Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent, NRL.com
Raiders v Bulldogs
Friday, 7.45pm (AEST)
We've all become accustomed to the rather unique ways rival coaches Des Hasler and Ricky Stuart express themselves in front of the cameras. Sometimes it translates to great television. Other times, not so much.
So, given their respective teams are in various stages of rugby league freefall – with one of them just about hitting rock bottom – we leave it to one man who can relate, and can also musically elucidate, some common feelings.
In Tom Petty's song fittingly titled 'Free-falling', he writes:
"I wanna free fall out into nothin', I'm gonna leave this world for a little while..."
In Canberra's case, they've been away for the best part of the past two months. Their 28-4 stinker against Brisbane two Mondays ago was their fifth defeat from their past six, leaving them two spots from the bottom of the NRL pit. If they don't come back from wherever the heck they are soon, then they might as well stay there until November.
The Bulldogs are actually nowhere near those haunted gallows. But their current seat in the middle of the table certainly isn't as nice as the penthouse view they enjoyed a fortnight ago. Flying high on the back of a seven-game winning streak earlier this year, the 'Berries are now left searching for their bearings after three straight defeats, including the 22-12 blanks they shot at Parramatta last Sunday.
Granted, two of those losses were without their Origin heroes but this is what the representative period can do to you – whether it's fair or not, early season success has its price in the NRL and Hasler is finding out the hard way.
The wily mentor will also have to make do without reliable fullback Sam Perrett (knee) this week, his shoes to be filled by Mitch Brown with winger Drury Low named to make his second appearance of the year. Rookie pit bull David Klemmer (ankle) also faces a decent stint on the sideline, although Blues pair Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson are named to back up from Origin II.
For Stuart, injuries and suspensions to Josh Papalii and Paul Vaughan respectively has him reaching into his depth bank and calling on youngsters Jake Foster and Jake Kennedy. Another couple of hotshots in Kyle O'Donnell and Shannon Boyd take their spots on the bench.
Watch Out Raiders: The Bulldogs don't miss. Their 22.8 missed tackles per game are the third fewest in the competition. Compare that to the 29.0 attempts the Green Machine miss every week, and it's almost seven potential line breaks in the making. On that particular count it's fairly even at three apiece, but it's best that you sort out your stuff this week, or someone like Sam Kasiano and the four offloads he had in 35 minutes last Sunday could hurt you. Badly.
Watch Out Bulldogs: Sami-trailer he may yet be, but Sami Sauiluma's 148 metres against the Broncos was his fourth straight game cracking the century mark. This time, he did it with a season-high 94 of them from dummy-half. The left flank has been a constant source of all things nasty for Stuart all season (to be fair, most things have), but there's hope at the end of the tunnel in this one.
Plays To Watch: Reni Maitua's insertion in the second half against the Eels last week was a godsend. In just his second game of the season, the 2004 premiership winner brought instant life to what was until then a dull Bulldogs attack. His hard, direct running put the Parramatta defence on the back foot straightaway and while it didn't eventuate in the two points, it gives Hasler a sparkplug, or at the very least an option, on a bench that has been missing over the past few weeks.
In contrast, promising playmaker Mitch Cornish hasn't set the world on fire since making his debut in Round 11, but it's not difficult to see why Stuart has kept with him. The young fella passed the kids test with a stellar -20s CV and if you take away the fact that he's trying too hard playing catch-up football by the 50th-minute mark, then you'll see that the Future of Canberra has some football in him.
Where It Will Be Won: Not a scoop, but the Bulldogs have the best forward pack in the competition. That's a title backed up by their league-high 1635 metres per game. But what you may not know is that the once mighty Raiders big men are averaging a league-low 1382 metres per game. That's a difference of three NRL fields, making it so blatantly obvious that if the Canberra's big boys don't aim up against the Dogs of War this week, then it'll be a horrible case of who let the dogs out in the nation's capital.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet.com.au reports three times the amount of money on the Dogs and more than twice the number of bets on them as well. Bulldogs in from $1.63 to $1.58, Canberra out from $2.30 to $2.40, so plenty of support for the visitors.
The History: Played 63; Canberra 26, Canterbury-Bankstown 36, drawn 1. The Raiders have won three of their past five, but lost their only clash last year 28-18 on their own ground. The past three winners have scored at least 28 points, but more interestingly, the two sides have faced off just twice in two years – and both games decided by halftime.
Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Chris Sutton; Video referees – Luke Phillips & Henry Perenara.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.45pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: We wave our right to reserve judgment until after Origin II on Wednesday. If the Blues win, we call a Bulldogs victory. However if the Blues falter, we don't see Reynolds and Hodkinson being relieved of their numbing pain in the cold confines of Canberra.