Ben Blaschke,, NRL.com
Warriors v Bulldogs
Mt Smart Stadium
Saturday, 7.30pm (NZ time)
A clash that has thrown up some absolute classics over the years comes at an intriguing time once again for both of these clubs.
It’s been a truly horrible 12 months for the Warriors, who many tipped to go deep once again in 2012 following their grand final appearance from the previous season. Instead, they spun wildly out of control as the year progressed – losing their last eight games, seeing coach Brian McClennan fall on his sword and a raft of changes implemented at the club.
Despite the clean-out, a 40-10 thrashing at the hands of Parramatta in Round 1 showed that there is still a lot of work to do across the Tasman and after eight rounds the Warriors have won just two games so far in 2013.
The good news is that one of those came last week against the Gold Coast and given that the NZ-based side has always been a confidence team they will at least be able to see some light at the end of the tunnel. The fact remains that the Warriors have the core of a very good side at their disposal and it beggars belief that a club that was at the top of the tree less than two years ago has so managed to lose their mojo. If Matt Elliott can somehow find the missing ingredient, who knows what they are capable of?
The fact that they welcomed back veterans Simon Mannering and Manu Vatuvei from injury last week was a huge boost and if they need any reminding how important it is to have your key players available, they need look no further than the Bulldogs.
Canterbury have found themselves in much the same position this season as the Warriors did last year – weighed down by injury and expectation and unable to rediscover their magic. Admittedly, there hasn’t been a real lot they’ve been able to do about it until now. Ben Barba’s off-field woes and James Graham’s well-publicised suspension robbed them of two players straight away, while they were also missing Frank Pritchard and Sam Kasiano to start the year.
All are now back and although Barba is yet to return to his best, what a huge difference big men Graham and Kasiano made in the 40-4 win over Wests Tigers last week. With that combination of size and ball-playing ability back in the middle of the park, there is no reason why Canterbury shouldn’t begin a rapid move up the NRL ladder. Can they make it three in a row against the Warriors on Saturday?
The Warriors welcome back Glen Fisiiahi and Konrad Hurrell this week after both played for the Auckland Vulcans last week. Fisiiahi replaces Kevin Locke after the fullback collapsed in agony with a back injury during Sunday’s win over the Gold Coast, while Hurrell returns in place of the injured Jerome Ropati in the centres.
The Bulldogs will field an identical side to the one that thrashed Wests Tigers last Friday with Martin Taupau and Tim Browne on an extended six-man bench.
Watch Out Warriors: The Bulldogs boast a considerable Kiwi contingent and you can rest assured that they will be fired up to impress in front of friends and family back in their home country. The return from injury of Sam Kasiano last week means Canterbury now have four New Zealanders in their pack with Kasiano lining up alongside Frank Pritchard, Greg Eastwood and Dene Halatau while Sam Perrett is also present out on the right wing. They will all be ‘up’ for this one.
Watch Out Bulldogs: The presence of Manu Vatuvei on the wing this weekend is a huge bonus for the Warriors. One of the most respected members of the Warriors’ squad, Vatuvei played a huge role in the side’s win over the Titans last week with 128 metres to his name and his third try of the season.
Vatuvei’s ability to take on the role of an extra forward with his scoots and the fact that he secured his future with a new two-year deal this week will have him ready to make an impact.
Plays To Watch: The Pita Godinet short-side play to the right. The Warriors’ interchange dummy-half has only averaged 33 minutes per game this season but he is quickly developing into a real impact player with his quick hands and speed off the mark. In particular he loves to dart down the blind side when camped on the right edge of the field, so the Bulldogs will need to be aware of what is likely to come if the Kiwi outfit earns a quick play-the-ball on that side of the field.
Key Match-Up: Simon Mannering v Frank Pritchard. Often teammates in the New Zealand Test squad, Mannering and Pritchard go head to head this week in what promises to be an epic battle of the big men.
Mannering’s leadership is crucial to the Warriors’ hopes of rebuilding over the coming months and it came as no surprise that last week’s win coincided with his return from injury. Likewise, the Bulldogs missed Pritchard’s presence at the start of the year and he brings plenty of experience across the Tasman with him.
Where It Will Be Won: In the forwards. With the Bulldogs welcoming back both Sam Kasiano and James Graham last week, they are now just about back to full strength and their greatest asset – their pack – has been reunited. Last week’s 40-4 thrashing of the Tigers was ominous.
For the Warriors, who at their best have typically monstered opponents, this is a great test of how far they’ve come in recent weeks following solid performances against Souths, Melbourne and the Gold Coast.
The History: Played 29; Bulldogs 15, Warriors 12, drawn 2. Canterbury won the last clash at Mt Smart Stadium 34-18 in Round 3 last season.
Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Brenden Wood; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Justin Morgan.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Warriors v Bulldogs clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 5.30pm AEST.
The Way We See It: Canterbury’s performance against Wests Tigers last week suggests that they are quickly finding their groove again after injury and suspension threatened to derail their season early. Grand finalists last year, if they do match that form again they will take plenty of stopping and to be honest the Warriors must show a lot more before anyone is convinced that they have completely turned the corner. This could well be one of the more intriguing clashes of the round but with players now back on deck we can see the Bulldogs sneaking home. Bulldogs by six points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats