Nigel Wall,, NRL.com
Grudge matches don’t get any bigger than this epic Heritage Round clash featuring Sonny Bill Williams up against the club he dumped without warning in 2008, with aggrieved Canterbury certain to feed off the week-long hype and hoopla in an effort to climb from the bottom rungs of the premiership ladder after a horror start to the season.
Pre-season fancies the Bulldogs sit in 14th place after a disconcerting and disconnected 1-4 start to the year, their only win occurring by a narrow margin over the Eels in Round 2. They were competitive in defeats to the Storm and Souths; although stress fractures appeared again last week when they delivered a sub-par performance against arguably their biggest arch rivals Manly. They were never in the hunt, falling 20-6 and only getting on the scoreboard in the final six minutes. Making inroads proved tough – they trailed their opponents by 450 metres on the night, with just one forward hitting triple figures.
Meanwhile Roosters’ coach Trent Robinson would still be smarting at the one that got away last week – the tricolours blew a 22-12 lead and a fourth win of the season when overwhelmed by the Raiders in the final 15 minutes of their clash in Canberra.
The defeat was at odds with their back-to-back whitewashes of the Broncos and Eels, their most recent 50-point thrashing of Parramatta revealing them to be one of the season’s biggest threats.
Clearly both teams are open to much improvement – and with the Allianz Stadium cauldron set to bubble over as the presence (if not the talent) of SBW stirs the pot and turns up the heat, it’s safe to assume both units will turn up ready to play.
In team changes, Trent Robinson has rushed back Daniel Tupou onto the wing at Michael Oldfield’s expense, with the latter hitting the extended interchange. The Roosters’ two other changes see Mitchell Aubusson promoted to the starting side in the second row, with Luke O’Donnell handed jersey No.19, while Aidan Guerra will be injected off the bench.
Meanwhile the Bulldogs welcome back Greg Eastwood at lock, with Frank Pritchard benched. David Klemmer rounds out an interchange of five at this stage.
Watch Out Roosters: There’s no guessing which way the Bulldogs will be heading – to their left. That’s because the Roosters’ right-side defence has been remarkably shaky to date. Despite holding two teams to zero points the Roosters’ right-side defence have leaked eight tries so far compared to just two on their left side. Armed with that information you can bet tactically astute Des Hasler will bark instructions for the likes of Josh Reynolds, Josh Morris and Frank Pritchard to try to create plenty of scoring opportunities.
With two games under his belt in 2013, Ben Barba could be ready to explode. No player made more line-breaks in 2012 (27) and he has yet to make one – who’s prepared to say he won’t make a brace here? He’ll certainly feed off the memories of the last time these sides met when he scored a try and had the final hand in three others.
Watch Out Bulldogs: A feared tackle-busting outfit last season, in 2013 the Bulldogs have been playing like they’re attached to a short leash – and they’ve hardly been straining at it either. On their journey to the 2012 Grand Final, the Dogs registered the fourth-most tackle-breaks and line-breaks – but after five games in 2013 they rank rock bottom for brushing aside opposition defenders (just 20 a game – heck, Ben Barba made 12 on his own the last time these sides met... ) and have made the fourth-fewest line busts (just 2.8).
You need look no further than Tony Williams to see what’s wrong: T-Rex finished 2012 with the second-highest tackle-breaks average in the NRL – with 6.5 per game. And in his first three games in 2012 before injury he totalled 26! Overall he averaged almost 14 runs per game.
Fast forward to 2013 and to date Williams has just six tackle-breaks from five games. Worse, in last week’s defeat to Manly he received the ball 16 times – yet ran on only seven occasions! Either this is a coaching glitch or else he’s not in the game. Clearly Canterbury need Williams, at his best the most punishing back-rower in rugby league, to fire up; perhaps the clash with his namesake will do the trick.
Plays To Watch: Sonny Bill Williams (11 offloads, four line-break assists and three try assists) on a roving commission, standing in the tackle and offloading down the left and right edges (Tim Lafai in particular beware); Josh Jackson lifting on the Bulldogs right edge, channelling his three-try performance last time they met; Jared Waerea-Hargreaves taking it to the Dogs in the centre of the ruck; Kris Keating and Josh Reynolds dummying from close range.
Key Match-Up: James Maloney v Josh Reynolds. A strong runner of the football, Maloney has proven a match-winning asset to the Roosters, while Reynolds’ outside-the-square vision provides the Dogs with plenty of unpredictability.
Maloney has hit the ground at pace in the Roosters’ jersey, leading all halves for line-breaks (five) and scoring three tries. He has an excellent passing game but his support play hitting holes, in particular in opposition red zones, is what’s really proved exciting for fans – and for the man inside him Mitchell Pearce.
Meanwhile Reynolds is a threat promoting second-phase play (four offloads) and can turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye. His kicking game wide for his wingers and also around the goalposts for fullback Barba will be crucial plays that Des Hasler will hope will yield points.
Where It Will Be Won: Playing football after the hype. We’d be surprised if the Bulldogs players paid too much attention to the ‘SBW revenge’ angle beaten up in the media this week – but they may not be able to completely disregard it due to the crowd’s reaction and roars on the night. How they focus will be paramount to their performance.
Likewise the Roosters’ players may want to take to the field with cotton wool in their ears given the deafening chorus of boos that awaits their strike weapon. They need to try to dominate early – or else they run the risk of being wiped out by a monster wave of emotion.
The first 40 minutes will be crucial: The Roosters have led at halftime in four of their five games, for three wins. Meanwhile Canterbury have not outpointed any opponent in the second half of their opening five matches – including a scoreless second stanza in their win over Parramatta.
The History: Played 160; Bulldogs 77, Sydney Roosters 78, drawn 5. In almost 80 years of battles these two historic clubs are virtually neck and neck. It’s the same case in recent clashes, with the Bulldogs winning five of the past nine meetings including a 42-10 shellacking at ANZ Stadium in Round 26 last season.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Jared Maxwell & Matt Rodwell.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 11.30pm.
The Way We See It: It all depends on each team’s attitude on the night. Whichever squad handles the hype, absorbs the pressure and executes their plays better will win. We get the feeling the Roosters may have switched off last week and started looking ahead to this clash. Meanwhile the Bulldogs were way off the pace last week in a game they should have been up for. Roosters by six points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats