Canterbury's makeshift halfback Tony Williams gives his Manly opposite Jack Littlejohn the big 'don't argue'. Credit: Col Whelan. Copyright: NRL Photos.
When Bulldogs skipper Michael Ennis approached coach Des Hasler about not playing in the halves early this week, little did he know it would trigger a masterstroke.
With regular halfback Trent Hodkinson on state duty against the Eels three weeks ago, the veteran rake put his hand up to fill the void – an experiment that went horribly wrong. So when the Blues hero again went into camp this week, Ennis again put his hand up – to this time call the shots from behind the ruck.
"I said to Des earlier in the week that I'd do what was required. Obviously it's a difficult period for us without Trent and Josh there," Ennis explained.
"But I felt like I could contribute more to the team at dummy-half and I was grateful that Des let me play there."
So Hasler took the cloak-and-dagger approach, naming Ennis in the No. 7 last Tuesday but standing his 120-kilogram dinosaur in Tony Williams at first receiver all week at training.
Call it a classic case of the Mad Dog and the Mad Scientist combining to develop a Mad Halfback.
And the result? A couple of effortless towering bombs and a handful of looping spiral passes, as well as a hand-off to another out-of-position player – wide-running Sam Kasiano – that almost gave Big Tony and his underdogs the dream start against Manly.
"Sounds like an episode of Underbelly," Channel Nine's Ray Warren offered during his commentary.
Williams, 25, had been there before. Even won a grand final in the halves.
"I think it was Sunny [Sunshine] Coast 2009 [in the Queensland Cup]. I played five-eighth and we won the grand final that year," Williams recalled.
"It was a bit surprising I guess earlier in the week but I knew what I had to do. Manly are a top team, we knew we had to come out and play well, and that's what we did."
Asked why he played five-eighth in that game, Williams deadpanned: "I guess I had a good kicking game, mainly.
"[But] nah, I started [my career] in the backs and I didn't think I'd ever play half. But things happen in footy and if you get in that position, you just have to do your job."
In the end, Canterbury-Bankstown's 23-16 boilover against the premiership favourites further emphasised Hasler's vision as a coach.
His adaptation of the skills of his oversized big men – a hallmark of the team he took all the way to the final Sunday in October two years ago – once again came up trumps.
"We just played around a little bit. If anything, we went in with the idea of Josh and Tony are used to defending on edges," Hasler said.
"And that's where they're pretty strong, Manly. Their backline was pretty well intact, so they're pretty deadly down the fringes. You can understand why they're the premiership favourites."