The Bulldogs (1-1) put together a much improved performance in week 2 against the Eels (1-1), beating them 32-12 in the annual Bandaged Bear cup. Here are the ups and downs.
- Bandaged Bear Cup: The Bandaged Bear Cup is an annual game played between the Bulldogs and Eels designed to recognise and appreciate the tireless, amazing work done by the staff at Westmead Children’s Hospital. It also gives the patients under their care a chance to have a night out at the footy in what is surely a much needed distraction for the children, their families and their carers alike.
It’s a fantastic initiative that has been in place since 2007, and both teams are worthy of credit they seldom receive for their efforts in the community, which is definitely by no means restricted to the week of this game.
This is the fifth consecutive win for the Bulldogs in this particular meeting between the two teams, with the Eels last winning the Cup in 2010. However the real winners, of course, are those the game is dedicated to. Well done to both teams for continuing to embrace playing an active role in the community.
- Win #1: The Bulldogs put in one of their worst performances in recent seasons against the Panthers in week 1. They were disjointed, without enthusiasm and at times looked lost.
However, as those with even just an ounce of perspective within them could surmise, one disappointing performance in the very first game of a competition that begins in March and ends in October (far too long, by the way, which I will address at another time on this blog) is not cause for concern, and the Bulldogs showed why in this game.
They were by no means perfect and have a long way to go if they are to even be considered for Grand Final contention this season, but they were vastly improved. The team was for more assertive, particularly in attack where they appeared to have much more direction and control under the new halves pairing of Trent Hodkinson and Moses Mbye. They also played with a lot more effort and communication. This may seem insignificant, but as the contrast in the quality of play between this week and last shows, these seemingly small and fundamental aspects of the game can often make a world of difference.
The 32-12 scoreline is in no way indicative of the nature of the game, and the Eels deserved a closer scoreline than that. They played very tough, even matching the Bulldogs in the forwards despite their smaller pack. They also fought valiantly in the face of an ultimately overwhelming injury toll. But the Bulldogs did enough to win before Parramatta succumbed to an unfortunately high number of relatively serious looking injuries, and then capitalised on the Eels’ injury misfortune with two late Tries.
- Mbye’s progression: Moses Mbye played his finest game in the NRL thus far in this game. Mbye showed composure, mature decision making and yet again displayed an impressive kicking game. Most impressive were two cut-out passes. One for Curtis Rona’s first Try, and another to Sam Perrett early in the second half.
He’s not the most dynamic five-eighth in the world, but as were the early reports on Mbye, he possesses numerous attributes necessary to play the position well. He reads play well with decent vision, has good ball skills and an impressive kicking game predicated upon accuracy. Somewhat surprisingly, he is also a very sound defender who doesn’t hesitate to initiate contact.
In fact, Mbye took Eels powerhouse Semi Radradra one on one early in the game in the defensive red zone, and met him head on. Radradra likely thought this was a matchup he could exploit to his advantage, especially within 10 metres of the Tryline. But Mbye showed a toughness and physicality that is rare in a player of his size, and did enough to stop Radradra in his tracks as other defenders came to help take him to ground.
If Mbye continues to develop on his current course, there’s a real chance he could push incumbent Josh Reynolds for his place in the team. Reynolds is an unconventional five-eighth as it is, and his form is rarely consistent. Add on to that his propensity to let his aggression get the best of him and lack self-control, often to the detriment to the team, and an in-form Mbye on the ascent may pose legitimate alternative to the fiery Reynolds.
I’m not at all advocating for Reynolds to be replaced. When Reynolds is at his best, he provides a much-needed spark to the team in attack and to their mentality across the board. However, Mbye has 6-8 weeks to make the position his own. If he plays well over that span, Head Coach Des Hasler has an interesting decision to make with regard to the number 6 jersey.
- Brett Morris: After an at times shaky performance last week against the Panthers at Fullback, Brett Morris responded to those who may have been doubtful of his transition to the new position.
He was positionally sound, a much more involved member of attacking sequences (his first Try of the game was also the first time he featured in a set play this season), and showcased his support play on various occasions. He also appeared to be much more confident returning kicks, and the result was a very dangerous runner in broken play who almost broke through the line multiple times, which gave many sets of Bulldogs possession momentum they otherwise wouldn’t have had, much less from the first tackle. In particular, his kick return outside of his own goal line in the 28th minute was sublime, showcasing immense speed and elite elusiveness.
Though the calls for Morris to be Hayne’s replacement in the now vacant NSW Fullback role are remarkably premature, Morris showed us a glimpse of the potential his tenure in the #1 jersey has to offer. If he consistently plays the way he did against the Eels, then the conversation about his Fullback prowess will be legitimate. But until then, he’s put in one good performance, and one average one. No need to overreact. Time will tell what the future holds for Morris’ days as a Fullback, but the early signs are indeed positive.
- Triple-double: No, not in the Basketball sense. But three players for the Bulldogs scored two Tries apiece. Sam Perrett, Curtis Rona and Brett Morris all crossed the line twice. It’s a testament to the play-design, execution and ability of all players involved when the players who should score most for the team, all actually do.
