A mixture of questionable decision making, inefficient attack, continuing 5th tackle woes and a sorely missing killer instinct saw the Bulldogs lose to the Tigers in Week 8. Here are my ups and downs:
Firstly, hello again. For anybody who’s taken the time to read my thoughts before (thank you if so), you may have noticed at some point long ago that I’d disappeared off the face of the writing earth. Basically, as I’ve gotten older, priorities have shifted and the ever premium luxury of time has continued to dwindle.
Not just for writing either – even catching a game has fallen victim to the aforementioned aspects of adult life. However, I’ve strung together a few detailed viewings this season, begun tweeting a little bit again and here I am with a few opinions on the 2017 iteration of the team, in light of the season so far and with particular reference to this latest result. If you’ve read this far, thanks for stopping by and sharing your time. It’s always appreciated.
Now, to my ups & downs from the loss to the Tigers;
- Attacking signs of life: The Bulldogs have been lacking an attacking spark for years now, and it’s been a critical need for a very long time. They simply lack a key, dominant playmaker in the ever-important spine (Hooker/Halfback/Five-Eighth/Fullback) positions, especially in the halves.
However, there were a few instances of solid attacking raids in this game. The first Try (Montoya) was an impressive backline movement, and the second Try (Holland) saw a more off the cuff, though well-executed sequence that included 14 passes in total.
Though by no means resolved as an issue, evidence for an at least sufficient level of attacking potency has revealed itself over the past few weeks, and it did again in these instances (and others, e.g., the Jackson Linebreak). If they can balance this with a little more direction and consistency, this group can score enough points to win enough games for a Finals campaign.
The caveat? It must be combined with a consistently good grind, which hasn’t been the case either.
- The Morris’: Though they’ve been inconsistent in recent times, the length of the field chase and tackle of David Nofoaluma following his intercept by Josh Morris was remarkable.
Nofoaluma had the advantageous headstart an intercept (courtesy of a shocking Kasiano long-ball) against the run of play provides. He’s also no slouch. Josh somehow reversed field and gathered enough speed to make a full-stretch tackle of Nofoaluma just shy of the Tryline, right as his (slightly) speeder twin, Brett, arrived on scene from even further away.
Not only did this save a Try, but the Tigers self-destructed in the rest of the set of 6. All they had to do was spread the ball to the other side of the field and a Try would’ve easily been scored. However, they panicked and by the time they tried to take advantage of the field position, the Bulldogs defence was re-set and able to force an error.
An incredible individual effort by the Morris’, particularly Josh, regardless of the result.
- Klemmer’s dominant return: Klemmer continued his outstanding run of form by posting 198 metres from 19 hit-ups – leading both categories for the team. Hopefully, his performance means the health of his ankle is also no longer a significant concern going forward, especially with State of Origin looming.
- Josh Jackson: Jackson was superb, which he has been consistently for a very long time now. He had 14 hit-ups, 152 metres gained, 31 tackles and a big Linebreak.
Another great performance in a young career already full of them. He had a monster second half in all phases.
Week after week, Jackson gives his all. He is the ultimate competitor and in my mind, a future captain of the team. His intangibles are off the charts, and has the talent and tangible numbers to go with it.
- Discipline: 8 penalties, 11 errors and a sin-bin add up to way too many extra opportunities given to the opposition. Without a truly dominant player or trait as a team, the Bulldogs simply cannot afford to waste their opportunities whilst gifting them to the other team.
On the sin-bin, I’m not too against the call. Brenko Lee was foolish to even come close to interfering, and he well and truly did interfere. It was in a Try-scoring situation and therefore deemed a professional foul. You can argue that Lawrence was never going to get there, but I’m not inclined to think that it matters. Nor did the referees. Sure, a penalty may have been sufficient with all things considered, but the foul occurred, and that type of foul clearly has some grey area with regard to penalty only vs. 10 in the bin. The rule should be made clearer so such discretion can be removed, but that’s another issue entirely.
Regardless, the foul proved crucial as the side of the field the Tigers scored the winning Try was Lee’s, right where he defends. His absence (among other things) created an opportunity when the Tigers desperately needed one. A kick, lucky deflection and quick reaction by the Try-scorer later, the Tigers took the lead.
Lee has to be smarter than that, and I’m sure he knows better (even if he didn’t quite realise he had to leave the field once being given his marching orders..).
- 5th tackle woes continue: The Bulldogs have lacked a consistent, effective kicking game for years now. There’s now way around the fact that Reynolds is not a good kicker of the football, and Mbye, though talented with the boot, has thus far been too indecisive and one-dimensional to turn that talent into any sort of weapon for the team.
It’s a fundamental aspect of the game, and it kills the team at times: forfeiting chances for repeat sets with aimless bombs, under-kicking on deep kicks whilst consistently hitting the Fullback/Wings on the full.
For a team that’s best option is to grind, they stymie any and all attempts to build pressure and, well, actually grind a team by failing to turn good field position into repeated possession and bad field position into a reversed field.
The solution? A more consistent and varied kicking game in all aspects, but especially in earning repeat sets. I have long assumed that the aversion of Reynolds & Mbye to kick along the ground in-goal has been tactical and instructed by Hasler in an effort not to risk gifting the other team a valuable 7-tackle set from incurring a 20m restart. Basically, a lack of trust between Hasler and his playmakers.
