In a contest preceded by an irrepressible sense of nostalgia, community and passion, the Bulldogs (8-7) triumphed over the star-less Storm (8-7) in what was an emphatic return to their spiritual home ground, Belmore Oval. Here are the ups and downs. (Photo: bulldogs.com.au)
- Back to Belmore: The obvious highlight of this encounter, regardless of the result (which itself was impressive), was the fact that the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs finally returned to play a meaningful game of NRL Football at the historic Belmore Oval, the first such action on the Belmore turf since 1998.
I had the privilege of attending the game in person with my sister, mother and grandfather, meaning three generations of this Bulldogs family were on the hallowed hill for their historic return to Belmore, and what an absolute treat it was. There was just something overwhelmingly special about watching the likes of Sam Kasiano and the Morris twins grace the same field Baa and even the Berries did way back when. The roars every time Klemmer surged through multiple defenders, the crunch of Shaun Lane imposing his mighty frame on a much smaller opponent, the way the entire ground rose as one with anticipation as the Bulldogs edged closer to scoring.. that same anticipation that ensued whenever ‘rocket’ Rod Silva sliced through the defence en route to the Tryline, with Hodkinson now slotting them from the same sidelines Halligan used to with ease.
That atmosphere was something that simply will never be replicated. It was a perfect collision of past and present, history and future, memories long faded and moments being made into them. The nostalgia was omnipresent from start to finish, and was headlined by my grandpa being the first one down to the fence as soon as the team made it’s way over to the hill, where diehards new and old alike spent the game on their feet, to sing the team song with the fans. That moment also typified just how significant this game really was. I make no exaggeration in saying the sight of the team in full song singing along with their loyal fans on the hill of Belmore Oval left the hairs on my neck firmly standing up. This was an all time special moment for me as a fan of sport, one I will never forget. The Bulldogs well and truly had a party in Belmore, and it was extraordinarily special.
Now, the night was not perfect by any means. The P.A. was impossible to hear on the hill and the video board sputtered constantly and froze completely for several minutes early in the game. If Belmore wants to host games of NRL calibre consistently, these things simply can’t happen. However, this game was always going to be much more about the moment than it was about the viability of NRL Football there in a significant capacity in the near future. Nothing was ever going to detract from the unforgettable experience that watching the blue and white jerseys spill their blood, sweat and tears on to Belmore Oval for the first time in 17 years.
On that note, Belmore does indeed host another Bulldogs home game this season, and very soon in fact – on Sunday the 26th of July, the Sunday afternoon game of the round. If you didn’t get down to Belmore on Monday night, I cannot implore you enough to ensure you do not miss out this time around. If you were there, well, I’m sure you’ll feel very inclined to be there again. My same family contingent will be there yet again, walking to the game from my mum’s place in Campsie (she now resides across the road from where her, her siblings and my grandfather did the exact same for every Belmore game, funnily enough) soaking in the Bulldogs action on the hill.
If you’re a Canterbury-Bankstown fan by any stretch, it’s something you must experience. As a fan, it simply won’t get much better than the Bulldogs at Belmore on a Sunday afternoon, especially if the weather plays nice. Do yourself a favour, clear the day and get down there. You won’t regret it, I promise.
Also, a huge dose of kudos to the Bulldogs organisation, headed by CEO Raelene Castle. They put forth a tremendous effort putting this together and it’s been years in the making. Job well done to all involved.
- Impressive performance all around: Make no mistake, this was the sharpest and most enthused the Bulldogs have been thus far in 2015. They ran with purpose and were organised, they defended with vigour and they made plenty of effort plays – scrambling in defence with many last ditch efforts to stave off the Storm attack.