- Sportsmanship: Unfortunately, there were plenty of injuries in this one. Multiple times there were injuries where the opposition was there to comfort or genuinely apologise to the down player, even after penalty-inducing plays.
Make no mistake, this is a fierce rivalry, and this was another typically tough contest underpinned by aggression from both sides. But it’s good to see professionals, you know, act like professionals and remain cool-headed, much less showcase some very admirable sportsmanship. Well done to both teams on this front.
- Lichaa quiet, which is a good thing: The new Michael at hooker for the Bulldogs, Lichaa, who replaces stalwart Ennis, has been relatively quiet in his first games as a Bulldog, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s good.
He is at a new team for the first time as a professional, and though he hasn’t made any highlight reel plays yet, he also hasn’t made many mistakes, much less any big ones, and that is just as important. He’s in a new system and is adjusting to different players, terminology and philosophy.
He’s also a vastly different player to Ennis, thus any expectation for Lichaa to play a similar style of game to Ennis is highly unfair. For those who recall the Bulldogs’ recent success in detail, it was Ennis who was the main conduit for the attack. He made most of the calls, and the ball literally went through him. Success with the ball started with him. That’s a lot of responsibility for a player, and is something Lichaa won’t be able to pick up overnight. That takes experience, and that only comes with time.
I’ve seen many already foolishly write Lichaa off as a bad buy for the team, and I urge patience and caution in making any concrete judgement. There’s no doubt Lichaa has the ability. His ball skills are above average (though I have noticed a tendency to pass too high at times, particularly to Hodkinson), he has good vision and has made sound decisions in when to run, and where to run the few occasions he’s had to do so to this point.
He has big shoes to fill, and we won’t know whether he has what it takes to take on they key role the hooker must play for the team until much further down the track. Lichaa needs time to acclimatise to his new environment and to build chemistry with his new teammates. I believe that once he’s comfortable, he will be able to be the same key component Ennis was. But this simply won’t happen without time and patience, especially with such a young player. Give him time.
- Hodkinson: Let me preface this point by saying this is not really a typical down point. I don’t for one second think Hodkinson is playing poorly, needs to be replaced or anything remotely akin to such notions. However, there’s no denying that he’s not quite himself. There are just many reasons as to why that don’t involve writing him off.
First of all, he has yet again been denied a true offseason to hone his craft and take care of his conditioning, much less build chemistry with new teammates in key positions. He underwent knee surgery in the offseason, and all reports indicate he was limited for the majority of the offseason. No player can be expected to come out firing on all cylinders under these conditions, and any such expectation is unreasonable. Maybe the knee isn’t quite right yet, and he’s likely slightly out of shape for where he needs to be, and that’s through no fault of his own.
Secondly, this is his first stint with the Bulldogs in a key role without Michael Ennis, which is having a huge flow-on effect on the team’s ability to organise play, move the ball, and ultimately execute. To surmise, Ennis ran the show in his time with the Bulldogs. He shouldered the majority of attacking responsibility, which allowed the halves to play freely and execute their assignments much more easily, which in no doubt contributed to the ascension of Hodkinson last year (among many other things – namely his first and only season with the team preceded by a healthy offseason of hard work).
Thus, Hodkinson has likely had greater responsibility bestowed upon his own shoulders and must now take the reigns of the offensive output of the team. That on it’s own is a large adjustment for any player, but factor in his limited offseason cut short by injury recovery, and the difficulty factor of such a large change in role is only compounded.
To summarise, Hodkinson has yet again been unable to have a proper offseason, which has limited his ability to put properly condition himself for NRL level football along with deny him the chance to build cohesion with the likes of Lichaa, Brett Morris and Curtis Rona – all now key parts of the team. He is also experiencing his first significant transition as a ballplayer within a system that has remained the same since he arrived at the club.
With these things taken into account, it is beyond unfair for anyone to be overly critical of Hodkinson. It’s foolish in and of itself to be making such claims after a mere two games regardless of other circumstances. It’s called perspective. And the are many factors influencing Hodkinson’s 2015 performances, which also really haven’t been that bad at all. The only glaring mistake was his kick not finding touch from a penalty.
All things considered, aside from it only now being week 2 of the season, it’s simply folly to be making definitive claims about any player or team. This is especially the case for Hodkinson, whose interrupted preseason along with key personnel changes changing the team dynamic around him will take time to overcome and adapt to respectively.
Play of the game: Morris’ second Try. James Graham, shaping to take the ball left to the open side of the field in the red zone with a set play set up to raid the left edge, as has become customary, instead turned inside late to pass the ball to a flying Brett Morris, who scored under the posts. A great change-up in play design, and solid execution to pull it off against a tired Eels side. Josh Jackson’s tackle on Radradra, who was unfortunately injured on the play, was also a difference maker early on, with an assist from Brett Morris’ desperation ankle tap slowing Radradra down slightly.
Stat of the game: Tackles made – Eels 355, Bulldogs 265. The Eels had to make 90 more tackles than the Bulldogs, many of which would have taken place when the Bulldogs opened the game with 10 minutes of possession. No wonder the Eels, with mounting injuries, waned so severely to end the game.