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Bulldogs v Sharks
ANZ Stadium
Sunday 2pm

Sydney’s big wet, plus three games in four days on the ANZ Stadium turf that may leave the playing surface a bit of a bog, should ensure defence is the focus in this clash between two sides fresh off the bye and desperate to shrug off a month of woeful results.

Four losses from their past five games (to the Broncos, Dragons, Raiders and Sea Eagles) have left a serious dent in the Bulldogs’ premiership aspirations. Of particular concern is they have yet to defeat a side in the top six on the ladder, with the Wests Tigers their only scalp of note.

And this week they face the Sharks minus star centre Jamal Iris, dropped for missing training last Monday.

Last week they banked their second bye for the year, leaving them with little respite for the remainder of the season should injuries strike.

They are still well poised in outright eighth place, a win ahead of a pack of chasers, but they’re way down on confidence. The Sea Eagles ripped them apart last start (38-4) and until they show they can be competitive with the best in the league they will continue to have their knockers. Certainly, they can’t afford a slip-up here against the 15th-placed Sharks.

They will be hoping gritty hooker Michael Ennis comes through Origin unscathed, while the Sharks will be pinning their hopes on the recuperative powers of NSW captain Paul Gallen.

The big news on the Bulldogs front of course is Kevin Moore’s sacking of Idris; it paves the way for promising Toyota Cup centre Tim Lafai to return to the top grade. Lafai played five games earlier this year on the left side of the field filling in when Josh Morris was injured.

In some other major Dogs team changes, coach Moore has recalled Ben Roberts to the starting line-up at five-eighth, with regular pivot Kris Keating pushing one place in to the No.7. Last week Toyota Cup halfback Josh Reynolds filled in for the suspended Trent Hodkinson but an indifferent game, particularly in defence, has forced Moore into a rethink. (Hodkinson will be available again next week.)

In a major plus the Dogs will be bolstered by the return from injury of Aiden Tolman and Greg Eastwood, who will form an unlikely front-row pairing replacing Sam Kasiano and Andrew Ryan, with the skipper dropping back to the second row. Jake Foster misses out on a spot in the extended squad of 19.

Meanwhile the Sharks’ stirring victories over the Dragons and Panthers in Rounds 2 and 3 must seem an eternity ago. They’ve lost eight of their past nine games, with a win over the similarly struggling Roosters their only trophy in the period. They have definitely lost their teeth and if they don’t start showing signs of improvement the chances are Shane Flanagan might find himself the next NRL coach under pressure to keep his job.

Indeed the only thing preventing the Sharks from hitting rock bottom is that they jumped ahead of the Raiders on the ladder courtesy of their second bye. Unfortunately they are definite wooden spoon contenders, giving the side not a small amount of inspiration here.

Punishing back-rower Jeremy Smith returns for the Sharks after missing three weeks with a knee injury. He pushes Anthony Tupou to the bench. Isaac Gordon returns on the wing, replacing Nathan Stapleton. Josh Cordoba and midweek signing Sam Tagataese (from the Titans) are the new faces on an extended bench, with Johnny Mannah and Dean Collis missing out.

It’s a milestone week for tireless Dogs defender David Stagg, who plays his 150th NRL game, and captain Andrew Ryan who will become only the second player in history to run onto ANZ Stadium for the 100th time. (To date he has just a pass mark of 51 victories.)

The Dogs will be keen to maintain their dominant advantage over the Sharks – they’ve won 10 of the past 12 encounters stretching back to 2001.

Watch Out Bulldogs: Chances are coach Kevin Moore has spent the past two weeks drilling his right-side defence, which leaks nearly double the number of tries compared to the left side. So far the right side has conceded 22 tries, the left side just 13.

Michael Ennis is a weakness; he’s missing 3.5 tackles a game, while suspended halfback Trent Hodkinson’s replacement last week, Josh Reynolds, missed six against the Sea Eagles. It will fall to Keating to stiffen up the line at close range.

It’s also a huge assignment for Lafai stepping in for Idris but in his five games in the top grade he’s proven a capable defender, averaging 11.5 tackles a game with just 1.4 misses – that compares favourably with Idris’ 10.5 tackles and two misses on average.

The key is the players must work as a unit and communicate better; any indecision and veteran centre Colin Best and nippy fullback Nathan Gardner will make them pay.

Danger Sign: While the Bulldogs are suspect on their right side, too much of a focus might be too easily telegraphed and defused. The Sea Eagles rattled the Bulldogs last start with blistering attack left, right and centre. The Sharks should take a leaf out of their book and look to vary their play. In particular look for ball-playing back-rower Anthony Tupou (27 offloads, seventh most in the comp) to up his involvement.

Watch Out Sharks: Cronulla have conceded more tries to kicks (17) than any other side. Given possible greasy conditions wingers Matthew Wright and Isaac Gordon can get ready for a barrage of high balls, particularly to right wing where the Sharks have conceded 23 tries (compared to 16 on their left).

The conditions will suit livewire Dogs fullback Ben Barba who leads the NRL for line-breaks (16) and is the competition’s top tryscorer (11).

Danger Sign: If Barba makes some early busts the Sharks could be in for a long afternoon. And if it’s windy and raining look for Barba to sit off the Bulldogs’ bomb chasers looking for tap-backs close to the Sharks’ tryline.

Plays To Watch: Aside from the charges of the forwards, watch the little guys and the speedsters search for holes up the middle of what’s sure to be a fatigued ANZ Stadium surface. Also look out for Tim Lafai – he’s averaging more than five tackle-breaks a game from his limited time in first grade, stats that are on a par with Idris’ impact to date. He’s a talent.

Where It Will Be Won: In kicks and chases, particularly given any wet conditions.

If the Bulldogs don’t improve this aspect of their game they can forget about playing semi-final football, let alone winning the premiership. To date the Bulldogs concede the most metres to oppositions each game, averaging 1457. But they miss only the fourth-fewest tackles a game (30), so why are they on the back foot so much?

The answer lies with their lacklustre pursuit of the footy after it’s been kicked. They’ve made just 117 ‘good’ chases all year – the fewest by any side. This means opposition wingers and fullbacks are not being placed under pressure and are finding it easy to claw out decent metres coming out of their own end. Add to that the fact the Bulldogs are only making the second-fewest metres in attack (1256) and you can see they have a massive imbalance that needs addressing.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs’ back three won’t find too many easy kick-return metres, despite tallying the second-most line-breaks from kick-returns (five) in 2011 to date. Stats show the Sharks are a committed bunch and make the fewest ‘poor’ chases of all sides (just seven).

The History: Played 81; Bulldogs 50, Sharks 29, drawn 2. The Bulldogs have won six of the past eight games between the sides, including the past four. The last time the Sharks prevailed was in 2007 when they won 30-20 at this venue. The Dogs have won four of six clashes between the sides at ANZ Stadium.

Conclusion: The Sharks haven’t won at ANZ Stadium since downing South Sydney in April 2008. That’s a long time between drinks – but they shouldn’t be thinking about popping the champagne corks this weekend.

This game represents a golden opportunity for the Bulldogs to find some rhythm and cohesion, even allowing for the absence of Idris and Hodkinson. They’ll be too strong; or at least you’d expect them to be. How are those nerves Dogs fans?   

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Adam Reid; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats