Another year without finals football for the Wests Tigers, after last week’s loss to the Titans kyboshed their late-season rally, relegates this once-likely monumental clash against the table-topping Bulldogs to a contest about pride and pride alone for the home side.
The ‘what ifs’ once again dominate the water-cooler and forum talk for the fans of the 2005 premiers, who since that famous and exciting season haven’t forced their way back to the finals.
But while there is no finals carrot on the end of a string here for the Tigers, there is a chance to give those loyal fans one last warm fuzzy feeling with a victory against the competition front-runners.
Robert Lui is out, which sees John Morris come into halfback, while John Skandalis is off the bench with three players in Alan Schirnack, David Gower and Rhys Pritchard in line to replace him.
The Bulldogs, who moved into top spot with victory over the Warriors, can cement the minor premiership – and the $100,000 prize money that goes with it – with a win here, although they will have to do it without veteran halfback Brett Kimmorley.
Kimmorley had his face rearranged in a head clash last weekend and has had titanium plates inserted in his cheekbone. Consequently he is out for a couple of weeks.
If they can overcome the loss of their inspirational playmaker then officially they will have climbed from outhouse to penthouse, having finished with the wooden spoon last season.
Daniel Holdsworth has been given the job of replacing Kimmorley in the only change from last weekend’s side.
Should they lose, they could lose top spot to the Dragons, assuming the Dragons can arrest a bad form slump to beat the Eels.
Watch out Wests Tigers: The Bulldogs are heading to the left in attack to feed the hungry and elusive duo of Josh Morris and Bryson Goodwin.
With 53 tries on the left compared to 29 on the right it is no secret the Bulldogs like going left and considering both Morris and Goodwin have 19 tries each this season, they’d be mad not to keep heading to the boys out wide.
The Tigers’ defenders should mark the pair heavily as it is one of their own, in injured Taniela Tuiaki, who currently leads the top try-scorers list with 21 tries – a mark in reach for the Bulldogs’ pair if the ’Dogs play well.
Watch out Bulldogs: The only side to break the line more often than the Bulldogs this season is the Wests Tigers. With 124 line breaks for the year the Tigers lead the way but the Bulldogs are just one behind with 123 line breaks.
Of the Tigers’ line breaks, 14 have been from dummy-half, the most in the competition, so the ’Dogs need to keep a very close watch on the ruck and especially on Robbie Farah.
The Tigers also have nine line breaks from kick-returns, to rank third in the NRL, so it is imperative the Bulldogs’ kick-chase is focussed or the Tigers could look to attack from the back.
Then there is the ‘nudie run’ watch. Wests Tigers players playing here yet to score a try this season include Gareth Ellis, Chris Heighington, Danny Galea and Alan Schirnack.
Where it will be won: Defence. The Tigers will no doubt look to get some razzle-dazzle football going, considering they have nothing to gain or lose from this match (unless you call the potential of falling from 10th to 12th a big deal). The Bulldogs also have their own attacking weapons to draw on, which makes the crucial factor defence.
So far this season the Bulldogs have averaged just over 17 points conceded a match while the Wests Tigers have let in just over 20 points a match. In terms of effectiveness of tackles the Bulldogs have been effective on 84.3 per cent of occasions – but the Tigers have just shaded them with 84.6 per cent. This means the Bulldogs have been more effective at scrambling to ensure their misses don’t always lead to points.
In terms of ‘spot’ players or players to aim at, the Tigers should point players at Michael Ennis and Jarrad Hickey while the Bulldogs should aim traffic at Benji Marshall.
The history: Played 17; Wests Tigers 7, Bulldogs 10. The Bulldogs got home 22-20 in a close one earlier this season to make it four from the past six against the Tigers. However the past five matches have had a win-one, lose-one trend which means the Wests Tigers are due. The two sides are yet to meet at the SFS.
Conclusion: The Bulldogs should be good enough to claim the minor premiership with victory here but the unknown factor of no Kimmorley could have them a little rudderless.
Much will come down to the attitude of the Wests Tigers’ players. If they turn up to compete, they can certainly produce some stunning football and could easily win. If they turn up just to go through the motions, the Bulldogs will destroy them.
The side-battle between hookers Michael Ennis and Robbie Farah could also provide some great viewing so if you are in the area make sure you get on down to the SFS because at the very least this game should be entertaining.
Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Steve Carrall; Video Ref – Tim Mander.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 9.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 1.30am Sat.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.