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Bulldogs v Sea Eagles
ANZ Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Trent Hodkinson’s two-game suspension has robbed fans of a mouth-watering match-up with Daly Cherry-Evans, the rookie who replaced Hodkinson in the No.7 at the Sea Eagles this year and who is setting the rugby league world on fire in his own right.

Hodkinson’s unavailability also presents a concern for coach Kevin Moore as his side looks to close out the first half of the season with a win to push higher than their current seventh placing on the ladder, before regrouping next week with their second bye.

A loss to the third-placed Sea Eagles would see the ’Dogs either joined by the Knights or overtaken by the Wests Tigers, depending on the outcome of their clash on Monday night. But a win would see the blue-and-whites push to the periphery of the top four.

Josh Reynolds, who substituted for Michael Ennis at hooker when Ennis was in the Blues’ Origin camp, has been handed the job of filling in for Hodkinson.

It’s the only team change from last week’s 28-6 hammering of the Titans; Ennis takes his place, escaping suspension with an early guilty plea after his late shot on Scott Prince.

In a milestone night ’Dogs interchange Michael Hodgson plays his 200th NRL game and Corey Payne makes his 100th NRL appearance. Also, centre Josh Morris is on the verge of 1000 career runs (990).

Meanwhile the Sea Eagles continue to soar. They demolished the Broncos last week with 30 unanswered second-half points to register their seventh win from their past eight games, with a two-point loss to the Cowboys in Townsville in Round 8 their only blemish.

Last week their backline really clicked, with Cherry-Evans recording a try double (including a superb solo effort) and Jamie Lyon and Brett Stewart also pulling off highlights reel moments.

Their only team change this week is George Rose starting for injured prop Brent Kite (ribs), with Vic Mauro and Darcy Lussick joining an extended bench. However Rose and co-captain Jason King are in doubt with calf and ankle complaints respectively.

Watch Out Bulldogs: Brett Stewart is slowly getting back to full form. His multiple try assists last week (two) were his first since the 2008 grand final. In particular, his lightning catch-and-pass of Kieran Foran’s centre-field banana kick for Cherry-Evans to score was classic Stewart and showed he is raring to up the pace as he finally gets over his chronic knee concerns.

Anthony Watmough is clearly intent on staking his claim for the New South Wales Origin side announced on Sunday – if not for Game Two, then the final clash should incumbents falter or injuries strike. Watmough has played like a man possessed over the past two games. Against the Titans he made 16 hit-ups, 106 metres and 35 tackles; last week he added 17 runs for 157 metres, plus six tackle-breaks and five offloads – not forgetting his 33 tackles in a standout 80-minute performance.

The ’Dogs need to watch Watmough’s bustling involvement, especially midway through the first 40 when he tends to step things up.

Danger Sign: The Bulldogs need to be on red alert every time Kieran Foran takes the ball at first receiver. The No.6 has the knack of making things happen; he has nine try assists, seven line-break assists and seven offloads, plus 26 tackle-breaks.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: The competition’s leading tryscorer Ben Barba (10) is the danger man. Barba’s electrifying solo plays and instinctive supports have caught all teams napping at some stage in games this year and don’t expect anything different here. It’s no surprise to see the diminutive No.1 topping the line-breaks stats either (16). Daly Cherry-Evans needs to do better than his 46 per cent kicks to open space this year, and the Sea Eagles need to eliminate the more-than-one poor chase they’ve put in per game to date, or else Barba will cut them open.

Danger Sign: It only takes a few steps for Barba and right-side centre Jamal Idris to become wrecking machines. With 61 and 59 tackle-busts respectively they rank third- and fourth-most prolific in the comp. They’ll be a stiff test for the impressive Sea Eagles’ defence, ranked second for fewest tackles missed per game (27.5).

Plays To Watch: Sea Eagles trio Kieran Foran (nine), Jamie Lyon (seven) and Brett Stewart (five) laying on try assists out wide – Many have scored an NRL-high 17 tries from passes and these guys are the absolute masters; Stewart running an inside line off Cherry-Evans from close range; Will Hopoate looking to better his team-high 17 runs and 150 metres a game; Jamal Idris reminding Ricky Stuart of his Origin worth; Barba’s scything runs; Ennis looking to get under the skin of potential hotheads Anthony Watmough and Jason King; David Stagg (42 tackles average), Michael Ennis (41) and captain Andrew Ryan (37) defending like there’s no tomorrow – the trio are ranked ninth, 11th and 12th among individuals for defence.

Where It Will Be Won: You won’t find a more clear-cut difference between sides in this year’s competition than the metres conceded by these combatants.

The Sea Eagles have really muscled up to relinquish a miserly, NRL-low 1212 metres on average through the opening 12 rounds. By contrast, the Bulldogs leak a whopping (and worrying) NRL-high 1428 metres. And this week they’ll have to rely on a back-up field kicker to boot them out of trouble.

If the Sea Eagles hem the Dogs down early and the home side battles to make it into the Sea Eagles 20-metre zone often in the first 20 minutes, this will be a hard trend for the blue-and-whites to reverse.

The History: Played 111; Sea Eagles 58, Bulldogs 48, drawn 5. The Sea Eagles have the advantage in recent clashes, winning five of the past eight. But the ’Dogs hold bragging rights after their 30-24 win at Brookvale Oval last year. The honours are shared three wins apiece in games at ANZ Stadium.

Conclusion: It’s possible this game may go down to the wire – five of the past seven games between the sides have been decided by single figures. But the Sea Eagles have all the momentum, and a fit unit, while there are holes in the Bulldogs’ team. Aiden Tolman remains sidelined and how they’ll cope without Hodkinson is anyone’s guess, given the No.7 has started in all games to date.

It’s a big ask expecting Josh Reynolds to steer them to victory. Chalk another win up to the Sea Eagles.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Steve Chiddy; Video Ref – Rod Lawrence.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.