I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that by the Storm’s standards, their roster was considerably weakened, missing the likes of Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater. However, the Bulldogs themselves were down on troops, playing without the suspended Josh Jackson and their injured captain, James Graham. So it’s not like the odds were as heavily skewed as one may have thought. However, a combination of the emotional return to Belmore coupled with sublime performances from the forward pack, the Morris twins and the halves in particular (more on them later) both with and without the ball was enough to keep the Bulldogs in front from start to finish.
Perhaps most impressively, they pulled all of this off despite the roller coaster of emotions present in the hype and culmination of the game. Often in instances of such passion, teams tend to tank – the build up overwhelms the emotions of the players and staff, draining them before the game even begins whilst having their minds clouded by the moment. However, as one would ideally like on such an occasion, the team appeared to utilise the emotion of it all perfectly, leading to a very inspired performance across the board.
It was the most complete game the Bulldogs have put together all season, and proved that with concentrated effort, controlled aggression and just the right amount of patience, this team can impose it’s will on another. If they can manage to use this game as a springboard and add consistency to that mix, the NRL will have a surprisingly potent contender come the post-season.
They now sit on an 8-7 record and are just in the top 8. However, there’s plenty of football to be played between now and week 26 – the team’s destiny for season 2015 is well and truly in their hands. Their return to Belmore offered a glimpse of what could follow, in more ways than one.
- Better halves: Ever since the emergence of Moses Mbye in the Bulldogs’ NRL side, I have long opined that he and Trent Hodkinson are the best answer to the equation of the team’s three halves dilemma. On a night that featured remnants of the franchise’s past, Hodkinson and Mbye showed this to be true, as it was those two that started, and dominated, whilst Reynolds was rendered futile on the bench. Many will perceive that as blasphemy, and please don’t misconstrue that as a slight on Reynolds – I beyond appreciate the things that make him an asset on the field. I’ll get to the complex question of Mbye, Hodkinson and Reynolds in the second half of this point.
First though, I’ll detail the stellar performance of young Mbye and the return to form of NSW hero Halfback Hodkinson. To put it simply, Mbye was superb. Everyone loves to rave about his speed lately, and rightly so. However, it may be his least impressive trait. He controlled the ball well, organised where he could, put in a swathe of deft kicks with his trademark touch and pinpoint accuracy, and he was also excellent in defence. Not once was he afraid to initiate a surprisingly potent amount of contact from a man of his stature and position. He plays with passion, and most importantly, he plays with intelligence. Yes, he did have a moment he’d love back when throwing a cut-out ball to nobody after being pressured by defenders. However, if an errant pass was the worst thing he did all night (it was), then odds are he played pretty well (he did).
On somewhat of a side-note, and coming back to his now well renowned speed, Mbye has a rare ability to recover from being out of place in the defensive line on the edges, where even the slightest misstep can prove catastrophic. In a testament to both his aforementioned speed, along with his vision and football IQ, Mbye covered a potential inside man, leaving him vulnerable on his outside shoulder and even at times leaving a hole, then had the awareness and physical speed to get out and close the gap quicker than it had opened. This is both incredibly frustrating for an attacking play whilst also an immense comfort for those defending outside him. Why? As those outside Mbye are more likely to trust his role in the defensive line whilst simultaneously making it less likely for them to abandon their role or utilise the riskier, though at times necessary tactic of jamming in early. Mbye more often than not makes the correct read, but when he’s in trouble, he can usually get himself out of it with relative ease.
His defensive effort is uncannily reminiscent of the best halves defender the NRL has seen in years. Someone who happens to be his teammate and current NSW Halfback, Trent Hodkinson. Hodkinson also has this same ability and awareness to not only routinely make the right reads but apply a physicality and technique that is unmatched at the Halfback position. No doubt being around Hodkinson has rubbed off on Mbye, and as Mbye’s effort in defence shows, that can only bode well for his future.
