Matt Harris, Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Broncos v Bulldogs
Finals football has arrived one month early for these two sides, with the loser of Friday night's stoush facing an uphill battle to keep in touch with the eight.
Although the panic button won't be pressed at Belmore if they head home from Suncorp with their tails between their legs, a loss for the Dogs puts their top-four hopes in jeopardy and also means they'll slip back amongst a logjam of teams trying to sneak into the top eight.
The Doggies have lost three-straight games to slip from second place in Round 18 to fifth spot on the ladder and could slide down to as low as eighth after the weekend should other results go against them.
On the other side of the fence, a loss for the Broncos would leave their finals equation resembling a complicated jigsaw puzzle - one in which the club would have no control over where the pieces are placed.
Bundled out of the top eight after last Friday's tough 16-4 loss to Manly at Brookvale, the Broncos face a huge challenge to make the finals with five rounds remaining. The Broncos have slipped from sixth at the conclusion of Round 19 to now sit in 10th spot on 22 points after back-to-back losses to the Storm and Sea Eagles.
Consecutive wins for the Storm (sixth – 26 points), Cowboys (seventh – 24 points) and Eels (ninth – 24 points) plus last week's bounce back by the Warriors (eighth – 24 points) has seen the Broncos fall behind their rivals in the pecking order. To add further difficulty to the Broncos' finals equation, the points differential of the Cowboys (+106) and Warriors (+90) is virtually double that of Brisbane's (+48), meaning the Broncos are effectively two wins outside the top eight.
The one thing working in Brisbane's favour as they look to avoid missing the finals in consecutive seasons is three of their remaining five games still to be played will be at Suncorp Stadium.
Using NRL.com's Ladder Predictor, the Broncos would need to win at least four out of their five remaining games to make the eight, although if any of the teams around them on the ladder were to drop points that equation would be made slightly easier.
It all starts on Friday night at home against the out-of-sorts Bulldogs before games against the Rabbitohs (away), Knights (home), Dragons (home) and Storm (away), with two of those sides currently above the Broncos on the ladder.
In team changes, Broncos centre Justin Hodges has succumbed to a hamstring injury sustained in the early stages against Manly last Friday night but should return in Round 23. Jack Reed will shift from the wing to the centre allowing for Lachlan Maranta to take his place on the right wing.
In changes for the Bulldogs, Chase Stanley is out with a shoulder injury seeing Mitch Brown return to the team on the wing. Josh Morris and Aiden Tolman also return with Moses Mbye and Reni Maitua dropping to an extended bench.
It will be a big night for Matt Gillett, who will play his 100th NRL match after debuting in Round 1, 2010 and Josh Reynolds is only three points shy of 100 points in the NRL.
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Watch Out Broncos: With the exception of his fellow blonde-haired prop Aidan Tolman, fiery Englishman James Graham has been arguably been the Bulldogs’ best forward this season. When Frank Pritchard tore a pectoral muscle in Round 6 and was subsequently ruled out for the remainder of the season, the Bulldogs needed someone to fill the chasm left by his absence and Graham has been that man. The former St. Helens stalwart has had an outstanding third season in the NRL after his move from Super League in 2012 and looks to have channelled his noted aggression towards chewing metres through the middle.
Restricted to 18 games last season due to the suspension brought about by the Billy Slater incident in the 2012 grand final, the 28-year-old has already passed that mark in 2014, playing in all 19 games so far. His statistics have improved slightly this season with the prop making an average of 34 tackles, three more than last year, with an average of 146 metres per match, up one metre from 2013. Graham's stats outnumber those of Brisbane co-captain Corey Parker, who has averaged 141 metres and 32 tackles from 16 games this season.
Watch Out Bulldogs: He may have experienced an unhappy outing against Cooper Cronk and the Storm in Round 20, but there's no doubting Ben Hunt will have a heavy influence on the outcome of Friday's match. Jarryd Hayne's scintillating post-Origin form is likely to make the Parramatta fullback the new favourite for this year's Dally M medal, although Hunt was equal at the top of the count when voting went behind closed doors after Round 16. The 24-year-old's statistics have been nothing short of outstanding this season – eight tries, 15 line breaks, 16 try assists, 16 line-break assists and 17 goals from 19 matches are the reasons why the Dogs need to ensure the Broncos halfback has another quiet game.
Plays To Watch: The hamstring injury to Broncos co-captain and right centre Justin Hodges means Brisbane will be less inclined to spin the Steeden out in that direction. Dale Copley has been sensational in recent weeks playing in his junior position of left centre and left winger Daniel Vidot is ranked fourth in the NRL for average run metres per game (159m), making it likely that Ben Hunt will aim the majority of Brisbane's attack down the Bulldogs' right edge. The inclusion of Lachlan Maranta on the wing will be another play to watch; he was shaky under the high-ball against the Storm a fortnight ago and is sure to be tested again by Reynolds and Hodkinson.
Where It Will Be Won: With Josh Reynolds back on deck to partner Trent Hodkinson following his return from suspension last week, the Bulldogs have a distinct advantage in the halves. There are still large question marks over the Ben Barba five-eighth experiment with the former Dally M fullback still adjusting to life in the front line. This move has placed further pressure on Ben Hunt to deliver for the Broncos and this extra burden was evident when the halfback had an unhappy outing against the Storm. If the NSW halves can rediscover their pre-Origin III form the Bulldogs have an excellent chance to snap their recent barren run.
The History: Played 45; Broncos 25, Bulldogs 19, Draw 1.
The Broncos have won their past two clashes against the Dogs including three out of the previous five matches dating back to 2011. The last time Canterbury won at Suncorp Stadium was a 44-22 victory in Round 14, 2009. It's been 14 years since the Bulldogs lost three-straight away games against the Broncos and they've never lost more than three times in a row at the redeveloped Lang Park.
What Are The Odds:
Sportsbet punters are jumping on the Bulldogs ($2.03), with three times the money placed on the away side. In terms of margin betting, most think the visitors will beat the Broncos ($1.77) by 13+. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton and Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner and Michael Wise; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live, 7:30pm (Qld); delayed 9:30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: Both sides are out of form so it's hard to gauge who the true favourite is. The Broncos will be looking to continue their recent good form against the Bulldogs and are aiming to prove their 18-12 Round 1 victory over them was no fluke. Losing Hodges is a blow for Brisbane, but even without their Test and Origin star another strong home crowd should see the Broncos home by four points.