What to watch for: Bulldogs @ Panthers.

Finally, the 2015 NRL season is upon us. The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs take on the Penrith Panthers on Sunday afternoon at Penrith’s Pepper Stadium, opening the season with a 2014 Preliminary Final rematch. The Bulldogs ended the Panthers’ 2014 season in that game, and earned themselves a Grand Final berth in the process, something the Panthers have surely not forgotten.

Here’s what to watch for in the first meaningful Bulldogs action of 2015. (Kickoff: 4pm AEDT – Pepper Stadium, Penrith – TV coverage: Channel 9)

  • Debutante Dogs: The Bulldogs signed a few players in 2014 who are projected to have significant roles on the team in 2015 and beyond.
    1. The Most notable of which is of course the acquisition of the other half of the Morris twins, Brett, from the Dragons. Brett, just like his Bulldog brother Josh, is a NSW and Australian calibre player, and will bring a dynamic to the Bulldogs attack that has been sorely lacking since the departure of Ben Barba. Morris is also slated to play the same position as Barba did, replacing Sam Perrett at Fullback. This is despite Brett establishing himself as one of the elite Wing players in the NRL, playing the majority of his career thus far at the Wing position.

      Morris’ position change bears watching, as despite his undeniable athleticism and talent, he is largely untested in the Fullback position at NRL level, sporadic appearances in the #1 jersey aside. Perrett was both positionally sound and an adept returner of kicks after making the same transition from Wing to Fullback himself. It remains to be seen if Morris will be as fundamentally sound as he is potent offensively. His execution of Des Hasler’s trademark ‘up and in’ style of defense will also be worth watching, if in fact Hasler’s pet defensive tactic is again employed by his team.

      Regardless, Morris brings an elite skill-set to the team, and the Bulldogs’ backline should be more formidable with his presence.

    2. However, the debutante with the biggest shoes to fill may in fact be young Michael Lichaa, who was signed from Cronulla during last season. Many saw his signing as a nail in the coffin of Michael Ennis’ Bulldogs tenure. That came to fruition, with Ennis ironically finding a new home at Lichaa’s old team, the Sharks.

      The departure of Ennis leaves a huge void of leadership, experience, toughness and strategic nous. Lichaa likely won’t be able to fill every role Ennis used to for the Bulldogs as Lichaa presents a vastly different set of skills to the Hooker position. Lichaa is much smaller and quicker, posing a significant threat as a ball runner and will likely make a habit of exposing slow and sloppy play at the marker position. However, Lichaa is of course nowhere near as experienced as a player of veteran status like Ennis. Lichaa cannot, and should not, be expected to emulate Ennis.

      That being said, Lichaa already has an array of accolades to his name and career. He was a part of under-18 and under-20 NSW teams, was a member of both the 2012 and 2013 NYC (National Youth Competition/Under 20’s) teams of the year at Hooker, and was selected as a junior Australian representative over that same span.

      Quite the resume for a 21 year old. Lichaa also presents a new dynamic to a key position for the team, and the success of any team’s attacking potency is directly tied to the relationship between the halves (Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds), and of course, the Hooker, who is now Lichaa. The cohesion of this unit of players is worth monitoring as Lichaa’s tendencies and nuances will differ greatly to those of Ennis. It will go a long way in determining the Bulldogs’ success this year. Chemistry cannot be forged right away, and an adjustment period is to be expected.

      Also, as a side note, Des Hasler tried recruiting Lichaa to Belmore 3 years ago. Lichaa turned him down then, citing loyalty and more opportunity for playing time with the Sharks, who he resigned with. Hasler finally got his man, however, and is surely happy to now have Lichaa in the Blue and White.

    3. The most unheralded addition to the team has been that of ex-Cowboy, Curtis Rona. The arrival of Brett Morris has caused a backline reshuffle: with Morris replacing Perrett at Fullback, Perrett has now moved back to his customary Wing position, one of which has been vacated by Mitch Brown, who played the left Wing position outside of Josh Morris. Perrett is however traditionally a right Wing player, and thus has pushed Corey Thompson from his position, who impressed in that spot last season.

      This left Brown’s left Wing spot for the taking, and Rona showed enough ability in his new setting to beat Thompson for the starting position. For now, that is. Rona impressed in the pre-season, and presents a unique combination of size (194 cm tall/102 kg) and speed. That size likely also worked in his favour over the diminutive Thompson, who is much smaller, as size can be a big factor in the kicking game in both attack and defense.

      It will be interesting to see how the team utilises Rona’s frame, along with what the infancy of the connection between he and Josh Morris looks like on the left edge, because if Rona fails to find his feet, Head Coach Des Hasler knows he has a capable backup in Thompson should one be required.

      Whilst on the topic, the depth the Bulldogs now have at their disposal in the backline is worthy of note, as it is a stark contrast to last season. One of the biggest weaknesses of the 2014 Bulldogs is that they were overly reliant on the performance of their powerful forward pack which boasts quality and quantity whilst the backline failed to create enough offensive firepower. With the additions of Morris and Rona, along with ex-Eel Jacob Loko add a layer of depth to the backs the team simply hasn’t had in recent seasons.