Now, Trent Hodkinson, though you are far too humble to do so, please, take a bow. After a year defined by at times justified criticism and a much tougher than expected road to recovery from offseason knee surgery, Hodkinson turned in his best performance of 2015. It’s no coincidence that his team did the same as a result. Hodkinson organised play often and efficiently, weighed up his options with precision and ball-played the best I’ve ever seen him. The way he held the ball up until the last moment after weighing up his options for the Shaun Lane Try was just one of many examples of his poise and smart decision making on the night. His kicking game was better than it had been in recent performances, and on numerous occasions he provided more than enough instances of correct reads and his trademark stout defence to remind everyone he’s still the best defensive half in the league, something he has been for a long time now (when healthy). He played with an urgency and intensity that has long escaped his 2015 form to this point, and his resurgent performance is a great sign for the remainder of the Bulldogs’ season (and NSW’s hopes come Origin 3).
Most pertinently, however, Mbye and Hodkinson worked very, very well together. They delegated to each other when organising and showed that they are well and truly synchronised. This is important for a number of reasons.
A) Hodkinson struggles when he has to put the team on his back. He may well be arguably one of the most clutch players the NRL has ever seen, with ice running through his veins when the lights burn brightest. But in instances where he has to be the dominant half, he tends to struggle. It’s just not his game to play like the Johns’ and the Thurston’s and masterfully ball-play for 80 minutes straight. Hodkinson’s strength lies in his patience and his decision making, not his dominance with the ball. Thus, having a stable, intelligent half with more attacking flair than he alongside him, like Mbye, releases just enough pressure to allow him to thrive.
B) Mbye is immensely talented, but still very young and thus needs a mentor to act as his rudder and ensure that he is never overburdened with responsibility whilst he still develops as a player and adjusts to the NRL standard of the game.
This is the definition of what is in the field of biology known as a mutualistic symbiotic relationship (hello year 12 science) – one where both organisms (in this case, players, of course) benefit from the presence of the other. They’re stronger collectively than they would be individually, both due to Hodkinson’s style of play and Mbye’s current phase of his career – one predicated upon learning and developing as opposed to dominating, at least for the foreseeable future.
Simply put, both Hodkinson and Mbye played incredibly well in their back to Belmore performances, and a big part of that was thanks to how they complement each other, whilst also a reflection of two talented players playing well. This is where we enter the 3 halves equation – what we saw out of the Hodkinson and Mbye combination, in a pure football sense, was more impressive than anything a Hodkinson/Reynolds or Mbye/Reynolds combination will have to offer.
Let me be upfront – I adore Reynolds’ passion and enthusiasm for the game. He is a relentless competitor. He also has a clutch component to his game as he too has won a few games in the dying moments with a field goal. However, the weaknesses he possesses are in critical and sought after categories, those of consistency, stability and ability to organise and structure play. Reynolds’ strength, his ability to spontaneously adapt to the play and ad-lib with his at times impressive vision, runs counter to what makes any team’s attack consistently great. Only so much of that can be overcome by fire and determination. Reynolds has also shown on numerous occasions that he has a propensity to let his passion, one of his greatest assets, get the best of him, leading to game altering penalties and suspensions that impact seasons. It is unfortunate, but impossible to ignore.
It is for these reasons that I believe that the best course of action, failing to retain all three players (nigh impossible with the salary cap, it would be a luxury to keep them together), is to stick with Hodkinson and Mbye long term. I think this is highly unlikely, as Hodkinson is the oldest of the three and may not be worth the money he can command at other clubs according to the Bulldogs brass, especially given his injury history. I also believe that Mbye is a must-keep, he is a rare talent at a position immensely devoid of such players, meaning it comes down to Reynolds vs. Hodkinson (unless Mbye plays the market and his price becomes impossibly steep). Thus, I could easily envision a scenario where the organisation lets Hodkinson walk, move Mbye to half and have Reynolds at five-eighth. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time the Bulldogs have parted ways with a talented, experienced playmaker in favour of a cheaper, youthful option, which is exactly how the Michael Ennis departure unfolded with Michael Lichaa waiting in the wings.