Even if this is the case, doing the same thing over and over yet hoping for a different result defines insanity. Especially when it runs completely counter to your bread and butter tactics of pressure-based grinding.
Besides, guess what imprecise bombs provide the defending team? That valuable 7-set restart. If your kickers aren’t clinical enough to grubber for repeat sets, they’re likely not precise enough to place bombs at the perfect depth of advantageously contestable and not catchable in-goal by a defender. Especially without a noted outside back consistently capable of going up and making the most of a contested aerial kick (though Montoya has shown flashes of talent in this area).
Matthew Frawley has delivered some repeat sets in his short time in first grade, and Mbye has a capable boot to do the same (so does Reynolds, but he lacks the discipline to be part of the solution in this regard). It’s possible, but it needs to stop being actively avoided first, regardless of the source. If honed, it could be a key component of their attacking identity by helping them dominate possession and field position whilst wearing the opposition down considerably.
- Frawley falters: Frawley, the arguably over-praised newcomer to the halves dilemma put forth his first bad performance in the NRL. Proof?
– 1 run, 4 metres gained, 8 tackles and 1 missed tackle.
That is Frawley’s stat line after 50 minutes. Not only was he not a factor, he didn’t really do, well, anything.
Obviously, one bad performance does not reduce him to a bad player (just like a couple of good games haven’t made him a great player, regardless of fan overreaction). But his performance was notably lacklustre in a tight contest that demanded an impact from his position.
Not to mention, his decision to kick across field for Montoya from a scrum win was borderline reckless. The defending Winger (Nofoaluma) had already entered a retreat position to recover a kick before Frawley had even put boot to ball. Any and all NRL-level halves must be aware enough to veto that option and keep the rest of a crucial attacking set on the cusp of half-time alive.
Frawley could well be a part of the long-term solution for the team in the halves, but he failed to seize a great opportunity in this game.
Speaking of questionable kicks..
- Eastwood’s boot: Eastwood’s decision to kick on the 3rd tackle, in great field position, at a crucial part of the game was a terrible one. It screamed ‘panic’. Very bad time to make a very bad decision, but pressure does that to some players.
No, Eastwood did not cost the team the game. A second half of mediocrity across all phases of the game did – no loss can be reduced to moments like that. It also serves as a potent reminder of the team’s lack of an attacking playmaker. If the team had a dominant half directing play, especially at such a pivotal point in the game, teammates would be less inclined to panic or feel like they need to overplay their hand to produce a miracle.
- Reynolds’ miss: Josh Reynolds had an opportunity to end the Tigers’ eventual game-winning set before Luke Brooks dashed and put in the ricocheting grubber that won them the game.
For the game-winning Field-Goal attempt, the Tigers first passed right to Mitchell Moses, who then passed left to Luke Brooks due to mounting pressure on Moses.
Reynolds stayed alive on Brooks’ side and read the pass to Brooks well. He rushed up in his face and forced Brooks to abandon the attempt. A crucial, game-preserving play, right? Unfortunately, Reynolds over-committed to denying the attempt and allowed Brooks to escape for the eventual game-winning sequence without an attempt to tackle him.
A cautionary tale to all teams and players – don’t just pressure a kicker in that situation. Have the awareness to attempt the tackle, too. If it was made, the set ends in good field position for the Bulldogs with the scores still locked at 12.
- Player safety: The NRL’s approach to the ever prevalent issue of head injury and concussions has consistently missed the mark since being addressed. See: delay in getting Greg Eastwood off the field.
It’s quite simple – as long as the assessment of whether a player needs to be examined for a head injury lays in the hands of team affiliated staff, a conflict of interest will forever be a risk. A risk as foolish as this is inexcusable and bordering on reckless for something as important as head and brain trauma.
Unless the NRL wants to go down as morally and financially culpable for the past, present and future instances of brain injury to players, the NRL’s governing body must do the right thing (which they should be doing regardless) and appoint impartial medical professionals for the spotting and examining of head injuries at each and every game. (I’m trying really hard to refrain from using ‘no-brainer’ here..).
NRL: do the right thing. Take it completely out of the hands of team trainers and players, neither are educated enough nor capable of the impartiality necessary for the objectively right decisions to be made.
- Attack at a crossroads: The halves conundrum has been examined ad-nauseam already, and it’s only week 8. I won’t add to it here. However, through 8 weeks, the following stats are cause for concern.
– Points scored: 122. Rank – 14/16.
– Tries: 23. Rank -11/16, 2 away from last (21).
– Linebreaks: 16. Rank – 15/16, tied last and averaging a mere 2 per game. The top 4 teams are averaging at least double.
If the season is to get back on track, these statistics must improve. The impetus for them to do so encompasses many factors that would need their own article to be done justice. But something has to change, regardless of future signing rumours and talk of tactic changes.
Play of the game: The Morris chase – a seriously impressive effort.
Key stat: 100 metres gained. Why? Sam Kasiano achieved that in a mere 28 minutes. Sure, Kasiano must become more judicial with his offloads (and passing), but that is a remarkable figure.
Photo credit: NRL.com