and James Graham as co-captains.


Edge match-ups: The Rabbitohs have proven capable of exploiting the Bulldogs’ ‘up and in’ style of defense this year. ‘Up and in’ defense is where they compress the middle of the field (shorten the gaps between players side-by-side) and place responsibility outside players to jam-in, almost marking one player inside the one opposite them, often leaving the Wing unaccounted for. This often shuts down sweeping attacking movements to the edges of the field, and can also force errors. However, it does leave them susceptible to certain attacking ploys, particularly attacking kicks in behind the Wing. The line also must place a big emphasis on sliding with the play in the event that the attack gets outside the aforementioned attempt to ‘jam in’.  Hasler’s defensive system is very risk vs. reward, but it has been a staple of his strategies since his days at Manly, and the Bulldogs’ success may just depend on their ability to execute their patented defensive gameplan, particularly the effectiveness of their slide.


The Rabbitohs have a lot of talent on the edges. However, the Bulldogs have a fair bit themselves, with Josh Morris, though still hobbled, one of the best defensive Centres in the game. Tim Lafa, known for his attacking capabilities,  also showcased a toughness and physicality in defense in shutting down Jamal Idris last week in the win against the Panthers. The battle between two potent backlines shold make for an entertaining encounter.


Hodkinson’s knee: Lost in the euphoria of last weeks victory was the fact that Trent Hodkinson’s knee, though not keeping him from the field, is still effecting his game. So much so that he has thus far forfeited the goal-kicking and kick-off duties, which Tim Lafai now handles. Aside from the ramifications in terms of losing the league’s most talented goal-kicker, which could prove costly in a close game where every point will count, Hodkinson’s mobility in general has been effected. Specifically, he was a step too slow i covering Matt Moylan on the Bulldogs’ Tryline late in the first half against the Panthers, and that split second cost the team a Try, gifting the Panthers momentum at the time.


Hodkinson is a very impressive defender. However, should he be forced to move and chase, he may be susceptible to quick change of direction plays. It will be interesting to see if this is something South Sydney choose to try and exploit. Hodkinson is also arguably the best cover defender in the NRL, and having diminished mobility will surely effect his ability to make potentially key tackles that could save a break from being made, or a Try from being scored.

‘Grand Final’ moments: Both teams feature plenty of talent to potentially be the deciding factor in this game, or make the crucial play that defines the game and delivers the result for their side. For the Bulldogs, I’m tipping that player to be Trent Hodkinson. He has done it all year at every level and his ability to remain cool and calm when the lights of a big game burn brightest is quite literally second to none not just in the NRL, but Australian sport at the moment. For Souths, the obvious pick is Greg Inglis. However, the Bulldogs have matched up well against him in recent games. I think the stage is set perfectly for Isaac Luke’s replacement, Api Koroisau, to play a key role in deciding his team’s fate.

Whichever way this game goes, it has the makings of an instant classic. All one can hope for is that the best team on the day wins. Best of luck to both teams, and bring on the action come Sunday night.








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