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Warriors v Bulldogs
Mt Smart Stadium
Sunday 4pm NZ Time

Some Bulldogs fans might feel the league gods are conspiring against them this week… they have a short turnaround and they have to travel internationally to face a team in the full throes of desperation.

The upside to the Bulldogs being somewhat snubbed at the representative selection table though has been they’ve been able to field full-strength sides for club football – but with New South Wales sending the SOS to the ’Dogs’ playmakers and the judiciary looking to take a further bite out of the side, the blue-and-whites face a daunting trip across the Tasman.

The Warriors are now most certainly heading into the must-win portion of their season, with their most recent loss to the Broncos seeing them down in 12th position, five competition points from the top eight and nine competition points behind the second-placed Bulldogs.

With four of their next five games against teams inside the top eight, their task is by no means easy – but the plus-side is if they can rack up the wins they will pull closer to those teams.

They are without captain Steven Price at prop due to Origin III and this brings Russell Packer into the side.

The only other change is the return of Manu Vatuvei on the wing in place of Denan Kemp, while Ukuma Ta’ai joins the bench as an 18th man.

The Bulldogs have major changes and could yet have more to the side beaten narrowly by Manly last Monday night. Josh Morris will don sky blue for Origin III which sees Matt Utai chosen at centre, while Brett Kimmorley’s place at halfback is to be taken by Daniel Holdsworth and Michael Sullivan comes in for Michael Ennis at dummy-half.

Winger Bryson Goodwin and forward Greg Eastwood will also be missing, having been suspended for dangerous throws.

Watch out Warriors: When representative players are pulled out of a side it is certainly weakened. However you cannot underestimate the power of opportunity and the three Bulldogs players slated to come into the side for the New South Wales trio all have excellent pedigree and have points to prove.

Matt Utai is a former Kiwi international and premiership winner, Daniel Holdsworth was once touted as a rookie sensation and Michael Sullivan was once recognised as one of the NRL’s most dangerous attacking hookers. This will be game number eight for Holdsworth this season but just game number four for Utai and it is the first time Sullivan has played in the top grade all year.

While they are aware they will lose their spots the following round, all three can put forward a case to be included on the interchange bench going forward. The Warriors cannot afford to show any complacency towards the trio or they will get burned. These are not rookies; these three guys are the real deal.

Watch out Bulldogs: By early indications young Warriors winger Kevin Locke could be just about anything and if he maintains his form through the back half of the year he could even be Rookie of the Year material.

Of course, he has only played five games to this point but they have all contained plenty of excitement and with more game-time he’ll become even more accustomed to life in the NRL.

At this early stage he is already averaging 119 metres gained a match and has four line breaks and three tries. His long-range bust against the Broncos last Friday night contained raw speed and elusive footwork plus skill to boot. If the Bulldogs give him space… look out!

Where it will be won: It seems a little unfair to rest a team’s chance of victory on one man but this game will be won and lost around the form of the Warriors’ veteran halfback Stacey Jones.

The little general needs to really bring his ‘A’ game to this contest and take advantage of a disjointed Bulldogs side; if he does, his side will win. Should he falter and be below average or even average, the Bulldogs’ makeshift side will find a way to grind out a result, like they have for most of the year.

The Warriors need some real penetration from their halfback who at this point has four line breaks, two line-break assists, one try and nine try assists but who is capable of much more, even in his twilight years. It is time for Jones to test the line more often, with his runners providing adequate options, forcing the Bulldogs defenders to respect him like they may have in the early part of the decade when he was a Golden Boot winner.

This means the Warriors’ forwards also need to lift their games and make some hard yards for their ‘little master’. If the Bulldogs’ defenders can nullify Jones – and along with that most of the Warriors’ attack – they will pull themselves into a tight contest; these games invariably fall their way as the likes of Andrew Ryan find a way to get things done.

The history: Played 24; Warriors 10, Bulldogs 12, drawn 2. The Bulldogs have won six of the past eight however the two most recent clashes went the way of the Warriors. At Mt Smart Stadium the honours are shared at six apiece.

Conclusion: The under-strength Bulldogs are capable of returning to the winner’s circle but the Warriors really should be good enough to keep them in the ‘dog house’ for one more week.

The knowledge that time is running out on their season and the fact they are at home should be more than enough motivation for an inspired performance from the Warriors.

Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Gavin Reynolds; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.
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