I’m just unsure if Mbye, or anyone for that matter, has the type of game to offset Reynolds’ sporadic, though at times brilliant, style of play. As should now be obvious, there is much for coach Hasler and the rest of the Bulldogs organisation to consider, and it will be interesting to see how things play out. Who knows, they might low-ball Hodkinson with a rough deal that will make it impossible for him to stay and beyond understandable to leave whilst he can still max-out his earnings in the fickle and ever shrinking window a good athlete has to make the privileged living from a game.
But in my eyes at least, for the next 3-5 seasons, the best on-field combination for the team was the one we saw in the blue and white 6 and 7 jerseys at Belmore Oval on June 28th, 2015 – Trent Hodkinson and Moses Mbye. They’re both tremendous players at key positions, they work incredibly well together, and neither possess the weaknesses and potentially damaging to the team qualities that Reynolds has proven to.
- Klemmer on fire: Young David Klemmer really has gone from strength to strength in his third NRL season. He exudes grit and has effort in spades, the perfect intangible complement to his hulking physical frame. The more mature (though at times still hot-headed) Klemmer has made significant strides in his game, judiciously varying when he needs to do nothing but barrel into the line, play the second phase game, and when to make his mark as a defender. He put in yet another sterling performance, leading all forwards on the night with a ridiculous 230 metres gained. He was a constant headache for the Storm defence, and was the best forward on the field.
If Klemmer keeps performing the way he has been in recent weeks, he will be a permanent fixture in both the sky blue NSW jersey and the green and gold of Australia. The Bulldogs would be wise to work on securing Klemmer’s future in a blue and white one. He’s a game-changing player, the type you build a team around.
- Forwards in general: I’ve already lauded the performance of the halves in Hodkinson and Mbye, and rightly so, they were very impressive. However, one big reason why that will be overlooked by many was the equally impressive performance by the team’s engine room – the forward pack.
Long heralded as a pillar of the Bulldogs in the tenure of Des Hasler, the forwards were at times unstoppable against the Storm. Only one starting forward failed to amass at least 160 metres gained (Eastwood – 84, who was a force in defence), along with two of the three interchange forwards passing 120m each (Lloyd Perrett and Tim Browne, with Kasiano managing 67m from just 6 runs).
With the 150m mark often the benchmark for a terrific performance for a forward, to have four starters surpass that, and another two forwards get very close to it is nothing short of impressive. This component of the team is one of it’s great strengths, to the point it is at times overly relied upon. But when they fire, the forwards provide a platform second to none in the NRL in terms of making things easier for the rest of the team, and making things incredibly difficult for opponents in the process.
- Emerging Lane: Billed as a prototypical edge runner in his time with the club so far, Shaun Lane was called up to the NRL after Tony Williams suffered a season ending pectoral injury in a training drill in preparation for the round 14 game against the Titans. Lane was a late inclusion that week, but has done nothing but impress in his string of performances since. To the point it’s already not unreasonable to believe that, should his form and development continue to ascend, he will be a regular member of the game day squad of 17 for years to come.
After showing flashes of brilliance last week, his performance against the Storm was easily the strongest of his acutely brief NRL career. His massive frame is of course ostensibly noticeable, but it is the finer points of his game that are most impressive – he has very soft hands aided with great vision, giving him the ability to ball play. He also has a surprising burst and short area quickness, adding a dynamic element to an already imposing physical presence, evidenced by his many half-breaks. He’s also shown evidence of being what is know as a ‘high motor’ player, the kind in the Josh Jackson mould where effort is relentless in all phases of the game. This is particularly important for him as a bigger body, as such players tend to become a liability in defence. However, the combination of his effort and unusual levels of mobility should negate this. This was highlighted by his chasing down and walloping of a much smaller opponent when the Storm were coming off their own Tryline. It was a huge hit in it’s own right, and did nothing but inspire the rest of the team into putting forth the same effort (along with fire up the crowd, myself included).
