The Bulldogs (9-8) rebounded from their poor showing in a loss to the Broncos last week, beating the Eels (7-10) 28-4 at ANZ stadium. The Bulldogs were good, but not great. They still have much to improve on if their season will have much meaning beyond the regular season. Here are the ups and downs. (Photo credit: Bulldogs.com.au)
- Jackson stellar: In terms of post-Origin Bulldogs attention, David Klemmer has garnered most of it. And rightly so, Klemmer was brilliant in his debut Origin series and equally as destructive upon his return to the blue and white. However, another Belmore based player long earmarked as a future NSW stalwart, Josh Jackson, also finally got the chance to experience life as an Origin player this year. He appeared in all 3 games and acquitted himself very well in his debut series.
Aside from the obvious pride and accomplishment that accompany such an achievement in and of itself, often the biggest the result for a player is best exemplified by the type of player they go back and become at their club team after a stint at a higher level.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the performances of Jackson since the conclusion of the Origin period. He’s returned from his time in blue as a much more mature, refined player. His greatest attribute has always been his relentless effort, but he seems more in tune with when and where to put forth the effort, and when to conserve it. He also seems much more confident with the ball in-hand, as his team-high 171 metres gained and 2 linebreaks attest. He’s always been an adept attacking player, but more and more he is providing a spark for the team at times it is much needed. He’s becoming a significant piece of the overall attacking puzzle himself.
Make no mistake, Josh Jackson is one of the premier young players in the game, especially at the Second-Row position. There aren’t many who can defend as well as they can cause headaches for opposing tacklers, but Jackson can do it all. And he has the intangibles to ensure he’s consistently great. He’s a pleasure to watch and the team really need to prioritise securing his services in the long-term.
- Hodkinson’s return: It’s no coincidence that the Bulldogs attack struggled mightily in the absence of NSW Halfback Trent Hodkinson last week. Nor is it a coincidence that it found its rhythm this week against the Eels as Hodkinson himself regained some form and consistency.
For the most part, the Bulldogs’ attack had a much more direct, purposeful approach that appeared to be much more organised. Of course, it had its moments of futility also, but overall the return of Hodkinson paid immediate dividends. He was patient and provided a calming influence. He also weighed up his options with precision and put forth a sound kicking game – something that is always a glaring weakness in his absence.
Despite news of his impending departure, Hodkinson is one of the most valuable players on the roster with respect to the fortunes of the team this season. His composure, patience and overall ability to steer the team around the field are all key components to the less flashy, grinding type of football predicated upon execution that the Bulldogs employ. Hopefully this strong performance from Hodkinson portends similar results as the season goes on.
Either way, I’m sure a stable, consistent performance at the Halfback position was a welcome sight for head Coach, Des Hasler.
- The value of Brett Morris: The other key component to a potent Bulldogs attack? A healthy Brett Morris. Not since the days of Ben Barba have the Bulldogs had a formidable offensive presence in the backline. In Brett Morris, they’ve well and truly found one. Morris possesses elite speed, vision and spatial awareness, making something out of nothing multiple times per game whilst also serving as a focal point of attacking sequences.
Whether it’s a kick-return or on the end of a designed play, Brett Morris is the one Bulldogs player the opposition must account for all times, that’s how dangerous he is. His opportunities to display this value have unfortunately been limited by injury in his maiden season for the club. But the more I see of him in the number 1 jersey for the team, the more convinced I am that he is one of the buys of the season. He fills a very important need for the team whilst adding a dimension to the their attack that they’ve sorely lacked for many seasons now. Look no further than his 243 metres gained in this game for proof of that.
Morris is really starting to come into his own, and that can only bode well for the Bulldogs going forward. Also, what a fantastic moment his Try was, with brother and longtime Bulldog Josh by his side every step of the way. If you were either of their parents, how wide would your smile have been seeing that? Unbelievable.
- Rona/Radradra: An entertaining subplot in this game was the fact that the two players currently tied for the Try-scoring lead in the league were facing off.
Radradra struck first, scoring the Eels’ only points and gaining a 1 Try lead on Rona in the process. However, Rona would get one back just in the nick of time, scoring with an acrobatic finish in the corner of the field in the game’s final minute. The two are now at 17 apiece for the season.
I’d however be remiss not mention a key point: Radradra’s total comes from only 11 games of work (including a record stretch of 5 straight games with at least 2 Tries, which is beyond incredible) as he missed games due to injury. Whereas Rona has played the full 17 games so far this season. Regardless, both players are in impressive Try-scoring form and it seems like, health pending, both will finish 1 and 2 on the leaderboard. In which order, however, time can only tell.
- Lafai’s rut: Upon becoming a regular NRL starter, Tim Lafai was lauded as the new attacking weapon in the Bulldogs’ backline. With deft footwork and a newly solid frame, Lafai was justifying these appraisals with consistently good performances on the field. However, unfortunately Lafai sustained a significant knee injury in the Good Friday game against the Rabbitohs early on this season (the one with that controversial ending).
