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Warriors v Bulldogs
Mt Smart Stadium
Friday 8.30pm (NZ time)

While the rivalry between the Warriors and Bulldogs isn’t quite like the ’Dogs v Eels battles, this is a great match-up for Rivalry Round because there has been extra oomph in their clashes since Steve Price left the blue-and-whites for the Kiwi side of the Tasman.

Price may no longer be playing in the NRL but the two clubs still love to get one over the other and this game shapes up as the juncture in both teams’ seasons.

The logjam around the bottom half of the top eight is ensuring every match in the run home is crucial… the loser here is not just missing out on desperately needed competition points but they are also surrendering them to a direct rival!

Of course, the clash is shrouded in drama even before kick-off, with Canterbury coach Kevin Moore opting to pull the pin on his tenure immediately after being informed by management last Tuesday that he wouldn’t be in charge of the chalkboard next season. What effect that surprise has on his dazed team members will be interesting, given they’re not playing for the coach this weekend but caretaker Jim Dymock.

The home-side Warriors are sitting a little prettier after getting back on track with a win against the Titans last week. They were fairly solid and failed to concede a single line-break, the type of play they need to continue. The win elevates them to sixth on the NRL ladder but amazingly if they were to lose by a substantial margin they could wake up next Tuesday in 11th place!

This is the Warriors’ 200th match at Mt Smart Stadium (for 114 wins). Lewis Brown has been ruled out injured, with Joel Moon returning to the side in the centres. The only other changes are Jacob Lillyman set to start at prop for Ben Matulino and Steve Rapira added to an extended bench.

The Bulldogs are currently in 11th but they’re only one win behind the Warriors. They know this is a real opportunity to resurrect their faltering season.

Falling to the Storm in Adelaide last weekend leaves them with just two wins from the past nine games. They really need to string together a winning streak if they are to advance to the finals.

In a blow, they are still without representative hooker Michael Ennis. Meanwhile Kris Keating is due to start at five-eighth again, with Ben Roberts on the bench.

Watch Out Warriors: The Bulldogs’ back three again had some trouble with kicks against the Storm last week – but Ben Barba also showed just how lethal he can be when he returned one kick 70 metres for a blistering solo try. The ’Dogs have tallied eight kick-return line-breaks – the most by any side in the NRL – so the Warriors need to lift their kick-chase intensity on every occasion the ball is booted away.

Danger Sign: When Barba is presented with a staggered defensive line, it’s goodnight one and all! He is dynamite off the mark and can get through the tiniest of holes. He has now scored 14 tries from his past 14 games.

The Warriors need to also pay attention to centre Josh Morris. It hasn’t been his best year but Morris has scored six tries in just four career games against the Warriors.

Watch Out Bulldogs: The visitors really need to find a way to up their metres and stop the Warriors from dominating field position. The Bulldogs are averaging just 1270 metres a game, which has them ranked 14th, or third last, in the NRL. When you combine this with the fact they are letting opposition teams run an average 1456 metres each week… well, you can see why they haven’t been setting the world on fire.

With the Warriors averaging more metres (1331) and conceding fewer (1343) the Bulldogs will be up against it once more if they can’t knuckle down in attack and get aggressive in defence.

Danger Sign: The Warriors’ main go-forward man is actually Feleti Mateo – he’s the only Warriors forward averaging triple figures. So the key might be as simple as shutting him down. But no – their entire pack spreads the workload, making it tough to target one cog… the Bulldogs should instead focus on themselves and make a point of hunting up quickly in defence as a straight line.  

Plays To Watch: Expect lots of attacking kicks – bombs, grubbers, chips etc; Kevin Locke’s kick returns bringing excitement (or anguish, depending who you support); Manu Vatuvei’s dummy-half runs; Ben Roberts taking on the line and also grubber-kicking for Josh Morris.

Where It Will Be Won: Offloads and second-phase play could well be the order of the day.

The Bulldogs have tallied 183 offloads this season, the Warriors 221, and both sides have shown in recent weeks it is second-phase football that creates the points.

Despite wet conditions last weekend the Warriors dismantled the Titans with some great razzle-dazzle ball playing; and the Bulldogs only seemed to cause the Storm trouble when the likes of Sam Kasiano were popping a pass after contact. So perhaps the key to this contest will be who can shut down the other team as they look to pass. Mateo is once again the Warriors’ lynchpin here, with 52 offloads this year, while Simon Mannering and Vatuvei also like to offload.

For the Bulldogs the men to shut down are Frank Pritchard, Ben Barba, Jamal Idris and Kasiano. The side that can turn second-phase into points will be well on their way here.

The History: Played 27; Warriors 11, Bulldogs 14, drawn 2. The Bulldogs have won eight of the past 11 between the clubs, although the Warriors won the only match-up last year with a 30-24 victory. At Mt Smart Stadium the Bulldogs lead the count 7-6 – with the Warriors not beating the ’Dogs here since 2008. But the Bulldogs have won just one of five games outside of Sydney so far this season.  

Conclusion: The Bulldogs have been in crisis mode for a while now and haven’t been able to find a way out of the funk, which makes one lean to the Warriors, especially at home.

But they haven’t been playing good football either, and were lucky to run into the struggling Titans last week when they really needed a win.

Maybe the home-ground advantage will be enough to maintain urgency in the Warriors’ cause… but don’t write off the Bulldogs. (Although one more loss and we’ll be running the red pen through them.)

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges – Russell Turner & Steve Chiddy; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.