Tony Williams, despite his constant, mostly unjustified levels of criticism in recent years, is a big loss. However, in Shaun Lane, the Bulldogs have already found a solution, and Lane now has a chance to cement a role in the NRL team. Time will tell if it’s a chance he will capitalise on, but so far, so good for young Lane. He’s definitely one to watch as the season progresses.
- Brett Morris: The forwards and halves have now received a lot of love here, so it’s only fair I acknowledge the best backline player in blue and white at Belmore Oval this night, Brett Morris. Morris was a menace returning kicks, threatening to breakaway with his speed at any moment. However, his most impressive plays were his kick-recoveries in the red-zone, turning a likely dropout for the Storm into momentum swinging set of possession on multiple occasions. Then came his huge, Try-saving hit on the incredibly fast and strong Marika Koroibete. Koroibete received a perfectly placed kick at full speed looking very likely to be a scoring chance. Enter Morris, who at full speed himself committed to levying a hit on Koroibete that would pummel him over the sideline.
Morris perhaps came off second best, gingerly getting to his feet after spending much time on the ground, likely winded after the monster hit. But it’s great to see a player known for his speed and agility with the ball is beyond willing to throw his body around when his position as the last line of defence demands it. It was a night of gritty plays for the newer Morris, and this one symbolised them all.
- Kasiano, cut-out king: Absurdly, monstrous Prop Sam Kasiano has made a habit of throwing cut-out passes for scoring plays in attacking sequences. It’s now not even remotely surprising to see this happen at least once a game. However, after the Storm muffed an attacking kick and Curtis Rona recovered, the Bulldogs were gifted a new set of possession on the Storm line. In the mere seconds this took place, Kasiano found himself at dummy half amidst the frenetic sequence of play.
Kasiano actually scored from this position on another Monday night against the Dragons on June 8, sealing the win in the process. It was somewhat comical to see the huge Kasiano simply pick up the ball and force everyone out of his way from such a position, especially considering most players simply pass the ball to someone more suited when so sorely out of position.
Not Kasiano, though. Back to Belmore, where big Sam again inserted himself to dummy half in an attacking situation. This time, he ducked out to his left, after already surveying his options, then floated a perfectly weighted, indefensible cut-out pass to an unmarked Josh Morris on the left wing.
Try, Morris. Try assist, Kasiano. From dummy half. Incredulous. Brilliant, but incredulous all the same. What a play.
- Hodkinson ‘benching’: This isn’t really a down per se, merely something that I believe is being misconstrued, and is important to try and shed light on given the unique context it’s occurring within. In week 13, down 16-10 to the Dragons with 20 minutes left on the clock, and with the energetic Josh Reynolds on the bench, head Coach Des Hasler opted to replace Hodkinson and inject Reynolds in the hope a spark would be provided.
It was, the team went on to score two Tries on the back of Reynolds infused plays that put them in good field position. Interestingly, Hodkinson then returned to the field with 5 minutes to play in the game. Many saw this as a major blow to Hodkinson’s confidence and ultimately a sign of his future at the club becoming uncertain. Hodkinson then went on to play a key role in the NSW Origin 2 victory, a must-win for the state.
Fast forward to Belmore (it is still so great to actually say that) and Hodkinson was yet again pulled from the field to make way for Reynolds. This time, it was after a masterful performance and with the win all but secured. Origin is again upon us.
The salient point to me here is the fact he has been taken out of games only with Origin on the immediate horizon. The only two times this has occured, it has been with Origin around the corner. Admittedly, against the Dragons, Hodkinson was indeed in the midst of an underwhelming performance, and it made sense to bring on Reynolds. This is especially true if the plan was to bring Hodkinson off in the late stages of the game to rest his unfortunately still troublesome, constantly strapped knee that received surgical attention in the offseason. But I am of the belief that the ‘benching’ of Hodkinson for Reynolds has been something very much planned regardless of how the final Bulldogs games prior to Origin shake out.
