Bulldogs v Cowboys
Having dominated the headlines over the past fortnight following Ben Barba's dramatic fall from grace, the Bulldogs finally have the chance to put it all behind them when they tackle fellow premiership aspirants North Queensland in Gosford on Saturday night.
What should have been a clash of two of the NRL's most scintillating little men – Barba and his Cowboys counterpart Matt Bowen – will instead stand as a first look of just what life at Belmore might look like this season without the reigning Dally M Medal winner.
It's an intriguing question.
Canterbury were superb in 2012, their skilful forward pack and a speedy backline earning them the minor premiership and a first grand final appearance since winning the comp back in 2004. In fact, even with international prop James Graham absent for the first nine rounds through suspension, they boast enough talent across the park to trouble anyone.
But Barba provides an X-factor with his brilliant kick returns and ability to find the try line. He will certainly be missed. The Bulldogs have instead opted for Steve Turner at fullback to start the season and have both Sam Perrett and Krisnan Inu as viable options should they feel the need to switch things up.
But they will be tested by a Cowboys side that has targeted 2013 as the year they are due that long-awaited premiership.
On paper at least they have a squad that is more than capable of doing so and while Canterbury's pack, bolstered by the arrival of Tony Williams, looks even stronger than last year, North Queensland is one club that can boast similar quality across the board.
They head into Saturday's clash with a full-strength squad that will see Tariq Sims come off the bench after suffering a season-ending injury in round nine last year.
Former England international hooker Scott Moore will make his NRL debut, becoming the first Englishman to represent the Cowboys, while out wide both Johnathan Thurston and Kane Linnett return from injury having missed the club's trial matches.
With Turner taking over at fullback for the Bulldogs, former Canberra speedster Drury Low will make his club debut on the wing, while exciting young prop David Klemmer is likely to have his first taste of the NRL after being named on a five-man bench.
Watch Out Bulldogs: Canterbury's forward pack is shaping as their greatest strengths in 2012 but they'll have their work cut out for them stopping North Queensland's big men this weekend.
The Cowboys were the dominant side in the NRL when it came to marching up-field in 2012, averaging 1452 metres each game thanks largely to the efforts of Australian Test props Matthew Scott and James Tamou. Scott finished the year with an average 144.5 metres per game and Tamou 155.
Watch Out Cowboys: North Queensland will go a long way towards winning this game if they can limit the opportunities for the Bulldogs to keep the ball alive.
Second-phase play, tremendous footwork and the ability to pass at the line were the hallmarks of Canterbury's exceptionally skillful forward pack in 2012, with an NRL-high 305 offloads helping them to the minor premiership.
However, there is still the problem of cracking the Bulldogs' rock solid defensive line. Having tallied fewer missed tackles than any opponent last season (649 at 27 per game) and topped the league for limiting both tries and line-breaks, even North Queensland will have to conjure something special to pile on the points. Although strong across the park, the Bulldogs are particularly difficult to crack through the middle where they conceded just 11 tries in 2012 – the fewest by any side.
Plays To Watch: It will be interesting to see how the Bulldogs adapt to the absence of Ben Barba given that it was his support play and ability to accelerate through a gap that made the skills of their big men so effective. That said, we don't expect the game plan to change, with their forwards using footwork, passing before the line and offloads to run their opponents wild.
The question is whether they will be as lethal in capitalising on it. Notably, the Bulldogs were the most lethal side in the Telstra Premiership last season from inside their own half, scoring 19 tries from long range to go with a further 28 from between 20-50 metres out. Can they do the same minus Barba?
Watch for North Queensland to work the ball to the left and then spread it through the hands out to the right where they try to create room for Brent Tate and Ashley Graham out wide. The Cowboys were the most effective side in the competition when it came to using decoy runners, so they will use multiple second-man plays as they promote the ball to Tate.
Key Match-Up: Josh Morris v Brent Tate. This could well prove to be a preview of this year's State of Origin series, with two of the NRL's most scintillating attacking centres going toe to toe.
Morris came back from a disappointing 2011 to enjoy a superb 2012 season – scoring 17 tries, making 23 line-breaks and averaging 118 metres per game. However he will be tested by Tate, whose right-side combination with Ashley Graham proved a handful for all-comers last year.
Where It Will Be Won: This is all about the forward packs. Although James Graham is absent for the Bulldogs, there is plenty of excitement about the arrival of monstrous second-rower Tony Williams from Manly and the NRL debut of rookie prop David Klemmer.
Chased hard by a number of rival clubs before signing a rich new three-year deal with the Bulldogs this week, Klemmer is just 19 yet already stands 199cm tall and weighs 120kg.
The Cowboys are also looking strong up front following the recent re-signing of props Matt Scott and James Tamou, while rising star Tariq Sims returns after missing much of 2012 with a broken leg.
The History: Played 29; Bulldogs 20, Cowboys 9. The Bulldogs hold the ascendancy in recent times, winning six of the past 10 games – including the past five straight.
The Last Time They Met: Ben Barba inspired the top-of-the-table Bulldogs to their ninth consecutive victory with a thrilling hat-trick in their 32-18 win over North Queensland.
Billed as the clash of the No.1s with Barba facing off against childhood hero Matt Bowen, it was the Canterbury custodian who prevailed with three telling plays – the first two bringing the crowd to their feet as the Bulldogs raced to an 18-6 half-time lead.
It took just 12 minutes for Barba to make his mark, with Josh Reynolds supplying a jinking run before offloading to his flying fullback who raced 60 metres to score.
A deftly placed Bowen grubber saw Kane Linnett pounce to level the scores, but soon afterwards it was Barba in open space again with an almost identical try to his first – this time from a clever Josh Jackson run and pass.
When Krisnan Inu leapt highest to gather in a Reynolds bomb the Bulldogs looked set to score a comfortable victory but North Queensland had other ideas and fought back strongly after the break.
Antonio Winterstein was first to cross in the second half when Barba slipped trying to cover a grubber out wide, then Johnathan Thurston left defenders clutching at his heels as he dummied to the left and strolled over to make it 18-all heading into the final 10 minutes.
An Inu penalty goal handed the home side the lead back but it was two more tries to the Bulldogs as the clock ticked down – the first a long-range Josh Morris special and the second completing Barba's hat-trick – that ensured their impressive run of form continued.
Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Adam Reid; Video Referees – Paul Simpkins & Luke Patten.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: A genuine round one blockbuster, there is plenty riding on this game as each side looks to get their premiership tilt off and running.
For Canterbury, the reality of life without Ben Barba is about to bite hard and all eyes will be on them to see whether they are able to put that disappointment behind them.
Conversely, the Cowboys come into this clash at full strength but with four of their first six games away from home are well aware of the importance of a fast start.
It will be a tight one, but simply because their pre-season has been smooth sailing compared to Canterbury, we foresee the Cowboys stealing a tight win. North Queensland by four points.