      This is perhaps as important as the infusion of talent itself as injuries are an inevitability in sport, and it’s no coincidence that teams with good depth at key positions are the ones who are often successful. What was a position of weakness now has the chance to verge on being one of strength, providing the much vaunted forward pack a worthy (and much needed) complement.

  • Follow the (new) leader: As previously mentioned, the loss of Michael Ennis will have significant ripple effects on the dynamic of the team. Perhaps the biggest void his departure created, along with toughness, was in leadership.

    There were numerous options for the vacated role of captain. The most logical choice would be Frank Pritchard, given he was named co-caption of the team last year alongside Ennis, likely a touch of foresight by the team with Ennis’ potential departure in mind. However, Pritchard missed most of the 2014 season with injury and was thus unable to consolidate his leadership within the team.

    Other worthy candidates were underrated Prop Aiden Tolman and Trent Hodkinson, potentially the best story of the 2014 season after his mostly sterling pre-Origin form and of course defined by inhumanly clutch performances, and of course his NSW heroics. However, the team elected to go with the British Bulldog, James Graham, who has indeed flashed elements of passion, toughness and leadership that will go a long way in replacing the output of those things once provided by Michael Ennis.

    However, Graham has also had some questionable moments, namely his infamous Grand Final bite. I’m not trying to say he is not a worthy choice, because he unequivocally is. His passion for the game is undeniable and it’s clear he possesses the requisite intangibles teams desire in a leader in spades. But it also can’t be ignored that his decision making has been less than ideal at times, and part of me wonders if that ever factored into the decision.

    Regardless, Graham is the captain of the team for 2015, and is a solid choice. The team has also continued the trend of appointing more than just the one leader, with the aforementioned Tolman and Pritchard named as vice-captains. How the leadership is handled within the locker room and on the field will have a lasting impact on team performance, and it will be intriguing to see how both a new captain, and a new system involving vice-captains, is handled by the team.

  • Halves ready?: Both Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds required offseason surgeries. Hodkinson on his knee, and Reynolds on his shoulder. There’s often a teething process of sorts in general at the start of a new season, with players not yet adjusted to the speed and intensity of NRL football, as pre-season games just aren’t the same. This will only be exacerbated by an offseason shortened by injuries and rehab for both players.

    It’s also no secret that the NSW Origin halves dipped in performance after playing a key role for the Blues. They were in stellar form going in to Origin, particularly Hodkinson, but they both became inconsistent and lacked the assertiveness and polish they exuded in that run of great form. Attacking sequences were few and far between, and on the rare occasion the offense tried to threaten opposing defenses, set pieces were slow and poorly executed as a result.

    Thus, how they’ve recovered, both physically from their surgeries, and psychologically from their drops in form will go a long away in determining the outcome of this game, and those beyond. With another offseason together, they should also have an increased sense of chemistry.

    In particular, they became alarmingly stagnant on offense and lacked direction. Of course, it’s week one, and nobody should be expecting a completely polished product right out of the gate. Especially with new moving parts in key positions. However, this was one of the more noticeable areas of weakness as the season wore on, and it bears watching over the opening few weeks of the season.

  • Odd man out: Head Coach Des Hasler named an extended bench, something he does routinely, with Moses Mbye reprising his common role of 18th man. It will be interesting to see if Hasler elects to retain a strictly forwards bench comprised of Frank Pritchard, Sam Kasiano, David Klemmer and Tim Browne. Alternatively, he could include Mbye as a utility in the event of injury, or perhaps the most important factor in the decision, the anticipated workload of newcomer Michael Lichaa.

    If the plan is for Lichaa to play 80 minutes, then Mbye is the most likely to miss the game. However, if Lichaa is expected to come off the field at some point, then the odds are that Mbye will be the replacement, meaning one of the forwards will have to be left out, with the most likely candidate being Tim Browne in that scenario.

    Oh, and yes, that is indeed one incredulously talented bench lineup, with 3 players with international experience included (Pritchard, Kasiano and Klemmer). As an aside, the development of Klemmer is also a point of interest, especially given his recent representative experience.

  • Down to the wire: The Bulldogs played the Panthers twice in the regular season last year, and the Panthers won both encounters. In week 3, Matt Moylan triggered his own ascension with a clutch sideline conversion from the sideline after time expired and the scores were locked, stunning the Bulldogs with a two point win at the death. Then in week 21, the Panthers capitalised on the Bulldogs’ post-Origin slump to beat them again.

    Then of course, the Bulldogs emerged victorious under do-or-die conditions with a place in the Grand Final on the line. The margins of victory of the three games? two, six and six points respectively – all a converted Try or less.

    If last season is anything to go by, the outcome of this one won’t be known until the clock is near 80:00, or perhaps even beyond. If so, it will also be a physical affair, with both teams boasting plenty of size and power in the forwards. Not to mention, revenge is likely on the minds of the Panthers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s