Neil Cadigan, NRL.com
Bulldogs v Storm
This is an historic match for Bulldogs coach Des Hasler; he joins his Manly mentor Bob Fulton as the only men to have coached and played in 250 first grade games.
It will be match 250 for Hasler (he played 287 games) since he took over from Peter Sharp at the Eagles in 2004, taking them to 13th in his first season but to the finals in the next seven seasons, including to two premierships and a third grand final. Then came a grand final in his first season with the Bulldogs last year – and for the fourth time his opponents were the Storm.
So it’s ironic he is up against Melbourne for this benchmark match – and his great rival Craig Bellamy (entering his 289th game as Melbourne coach since 2003, after playing 148 first grade games for Canberra).
(Incidentally, the player who has been coached the most by Hasler is Anthony Watmough with 182 games, one of 110 players coached by Hasler and 38 players who were given their first grades debuts under his mentorship.)
That nostalgia will be cast aside however as the Bulldogs desperately need victory over their understrength grand final nemesis to keep in touch with the top eight with nine rounds remaining (they are in ninth place), going into their bye next week.
While the Storm are without Origin reps Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Ryan Hoffman, the Dogs have NSW players Josh Morris (replaced by Tim Lafai) and Josh Reynolds (replaced by Joel Romelo) missing and have to pick up their discipline which saw them complete at just 68 per cent in the loss to Newcastle after being at 86 per cent the previous match against the Roosters, even though they went down.
One Canterbury player whose consistency and contribution can’t be doubted is prop Aiden Tolman who made 42 tackles and ran for 142 metres against the Knights. He’ll be aided by fellow prop big Sam Kasiano who is returning to the side which allows for James Graham to revert back to the bench.
The Storm have never been beaten by the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium (and have lost just one of the past six clashes between the two sides) but that record will mean for little considering this is not the ‘normal’ Storm with their ‘Big Three’ and Hoffman missing. This is the first time since 2008 they have had to twice play without their Origin stars pre-interstate clash (usually both their byes coincide with the Origin lead-up). They have won only two of seven games without their Origin stars since winning both matches in 2007.
Brett Finch, at almost age 32 and in his 263rd NRL game, takes on enormous responsibility with Smith, Slater, Cronk and the injured Garreth Widdop out. After seeming off the pace in his first four games back from a stint with Wigan, he showed positive signs in the win against Wests Tigers with some nice touches with the ball.
The next man to have to pick up responsibility is quality utility forward Ryan Hinchcliffe who moves from lock to hooker to cover for Smith. He’ll have to play more than his average 58 minutes but he’ll handle the defensive load in tight – he made 51 tackles in the 32-0 win against Brisbane last weekend.
The Storm have taken the punt of playing wing/centre Justin O’Neill at fullback for the absent Slater, which allows Ben Hampton, Slater’s replacement the only other time he has been missing this year, to play in his more regular spot of halfback.
Watch Out Storm: If Kristan Inu gets into dummy-half close to the tryline. He has bustled himself over the line for tries in his past two matches.
Watch Out Bulldogs: So much focus is usually on Storm’s pacey backs Slater, O’Neill, Chambers and new boy Mahe Fonau. But Maurice Blair, who has been in the NRL for six seasons now, has gone under the radar in recent weeks. His speed and positional sense on the left side is a threat to the Dogs and his tussle with Inu will be a compelling one.
Plays To Watch: Ben Barba seems to have reclaimed his mojo and he has been finding constant success targeting opposing defender two in from the sideline (especially the Dogs’ right) when running an outside arc.
Key Match-Up: The front row is a fascinating match-up. The Dogs have size and experience in direct-running Tolman, Graham and Kasiano but they are up against the more dynamic and explosive Bromwich, Norrie and Vave off the bench. Those three can bother the Canterbury defence if it gets lazy.
Where It Will Be Won: So much will depend on Brett Finch at five-eighth for the Storm, outside of Ben Hampton who is playing just his second NRL match and first at halfback. Cooper Cronk is the best set-play executor in the game (and has 17 try assists in 2013) and without him and Cameron Smith as the passer before him, Finch and Hampton have to play above themselves and get a good roll on from their pack for the Storm to be in the picture.
The History: Played 31; Storm 16, Bulldogs 15. At ANZ: Storm 4, Bulldogs 0.
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger, Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner, Adam Reid; Video Referees – Jason Robinson, Justin Morgan.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm.
The Way We See It: The Dogs have to be in a desperate mood after losing their past two and having the bye to follow this clash. If they can’t beat the Storm without their Big Three their fans should forget any plans for grand final weekend. Their forwards have lost their dominance of 2012 yet on paper they are formidable, especially with Kasiano and Eastwood back but against them is a Storm pack that will be willing and has raw talent. The Storm will compete but take Slater, Widdop, Cronk, Hoffman and Smith from their side and they seem to be limited in attacking options. Bulldogs by 14 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.