Broncos v Bulldogs preview

Broncos v Bulldogs
Suncorp Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Wow – another win this weekend would make it the Broncos’ fastest start to a season since 2002, which was the last time they won seven of their opening eight games in the competition. Six straight victories following their season-opener loss to the Cowboys and a new-found defensive commitment have rocketed Brisbane to the top of the premiership ladder – but they’ll need to maintain their form if they are to topple their Suncorp Stadium nemeses the Bulldogs this week.

Kevin Moore’s entertainers will board the flight north with considerable confidence – in nine clashes at Queensland’s spiritual home of rugby league they’ve registered a staggering seven wins over the home side!

Brisbane had the game safely in hand when they led the Wests Tigers 25-6 at halftime last week, and not even a quick-succession, double-try fightback by the home team gave them any cause for concern.

Key to their victories over the Raiders, Titans, Panthers, Knights, Roosters and Tigers has been their swarming defence, with new coach Anthony Griffin instilling some grit and sting in their hits. They’ll need to play things particularly tight this week, up against a flamboyant opponent, spearheaded by NRL top try-scorer Ben Barba (eight), adept at making oppositions pay from all over the park.

The Bulldogs have been a little patchy to date, although their 5-2 record has them secure in sixth rung on the ladder. They demolished a not-shabby Rabbitohs last week but this week will provide a better barometer – their two losses were to the second- and third-placed Dragons and Storm, and here they’re up against the competition frontrunners.

The only line-up change for the Broncos this week sees prop Sam Thaiday and second-rower Dane Carlaw swap positions.

Meanwhile the Bulldogs have lost winger Bryson Goodwin to injury, replaced by ex-Dragon Michael Lett who makes his club debut. Michael Hodgson, who fainted on the field last week, has been stood down pending medical results, with Dene Halatau coming onto the bench; and Jake Foster makes way for Corey Payne, who returns from suspension.

Watch Out Broncos: The Canterbury backline is on fire – and Ben Barba is the fire-starter! Two weeks ago against the Eels he scored a scintillating hat-trick, and last week he scored a dazzling double. He became the first player this year to record four line-breaks in a game, and topped 200 metres (211) for only the second time in his career.

With Steve Turner adding three busts also, the Bulldogs now boast the most potent outside backs, currently leading the comp for both line-breaks (22) and tackle-breaks (153) by players wide of the No.6 jersey.

Another ploy the Bulldogs will look to exploit is flustering the Broncos, rushing up in defence and forcing the home side into error. The Broncos aren’t playing with a great deal of depth at the moment, preferring instead to pass flat to find gaps. But it’s resulting in plenty of breakdowns, too.

Danger Sign: If halves Trent Hodkinson and Kris Keating send the ball wide early, you’ll know the Bulldogs are out to run the Broncos ragged.

Watch Out Bulldogs: Brisbane love the edges more than most sides. In fact, they are the only team who haven’t crossed for a try in the centre of the park (no wonder Corey Parker’s goal-kicking percentage is just 69 per cent). They like to spread their attack, too – they’ve scored 13 times on the left side of the field and 11 on the right.

Expect Jamal Idris to get worked over in defence. Idris is a capable defender on his day (14 one-on-one tackles, fourth most in the comp) but he is prone to lapses and his 18 missed tackles are the fourth highest among NRL centres in 2011. The Bulldogs’ right-side defence has conceded 14 tries, compared to just eight on their left.

Danger Sign: Look for Peter Wallace and Darren Lockyer to target the edges with the boot, too – the Bulldogs have defused just three of nine cross-field bombs, and have surrendered six tries to kicks.

Plays To Watch: Lockyer looking to catch out the opposition by changing the point of the attack and running a short blind; Sam Thaiday charging into the defence and looking to get quick play-the-balls; Justin Hodges testing out Josh Morris with his right-foot step; Ben Barba streaking through in midfield; Aiden Tolman looking to outdo Thaiday’s involvement; Jamal Idris testing out Jack Reed in defence (just four misses in seven games from the Bronco).

Where It Will Be Won: Measuring brilliance with restraint. Despite their sound defensive stats the Broncos are making a high number of errors – their 13.3 a game ranks fourth-most in the NRL. Which presents a conundrum, considering the Bulldogs concede the fourth-most offloads of any side, with 13.6 a game. Coach Griffin knows that a slightly flashier game plan this week could find their opponent out – but it could also come at a considerable cost.

In the Broncos’ favour though is Lockyer’s impeccable form. Last week he delivered a flawless exhibition, with 46 touches and no errors – plus a turn-back-the-clock solo try. And his 10 kicks for a season-high 376 metres showed there’s none better at setting the rhythm in a contest.

The Bulldogs are excitement machines and their scales will likely tip towards brilliance rather than restraint. Their free-flowing brand of footy has seen them register the most tries per game (4.3) and the second most line-breaks (five). They have also scored the equal most tries from over halfway (seven); meanwhile Brisbane is just one of two sides who haven’t scored from long range (Parramatta’s the other).

The History: Played 40; Broncos 22, Bulldogs 17, drawn 1. Honours are shared four games apiece from their past eight outings, although the Bulldogs have won three of the past four, including a 44-22 thumping at this venue in 2009.

Conclusion: In recent years the Broncos have been a bit of a powder-puff unit in defence – they were the second-worst team for missed tackles and line-breaks conceded in 2010, averaging 37 and 5.2 a game respectively – but under Anthony Griffin that’s changed. They now miss just the fourth-fewest tackles (27.6) and concede the second-fewest line-breaks (2.6). But given the Bulldogs’ pattern of play and undeniable strengths from all over the park, they are sure to be handed their sternest test yet.

There are cases for both sides, and a win by either would not surprise. But we get the feeling the visitors could prove a shade too brilliant for the home team. Whatever the result, it’s guaranteed to be fast, furious and highly entertaining.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Adam Devcich; Touch Judges – Ricky MacFarlane & Clayton Sharpe; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 8.30pm due to Royal Wedding coverage (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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