The table-topping Bulldogs must be grinning: despite their dramatic turnaround in NRL fortunes in 2009 they’ve lost just the one player – Ben Hannant – to State of Origin duty and courtesy of some good fortune on the injuries front have all other players available for selection heading into this important home clash with Penrith.
Conversely, the seventh-placed Panthers are left ravaged by Origin selection and injuries. They lose powerhouse prop and captain Petero Civoniceva to the Maroons and devastating attack merchant Michael Jennings to either the Blues or injury, while Game I Origin rep Luke Lewis remains out with a broken toe and centre Geoff Daniela sidelined with a knee complaint.
But coach Matthew Elliottt was delivered additional cruel news early in the week when Lachlan Coote was ruled out for the season with a labral tear to his shoulder, sustained in a David Williams crash-tackle in their loss to Manly last week.
In a significant reshuffle, Shane Elford moves from the bench to take Coote’s wing spot, Tim Grant is elevated to start at prop, while Masada Iosefa, former Bulldog Andrew Emelio (on debut for Penrith) and Junior Tia Kilifi make up a bench of five.
The Bulldogs have elevated Chris Armit to start at prop in Hannant’s absence, with second-rower Gary Warburton starting and Greg Eastwood on the pine. Brad Morrin is the newcomer to the bench.
The Bulldogs were simply awesome against the Broncos last week; fresh off a bye Bryson Goodwin, Josh Morris and Hazem El Masri all bagged try doubles while Ben Roberts revealed himself as among the most gifted playmakers in the NRL.
Meanwhile the Panthers’ top-eight campaign has definitely been snagged in recent weeks, with two losses from three games. They were dominated at home by the Sea Eagles last week and without Civoniceva they will struggle against the rampant competition co-leaders.
The only bit of good news for Penrith is they have beaten their opponents seven out of eight games at ANZ Stadium, including the past four.
Watch out Bulldogs: Trent Waterhouse has been handed the Panthers captaincy and will be ready to roll up his sleeves and lead by example. Waterhouse is averaging 3.5 tackle breaks and 1.5 offloads a game and with the ‘C’ next to his name in the Big League game program expect him to double those stats here.
Also, astute coach that he is and knowing his side might be out-gunned in the conventional tactics department, Matthew Elliott may look to try to test out the Bulldogs with chip kicks – fullback Luke Patten can show a tendency to hang way back in defence and the blue-and-whites are defusing just 57 per cent of these attacking kicks.
Watch out Panthers: The Bulldogs have returned to their heady days as the game’s entertainers. They rank fourth for tries scored (49), with left winger Bryson Goodwin second on the top tryscorer’s list (11) and left centre Josh Morris ninth (8). Not surprisingly they’re particularly strong on the left side of the field, where they’ve crossed for 32 four-pointers.
Then on the right side they have the imposing presence of Jamal Idris, who is growing in confidence with every outing. The dreadlocked teen has been used to great effect as a battering ram from close range in recent weeks and the Panthers’ left-side defenders (their vulnerable side, having leaked 22 tries compared to 14 on the right) will need to muscle up.
But Ben Roberts will present the biggest threat. Last week he unravelled one of the best individual performances of the year to destroy the Broncos – four try assists, five line-break assists, 24 touches, six tackle breaks and a cracking individual try.
With the Bulldogs scoring more tries from plays originating between the opposition 20- and 10-metre lines (14), where Roberts likes to take charge either running to the line, offloading or grubbering, there could be plenty of points in the making.
Where it will be won: Defending against breaks down the middle of the park. Both of these sides love to ‘feel’ their opponents out with rapid-fire forward charges one-off the ruck. It can lead to massive territory and defences back-pedalling – but again the Bulldogs are equipped to handle the threat, with captain Andrew Ryan and lock David Stagg figuring high on the list of top tacklers with 400 and 505 respectively.
Look for Michael Ennis to pump his hard-running forwards with short passes at the ruck or run himself (66 runs to date), while his counterpart Paul Aiton will do the same (75 runs) hoping to set the likes of Frank Pritchard into open space.
Also, the Panthers will find it tough to crack the Dogs’ left-side defence – they haven’t conceded a try in that corner all year!
The History: Played 77; Bulldogs 45, Panthers 29, drawn 3. The Panthers hold an impressive recent record, winning six of the past eight games. They also hold a commanding 5-1 advantage at ANZ Stadium. The Bulldogs were narrow victors (28-26) at CUA Stadium back in Round 2.
Conclusion: The Bulldogs will have too much on their opponents all around the park. The simple fact is Luke Lewis has been the Panthers’ creative force all season, Michael Jennings their explosive force out wide and Petero Civoniceva (208 hit-ups – second in NRL) their irreplaceable metre-eater. None of them will take the field here.
Further, an embarrassing fact: Petero (140 metres) and the injured Coote (106 metres) are the only Panthers to register triple-figure territory gains each game.
Expect Bulldogs halfback Brett Kimmorley to give his opposite Luke Walsh a master lesson in how to run a side around the park.
With most judges believing the Sea Eagles’ recent return to form spells huge danger for the Panthers in the race for a top-eight spot, an upset win this week before their bye next week would be heaven-sent. A defeat – as is likely – would be hellish.
Match officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Gerard Sutton & Chris James; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.