Wests Tigers v Bulldogs
Campbelltown Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Seemingly unconcerned Bulldogs coach Kevin Moore says it’s not dire straits for the blue-and-whites given they are hanging around the top eight and not “running last”. All well and good – expect they were smashed last week by the Sharks, a team that were running near last!

That will hearten the Wests Tigers as they head to Campbelltown on a short back-up looking for a ‘soft kill’ to fortify their premiership challenge which was stunned last week by the Storm in front of a packed Leichhardt faithful. The clinical Melbourne side asked plenty of questions of the Tigers and not even their go-to men Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall had much of an answer.

The downside for the Tigers is the Grade 1 knee medial ligament strain that will keep Marshall out of this clash; it’s the first game he’s missed all year.

The past six weeks have been a case of one step forwards, one step backwards for Tim Sheens’ men, winning three games and losing three in that time. Fortunately, losses by the Warriors and Bulldogs last week mean they haven’t lost any ground and they retain sixth place on the ladder.

With five losses from their past six games the Bulldogs are also on 16 points but their inferior points differential (-27), plus the Knights’ win over the Panthers, has pushed them from eighth to ninth place.

They were outclassed by the Sharks last week and even though they were missing Jamal Idris (club suspension), Michael Ennis (rested after Origin II) and Trent Hodkinson (suspension) their inability to make good defensive reads are a huge concern entering this game, with the Tigers – even without Marshall – a considerably more formidable attacking unit than last week’s opponent.

This game will have a massive bearing on the campaigns of both sides – one team will get to stay in touch with the top five sides, while the other will drop from the eight and can basically forget about a top-four finish.

Tim Sheens has resisted the temptation to start Tim Moltzen in place of Marshall, with the job instead handed to Jacob Miller who plays his fourth NRL game – but his first in the No.6. After 27 minutes of game time against the Storm Robert Lui will start in the No.7, with Moltzen benched. Their only other change sees Ben Murdoch-Masila join an extended interchange.

Meanwhile Kevin Moore has recalled Idris to the Bulldogs’ fold and given the nod to former Eel Jonathon Wright to make his club debut on the wing, replacing Michael Lett.

Hodkinson returns at halfback after suspension, pushing Kris Keating back to his familiar five-eighth role with Ben Roberts dropped. Michael Hodgson will start at prop with Greg Eastwood benched, Ennis is back at hooker and Corey Payne and Dene Halatau push Grant Millington and Josh Reynolds off the pine.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: You simply can’t afford to relax around the ruck against the Bulldogs, especially when they are pushing up from deep within their own half. Ben Barba’s 88-metre dash to score last week was the Bulldogs’ 12th try from over halfway – and Josh Reynolds made it 13 for the year shortly after. Tellingly that’s four more than the next-best long-range merchants the Dragons, Warriors and Cowboys.

Barba is the master at cutting loose after being presented with even a tiny scrap of a gap. He maintains his lead as the competition’s top tryscorer (12) and line-breaker (17).

In Sam Kasiano the ’Dogs have found a ‘copycat’ Frank Pritchard, a player capable of bruising the line but who also possesses some deft playmaking skills. It was Kasiano’s late offload that put Barba into space last week and he added a second try assist when eagerly supporting Reynolds’ initial bust, then offloading back to the replacement hooker.

The worry for the Tigers is they’ve conceded 10 tries from longer than halfway – the most by any side in 2011. And they leaked another try from 40 metres out last week, bringing their tally conceded around that region (21m-50m) to a whopping 12.

Danger Sign: Look for Pritchard and Kasiano to target right-side defenders Robert Lui and Blake Ayshford. Centre Ayshford is a capable one-on-one defender but is prone to some misses (36 for the year, including three last week). Meanwhile Lui continues to struggle against powerful runners, missing three tackles last week in just 27 minutes on the field. 

Watch Out Bulldogs: Offloads and tackle-breaks remain the Wests Tigers’ strong points. They lose plenty with Marshall out (59 tackle busts) but Tim Moltzen and Robert Lui Robert tally 62 busts between them – which compares favourably with Sea Eagles’ duo Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran’s total of 70, the most by any halves combination. Also, Cronulla-bound prop Andrew Fifita has powered to 72 tackle-breaks – that’s the third most in the comp and the most by any forward (17 more than next-best Paul Gallen).

The Tigers make the fifth-most offloads a game (12.2). They’re best served by lock Chris Heighington with 26, while Lui has thrown 17.

The above is a real worry for the Bulldogs, given they make the second-fewest tackle saves (38) and try saves (35) as well as the second-fewest dominant tackles (161).

The ’Dogs are desperate for the return of Trent Hodkinson and the pressure is right on the halfback to get them back on the front foot with a deep kicking game. Last week they could manage just 407 metres from kicks against the Sharks – a season low and way down on their 2011 average of 605 metres to date.

Danger Sign: If the Wests Tigers forwards are permitted to hit, spin and offload, or break the first line of defence and promote the football to the likes of Lui, Tim Moltzen and Wade McKinnon (91 supports, most in the comp) the Bulldogs will be on the back-pedal all evening.

Plays To Watch: Farah taking charge of the ruck looking to get one over his Origin arch rival Michael Ennis; Robert Lui probing for holes on the right edge and slipping a canny offload; Gareth Ellis and Liam Fulton looking to crash through in the ‘go’ zone; Keith Galloway and Chris Heighington’s charges and offloads; Ben Barba’s support play; Jamal Idris and Trent Hodkinson looking to make up for lost time; Aiden Tolman inspiring his forwards with some Marty Lang-like charges; Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard lifting their arms free to pop offloads.

Where It Will Be Won: The battle up the guts – both sides have struggled to make the hard yards to date and it could be the team that rolls up their sleeves that gets the job done.

For all their long-range potency the Bulldogs have made the second-fewest runs by any side, for the second-fewest metres gained. They’ve tallied just 2042 runs all year – that’s an average of just 157 a game – advancing just 1252 metres each week (only the Raiders advance less). Meanwhile the Tigers have made the sixth-most runs (2321) and are averaging 1306 metres.

Take away Aiden Tolman’s average 18 runs a game and the next-best Bulldogs forwards are Andrew Ryan (13 runs) and David Stagg, Corey Payne and Frank Pritchard (10). But they’ve had the impact of a marshmallow – only Tolman is averaging triple figures in metres gained, leaving the Dogs the NRL’s ‘soft touch’ forward pack.

Meanwhile the Tigers have five forwards averaging 10 or more runs, led by Chris Heighington (15.1). But they have just two players punching out 100 or more metres a game: Heighington (107) and Ellis (103).  

The History: Played 21; Bulldogs 12, Wests Tigers 9. The honours are shared four games apiece from the past eight clashes (alternating Dogs-Tigers etc – with Tigers next in line for a win). The Bulldogs have won all four games played at Campbelltown Stadium, a run that extends back to July 1995. But interestingly the Tigers are on a record five-game winning streak at the venue.

Conclusion: Despite Kevin Moore’s chilled-out reaction to his team’s fall from grace there’s no escaping the Bulldogs are fast closing in on the unwanted title of ‘Most Disappointing Side Of 2011” (and there are a few contenders). They have the talent but unless the roster starts to click soon they will be overhauled by sides that have a greater focus and desire.

With no Marshall lining up down the other end they get a great chance to bust out of the doghouse here. It’s now or never for them; on that basis they deserve the lean (call it a gut feel). Bulldogs by four points.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Adam Gee; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats