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Bulldogs v Wests Tigers
ANZ Stadium

Monday 7pm

What a fantastic way to end the first week of the new NRL season – with a massive blockbuster between two of Sydney’s popular teams.

The Wests Tigers and Bulldogs have had their share of unwanted off-field headlines in the lead up, with a betting scandal and alleged assault, but the time has come for the football to take over and we’re guessing we all couldn’t be happier!

For the Bulldogs it represents the start of an attempted revival after a disappointing 2010 – with a new-look side and some exciting days ahead.

Veterans Brett Kimmorley and Luke Patten are gone and in their place comes Trent Hodkinson and Ben Barba – perhaps the “spine” of the line-up for a decade to come.

The potentially surprising blue-and-white selections are the inclusion of Kris Keating at five-eighth ahead of Ben Roberts (although Roberts gets a start from the bench), plus the likes of Sam Kasiano (prop) and Jake Foster (second row). The two young forwards get the nod ahead of the likes of Mickey Paea and Frank Pritchard, who will start from the bench.

For the Wests Tigers this season is about building on last year and the grand final “that got away”. Remember, they were so close against the Dragons in the grand final qualifier, eventually falling by a point.

Tim Sheens’ men look very similar to last season but have Wade McKinnon at fullback, Blake Ayshford at centre and Matt Utai returning against his old club on the wing.

Watch Out Bulldogs: Benji Marshall has been in the news for all the wrong reasons but it could be the catalyst to one of his magical performances. Fresh from guiding New Zealand to the top of the international summit and winning the Golden Boot award, the Tigers’ on-field general would love nothing more than to let his football do the talking. During the regular season last year Marshall provided 20 line-break assists and 21 try assists for his team-mates. He also scored 12 tries.

His sublime skills are so impressive it is near impossible to know if he is going to run, pass, kick or dummy, forcing players to commit to him and leaving others open. There is no easy way to combat Marshall but the Bulldogs need to get in his face early and with controlled aggression – legally of course. Perhaps then they can get his mind wandering away from the game itself.

Danger Sign: If Benji starts running on the angles and showing the ball to decoy runners with one hand, the big play is coming. Is it a flat pass, a wicked step or a kick through for the winger? Sorry – can’t help you… this guy is too good to fully read sometimes.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: Ben Barba is ready to be unleashed. For years he has been a utility player with no real home but now his collar is stamped as a fullback and he has the chance to make the position his own for years to come.

Last season he had 15 tries in 21 games, despite starting more games from the bench than in the run-on side. He added 12 line-breaks, seven line-break assists and eight try assists plus a whopping 74 tackle-breaks. He does, however, have defensive issues, as he also missed more than three tackles a match.

Danger Sign: If you see Barba lurking around the ruck in attack you can be certain he is about to trail his forwards and hope for a popped pass out the back. He has brilliant acceleration and can be gone before you know it.

Plays To Watch: Josh Morris getting early ball on the left side; Michael Ennis niggling and sledging anything that moves; Frank Pritchard coming on and camping himself on the left edge where he can wreak havoc running at smaller players and popping offloads; Benji Marshall skipping quickly to the outside with a trademark dummy and step; Gareth Ellis hitting the holes on the left edge close to the line – and maybe Simon Dwyer crunching someone with a thunderous hit, like in last year’s finals!

Where It Will Be Won: On the edges. The attack, and defence, for both sides on the edge of the ruck is crucial to their chances here. The Wests Tigers made going left an art form during the finals last year, as Marshall would drift to the edge and have Ellis cutting in hard or speedsters out wide waiting for the ball.

The key is the decision making – and every player expects the ball – allowing Marshall or Robert Lui to go to the option with the least resistance in front of it. The Bulldogs now have their own edge-running superstar in Pritchard, and while he’ll start from the bench this just means he’ll be fresh and ready to run over the top of smaller opponents after 20-30 minutes of play. He will also have speedster Josh Morris outside him – a real problem for the Tigers’ defence, which struggled at times last season when good attack came against their edges.

Lui and Marshall can be targeted defensively. Both sides need to execute to their strengths but also shore up their defensives decisions and attitude.

The History: Played 20; Bulldogs 11, Wests Tigers 9. These sides have alternated wins since 2006, with the Wests Tigers winning the last encounter back in Round 13 last season. Does this mean the Bulldogs are due for a win? The teams have met an ANZ Stadium on 10 occasions and have won five apiece, so there isn’t a ‘home’ ground advantage to speak of.

Conclusion: There is plenty to like about both sides here. The Bulldogs look new and fresh and were OK during the trials, while the Wests Tigers have a settled look and they really were impressive at the back half of 2010.

There is a lean towards the Tigers – but it is yet to be seen if the Marshall issue distracts from his game, or fires him up to perform at his best. If it is the latter, the Tigers will win. But if it is the former, the Bulldogs could well start out 2011 much better than they did 2010.

Match officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – David Abood & David Munro; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

See the official team lists for round 1