Since his return from that injury, Lafai just hasn’t been the same player. That is likely beyond understandable, and in essence may actually preclude this from being a true ‘down’ point. As such, this isn’t meant to be a knock on him whatsoever. But outside of being notably limited physically, he’s also been guilty of making some pretty poor decisions both with and without the ball. These examples of less than stellar decision making could well stem from the injury and subsequent issues it has resulted in. He could also be merely lacking confidence, both in his knee and as a result, in himself. But one way or another, Lafai’s play has stuck out to me for weeks now.
Hopefully his recovery improves going forward and he can get back to the once devastating form that saw him pose a consistent threat as a key weapon in the team’s attacking arsenal.
- Sandow shoulder charge: Towards the end of the game, Brett Morris broke free after a terrific Shaun Lane offload and had only Chris Sandow in his path. Morris did a great job in comitting Sandow to himself which allowed him to draw and pass to brother Josh, who if he caught the ball, likely would have scored a wonderful Try under the posts. Unfortunately, Josh dropped the ball and it wasn’t to be.
However, after Brett passed to his twin brother, Sandow unleashed a blatantly illegal, and perhaps more pertinently, dirty shoulder charge on Morris. The play was neither penalised nor put on report, despite Brett having blood coming from his ear.
Regardless of the effect on Brett Morris, the act of a shoulder charge has been declared illegal for long enough for it to be common knowlegde. The most important issue here is player safety, something the NRL claims to be prioritising going forward (despite wildly inconsistent and nowhere near comprehensive enough concussion protocols, just to name one contradiction to that ‘priority’).
Unlike many NRL rules, the shoulder charge is very black and white. If the arm connected to the shoulder in use in a tackle is tucked in, with the elbow pressed against the body, it is a shoulder charge. A penalty and report should immediately ensue. This is exactly how Sandow executed his hit. If the arm is outstretched, thus opening the shoulder up, then it is not a shoulder charge – this was not the case with Sandow.
That’s as simple as it gets, and when it comes to something not only so clear cut, but also of vital importance such as the safety of the players, there is no excuse whatsoever for missing that call. The window for the NRL to fix it’s shaky player safety protocols is shrinking. Before they know it, and before long, they could face an NFL-like lawsuit for not doing enough to care for their players despite knowing better.
The NRL needs to do what it should have well and truly by now, the right thing, regardless of time, money and effort.
- Officiating inconsistency: I really hate to harp on about the performance of officials. They do a tough enough job as it is, and in the day and age of the 24/7 news cycle underpinned by social media, not even the slightest error, or merely the perception of such things, goes unseen. For example, in Origin game 2, there were two ‘controversial’ calls against both NSW and QLD which enraged fanbases and inflamed naive media alike, yet they were both called to perfection by the officials (NSW forward pass Try called back/Inglis offside on Try). The referees deserve much more credit than they currently receive.
However, in this match in particular, there was simply no consistency on a fundamental part of the game – the held call. There’s always going to be a little variance on this call, but the degrees of which this took place in this game were just bizarre. I counted at least six occasions of held being called, and tackles (by both sides) being carried on that should’ve incurred a penalty instantly.
I’m normally an advocate (to a degree) of the referees putting the whistle away and ‘letting the boys play’. But when the whistle is put away with such inconsistency, that doesn’t work. It undermines the integrity of the contest and disillusions fans in the process, thus damaging the perception of the game.
In a climate where the referees are under the microscope more than ever, the officiating of a pillar of the game simply needs to be more consistent than it was in this instance.
- Bombed Tries: A less severe ‘down’ here, but there were two occasions where the Bulldogs missed chances in a borderline unforgivable fashion. The first was a very easy two-on-one situation where Tim Lafai should have simply drawn and passed to his outside man, Sam Perrett. Instead, he hesitated and opted to go himself, negating what was a very likely Try in the process. Head scratching to say the least.
The other was simply a dropped ball from the normally astute and somewhat resurgent Josh Morris. Players drop balls, sure. But this was as simple as they get. The ball simply bounced off his hands.
Given the scoreline, neither of these missed opportunities influenced the game. However, at the pointy end of the season with many teams sitting on identical, or at least similar amounts of points on the ladder, points differential is more important than ever. Hopefully a potential missed twelve points doesn’t adversely effect the team when it comes to final ladder position, should the team still be in contention come season’s end.
Play of the game: Brett Morris’ Try where brother Josh mirrored him all the way to the Try line. What a cool moment for those players and their family. Oh, and the Try itself was a rather nifty piece of work, too.
Stat of the game: Linebreaks – Bulldogs 7, Eels 3. This may not seem all that important, but it illustrates just how many attacking chances the Bulldogs created. The majority of them were bits of individual brilliance rather than well constructed pieces of play, but they’re encouraging signs nonetheless for a much maligned attacking team so far this year.