These two sides couldn’t have had more contrasting lead-ins to the 2010 season.
The Knights have spent as much time in the headlines as they have on the training paddock; the disruption of drugs charges against forwards Danny Wicks and Chris Houston, plus the injury loss of captain Kurt Gidley for at least the first five weeks, means Newcastle come into this match against not only under-strength, but also probably underdone.
Meanwhile the Bulldogs added a just few new faces to their squad and their pre-season has been settled and smooth. Injuries haven’t hit them as much as other teams, with new recruits Dene Halatau and Corey Payne the only two unavailable.
Trial form is not often the best guide as to how a team will perform for the season – which would be good news for the Knights, who played only one match in pre-season and it was a less-than-impressive performance. Penrith ran in seven tries to three in a 41-16 demolition. Newcastle were without Steve Simpson and Adam MacDougall and they’ll hope their returns for Round 1 will be able to lift the team to a better showing.
Shannon McDonnell has the job this weekend of filling in at fullback, but it’s the reason he was brought to the club and has capably stepped in before. Junior team-mates Jarrod Mullen and Scott Dureau form the halves pairing and they’ll both need to be on their game to cover for the loss of the creative and penetrative attack of Gidley, who made easily the most runs (367) and metres (3237) at the club last year.
Resilience flows strong through Newcastle city and the club won’t want to hide behind off-field dramas for any poor performance. They’ll have some added incentive for this match, too, as it was the Bulldogs who bundled them out of the finals in Week One last year.
The Bulldogs would take a lot of confidence from their trials; they were only narrowly beaten by last season’s arch rivals St George Illawarra 16-14, before they put away Canberra 22-12 at Dubbo.
Canterbury-Bankstown’s teamsheet doesn’t read too different to last season, with the arrival of Steve Turner from Melbourne a speedy replacement for the retired Hazem El Masri. Michael Ennis takes over the kicking duties.
Mickey Paea takes a spot on the bench and will be looking to have the same impact as Greg Eastwood last year.
A small injury cloud hangs over Bryson Goodwin, who has missed some training sessions this weekend with a toe problem.
With the ’Dogs pretty much full-strength, Newcastle will have their work cut out. Last season Canterbury were second in the competition in line-breaks (128), so the Knights will need to turn around the defensive effort they put in against Penrith two weeks ago.
Watch out Bulldogs: Jarrod Mullen is a threat with the ball in hand or on foot and it will be him who must lead his team around the park without Gidley.
Last season, Mullen only missed two games and finished with 11 line-breaks and 14 line-break assists; 10 tries and 19 try assists. He’s also the go-to man for kicks, putting in 222 during 2009, by far the most in the team – he has the ability to play for field position or take on the line.
Watch out Knights: No-one needs to be reminded of the threat the Bulldogs offer down their left wing. The pairing of Bryson Goodwin and Josh Morris was a revelation last season as they ran in 39 tries between them as well as 37 line-breaks. The ’Dogs scored 54 of their 98 tries down the left side, so the Knights will need to nullify the impact of the pair if they’re to force Canterbury to work for points.
Where it will be won: In defence. Last season the Bulldogs’ defensive lapses were well covered by attacking prowess, and they were able to counter leaks by putting points on the board themselves. But teams will be on to that this year and will look to target them around the middle and on the fringes, where they let in the majority of their tries in 2009 (56 of 78).
Canterbury did most of their scoring from line-breaks and passes, but so too did their oppositions.
Similarly, Newcastle racked up most of their points through line-breaks last season, scoring 37 of their 85 tries in that manner. However, 38 were scored against them in the same way and their poor defensive effort during the trial is not a good sign.
The History: Played 32; Canterbury-Bankstown 17, Newcastle 14, Drawn 1. Overall not much separates these two, but the past eight encounters have seen Newcastle come out victorious five times, twice at ANZ Stadium. They’ve played some nail-biting matches in recent history and they enjoy playing each other, so expect a tough contest.
Conclusion: The Bulldogs go into Round 1 as overwhelming favourites, but they’ll need to be wary of feeling too confident against a side playing for pride and out to prove they’re not out of the running before the season has even begun.
It will start hard and fast, but Canterbury love to grind out their football and will be patient in looking for points. Expect much of the scoring to come in the second half – and the Bulldogs to run away with it.
Match officials: Referees: Jason Robinson and Bernard Sutton; Sideline Officials: Jeff Younis & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Ref: Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live from 5.30pm (AEDT).