That problematic knee of his has been a persistent thorn in Hodkinson’s side this season, and has been the main contributor to his at times lacklustre form. It’s no coincidence that since the Origin period last year (where he hurt his knee initially) that Hodkinson’s form dipped from the sensational way he started the season and went into 2014’s Origin series. There are myriad other factors that effect a players performance, but injury, especially when there is a history of them, is one of the toughest to overcome as it becomes both a physical and mental burden.
Hodkinson has handled himself with nothing but class as the influx of doubt and criticism that has stemmed from his ‘benchings’ intensifies. However, it seems to me that it is more a case of Hasler and the training staff managing Hodkinson’s workload first and foremost, whilst also balancing the dynamic the team is now presented with in the halves. In doing so, it gives Hasler a chance to preserve Hodkinson’s health long-term whilst also affording him a glimpse of the different combinations the halves scenario presents.
Simply, it’s smart coaching, and likely not a foreshadowing of things to come for the halves going forward. Don’t get me wrong, it definitely could just be Hasler transitioning to a Hodkinson-less lineup or a symptom of him growing short of patience with him. I just think there’s far more logic behind other reasons.
- Onside, actually: Also not a true ‘down’, and a very minor thing. But to everyone on the hill screaming bloody murder for alleged offside by Melbourne throughout the game, a little perspective. Granted, some Storm players did get away with some early line speed (as does someone from every team in every game), the majority of the time the Storm line appeared egregiously offside due to being in front of the referee, the referee was actually an extra two-three metres further back than the requisite ten, meaning the Storm were onside for the most part.
As long as they’re ten metres back, they’re onside. The referee was at times 12-13 metres beyond the play-the-ball. Hard to stay impartial at times, sure, but perspective is important, folks.
- My absence: This one, thought not directly related to the team, is very much a true ‘down’.
During a turbulent year so far for me personally (namely a very stressful, time consuming and expensive relocation, along with a new full-time job and the arduous pre-season that comes with the gridiron territory), my writing has been one of many casualties of simply not having the time for all I’d like to do. Much less that which is necessary to dedicate to and achieve the level of quality I strive for when attempting to put my words together in a somewhat coherent manner. In the wise words of Pawnee’s own Ron Swanson, ‘never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing’ (from the hilarious Parks & Recreation, for those unfamiliar). As such, I’ve been trying not to bite off more than I can show (despite numerous failed attempts to do the opposite). It’s been incredibly difficult to watch games (usually going very out of my way to do so), take notes, and then simply not have the time to put it all together during the week.
Anyway, I’m slowly tinkering with a routine that will have me crazily yet somewhat comfortably flat out (wishful thinking?) but hopefully able to squeeze everything together, including a return to writing about the Bulldogs, the NRL, sport at large and whatever else. I’d like to apologise to anybody out there who has been understandably disappointed by the lack of content I’ve put out this year. I can assure you that nobody is more disappointed than myself. I hope to deliver content in a more consistent fashion now. Fingers crossed I can do so, and if you’re still here, I thank you wholeheartedly.
Play(s) of the game: Kasiano’s cut-out/Try assist – seriously, what an unbelievable sequence of play from the big man. Morris’ Try-saver is also worthy of mention, though I’ve already mentioned both. Goes to show the impression they both left on me, I guess. Sam Perrett’s Try was also a most impressive finish, a reminder of his value and versatility.
Salient stat: 1,174 metres – the total ‘all run metres’ of every forward that took the field (excluding Michael Lichaa, who as a hooker, though still technically a forward, is definitely not a runner of the ball). An obscene level of output from this forward pack, headlined by Klemmer and Tolman notching up 230m and 208m, respectively. This platform was a key part of the impressive attacking performance of the team.
All stats courtesy of NRL.com.