Dan Walsh, Staff Writer, NRL.com
Roosters v Bulldogs
It’s the opening clash of the Men of League’s Heritage Round, and what a way to kick it off.
If love ever existed between two of the league’s glamour clubs it was lost down the side of the lounge long ago, with this year marking the 40th anniversary of the 1974 decider, when super coach Jack Gibson celebrated guiding the Chooks to their first premiership in 29 years by pouring champagne into the mouths of club legends John Peard and Bunny Reilly as an elated Roosters side watched on. (Wonder if the Roosters' current mentor Trent Robinson has made note of the penalty count in that one, as referee Laurie Bruyeres caned Easts to the tune of 12-3 at the hour mark before the Bondi Boys rolled to a 19-4 victory.)
And it’s 10 years since the Bulldogs triumphed 16-13 in one of the most memorable grand finals of the modern era, a match current Roosters star Sonny Bill Williams started on the bench for the Bulldogs, and Roosters skipper Anthony Minichiello lined up alongside current assistant coach Craig Fitzgibbon and against former Bulldog and current NRL video referee, Luke Patten. The Dogs held on to a three-point lead for a tense final half hour, and current Knights veteran Willie Mason claimed the Clive Churchill Medal and capped the night with a heartfelt “I love youse all” to his teammates and the club’s embattled fans.
Fast forward to the present day and neither side will be happy with their 2-2 win loss records to start 2014, though both will honestly admit it is a fair reflection of their inconsistent starts to the year. The Dogs possess the best for and against in the NRL off the back of two thrashings of the Sharks and Melbourne, who were both finalists last year, but need to put together back-to-back 80-minute performances before they are regarded as genuine contenders.
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The Roosters meanwhile are finding out exactly how hard it is to defend an NRL title as first the Rabbitohs, and then Brisbane and Manly have taken their games to another level in an effort to knock off the premiers. The Chooks will expect a similar mindset from the Bulldogs and will be primed for yet another physical encounter with one of the biggest and most mobile packs in the competition.
In team news Sonny Bill Williams slots back into the back row for the Chooks with Mitchell Aubusson dropping back the bench, while Jared Waerea-Hargreaves’s suspension sees Dylan Napa move into the starting line-up.
The Bulldogs have named an unchanged side from last weekend’s thumping of the Storm over in the wet and wild West, but have added big Kiwi Greg Eastwood and Moses Mbye to an extended bench.
Their co-captain Michael Ennis plays his 200th NRL game.
Watch Out Roosters: For years the Dogs have been known as a forwards-based side, but it’s their little men who are in the form of their lives, with halves Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson amongst the leading playmakers in the competition across the first month.
Reynolds looks to have added some impressive ball-playing skills to his already substantial attacking arsenal, and the local junior sits atop the league with Gareth Widdop for try assists with six, as well as another five line break assists.
Halfback Trent Hodkinson is in arguably even better form than his gutsy halves partner, laying on five tries for his teammates as well as registering three line break assists, and also appears to have taken a leaf out of Reynolds’ book with a previously unheralded running game that has so far netted him three line breaks and three tries. Throw in 46 points (second most in the competition) and the ability to send the Steeden over the black dot blindfolded (he’s kicking at 89 per cent this year) and the Bulldogs halves have the ability to not only take the game to the premiers, but also well and truly away from them with a flash of brilliance.
Watch Out Bulldogs: It’s ominous when the defending premiers say a game in which they failed to trouble the scorers was their best performance of the season, but when you dig a little deeper it is hard to fault the Chooks' logic. Even with attacking weapons Daly Cherry-Evans, Jamie Lyon, Steve Matai and Kieran Foran, 56 per cent of possession and an 11-2 penalty count in their favour, the Sea Eagles only managed to get across for a single four-pointer. Throw in having to make an extra 89 tackles and running for 500 fewer metres than the opposition, and you’d bet dollars to donuts no side bar the Roosters could withstand that kind of assault. Good luck to the Dogs in breaking down the famous Great Wall of Bondi; they’re going to need it.
Plays To Watch: Hodkinson and Reynolds drifting across the field before popping crash balls to the likes of Morris, Lafai and Stanley; Mitch Pearce doing the same to find Kenny-Dowall and Jennings; the Dogs' big men to have a crack at the tryline if they get half a sniff after James Graham and David Klemmer got across from close range last week; and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and the evergreen Anthony Minichiello to continue the fullback-wing switcheroo in attack that resulted in two tries against the Eels and another crucial four-pointer against the Broncos.
Where It Will Be Won: As occurs more often than not between these two proud clubs, the big boppers look to hold the key to this one, and the Dogs will fancy their chances of getting over the Chooks' premiership-winning pack that is missing their forward leader Jared Waerea-Hargreaves. Graham, Aiden Tolman and Dale Finucane are all averaging over 125 running metres so far this year, and the Roosters big men will need to muscle up to ensure the Bulldogs do not get a roll on up the middle.
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The History: Played 162; Roosters 80, Bulldogs 77, drawn 5. While the past 10 clashes between these two sides have been five apiece, the Bulldogs will be keen to atone for their last visit to Allianz Stadium, when a Sonny Bill Williams-led Roosters put 38 on the Dogs and held them scoreless for the first time since 2008.
What Are The Odds: Roosters the firm favourites with Sportsbet.com.au at $1.42 with the Bulldogs clear outsiders at $2.95. Punters think we’ve got it wrong though, with money two to one for the Bulldogs. Dogs 1-12 ($4.25) and 13+ ($8.00) have attracted the bulk of margin betting money too – punters are keen on the Dogs causing an upset.
Match Officials: Referees – Shane Hayne & Henry Perenara; Touch Judges – Russell Turner & Dave Munro; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Paul Mellor.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.40 pm (NSW), delayed 9.30 (Qld).
The Way We See It: The Roosters will be stung by being held scoreless for the first time since 2012 last week, and should come out firing, particularly with Sonny Bill Williams back in the fray. The Dogs do stand a chance of springing a sneaky upset, particularly if Sydney’s fickle weather produces another wet night and a slog the Bulldogs forwards will relish. If it’s dry, Chooks by 6. If it’s another wet Friday night in Sydney, the Dogs by 4 points.
*Statistics: Champions Data.