Matt Harris, Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Bulldogs v Broncos
The Broncos have endured a mixed 2014 pre-season with a promising display as runners-up at the Auckland Nines sandwiched between two heavy trial losses to the Cowboys (32-8) and the Warriors (48-4). Coupled with this, there are still huge question marks on who will wear the No.6 for the majority of the season, with Kiwi international Josh Hoffman named at five-eighth for Round 1.
Brisbane's playmaking stocks took a massive hit in the off-season with the retirement of Scott Prince and the departures of Peter Wallace (Panthers) and Corey Norman (Eels).
The recruitment of former Bulldog Ben Barba cannot be ignored and the Broncos will be keeping their fingers and toes crossed that he can remain injury-free and replicate the kind of form that saw him take out the 2012 Dally M Medal.
The pressure is on Barba to spark Brisbane's floundering attack after the team only averaged 3.2 tries per game in 2013 – the equal fourth worst record in the competition. If Barba rediscovers his magic of 2012, the Broncos can look forward to improving on last season's disappointing 12th-place finish and challenge for a place in the top eight.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have enjoyed a solid pre-season despite not making it past their pool group at the Auckland Nines. They lost their first trial of the year 28-20 to South Sydney but responded well with an encouraging 20-10 win over the Storm in their final hit-out.
The Doggies only managed one win from their first six games last year but recovered sufficiently to finish sixth, only to be bundled out of the finals by the Knights in Week One.
These sides clashed in the pool stages of the Auckland Nines with the Broncos scoring five tries to one, running away with a 20-4 victory.
They met twice last season with the Bulldogs triumphing 24-14 in Round 11 at ANZ Stadium and the Broncos scraping home 16-11 in the reverse fixture at Suncorp Stadium in Round 26.
Brisbane trio Josh Hoffman, Josh McGuire and Ben Hunt will all play their 90th NRL game on Friday night.
Watch Out Bulldogs: New Broncos co-captain Corey Parker led the competition last year in offloads, managing a total of 65 for the season at an average of three per match.
The Bulldogs will need to restrict the amount of second-phase play the 2013 Broncos Player of the Year offers, as Ben Barba and Josh Hoffman are sure to be sniffing around the ruck looking for any opportunity they can to carve up the opposition defence.
Watch Out Broncos: In 2013 the Broncos had the unwanted statistic of conceding highest amount of missed tackles in the NRL, averaging 27 per match. In contrast, the Bulldogs conceded the fewest missed tackles, at an average of 19.4 per game.
Back-rower Frank Pritchard will be out to produce an inspired performance in his new role of co-captain at the Bulldogs. The 30-year-old will be looking to use his 187-centimetre, 112-kilogram frame to steamroll the Broncos' smaller men on the edges to make a statement at the start of the season. The former Panther, who joined the Bulldogs in 2011, averaged 17 tackles, 10 hit-ups and 96 run metres per game last season and will hope to improve on those figures in 2014.
Plays To Watch: Look for Andrew McCullough to take on a greater responsibility with the general kicking duties. The Broncos relied heavily on the kicking of departed trio Peter Wallace (173 kicks for 4757 kick metres), Scott Prince (120 kicks, 3617m) and Corey Norman (54 kicks, 1835m) last season.
McCullough's kicking game has improved dramatically in recent times, despite only punting the Steeden on 28 occasions during open play in 2013. He will need to significantly lift his contribution with the boot this season in order to help out the halves pairing of Hunt and Hoffman.
Where It Will Be Won: The forwards. Forget about Ben Barba for a moment – of course a man of his exceptional talent will be a factor – but if the Broncos forward pack doesn't fire his influence will be minimal.
The Bulldogs pack has plenty of bite with the likes of Aiden Tolman, Frank Pritchard, James Graham, Tony 'T-Rex' Williams and Josh Jackson in the ranks.
The Broncos have a wealth of experience in their pack as well with Corey Parker, Sam Thaiday, Matt Gillett, Alex Glenn, Ben Hannant and new recruits Todd Lowrie and Martin Kennedy.
The Broncos averaged 1343 run metres per game last season, sixth best in the league, while the Bulldogs averaged 1302 run metres which was only the 12th best in the NRL. Corey Parker was the best for Brisbane with an average of 157 metres per game, while James Graham was the top Dog, averaging 145 metres a game.
The History: Played 45; Bulldogs 19; Broncos 25; Drawn 1. With the Broncos at the height of their powers in the mid to late 1990s, the Bulldogs won just two of 17 clashes between these teams from mid-1993 through until mid-2001 but have had a much better success rate recently. The 'Dogs have been triumphant in six of the past nine meetings with the Broncos and have not lost to Brisbane at home since 2008.
What Are The Odds: At Sportsbet.com.au, money is coming in two to one in favour of the away side Brisbane despite being $2.55 outsiders. Ben Barba is the $10 first try-scorer favourite.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jason Walsh; Video Referees – Henry Perenara & Reece Williams.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (AEDT)
The Way We See It: Expect a tight game where defence will be the key to victory. The Broncos have conceded 80 points in their two trial games but expect them to respond with a committed defensive display against the 'Dogs. Canterbury is playing at home and has displayed some promising trial form. A lot will also depend on which forward pack gets on top of the opposition. Bulldogs by 10.
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