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Bulldogs v Eels
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

A prime-time Friday night battle between teams 12 and 13 on the NRL ladder might not sound all that interesting but ask any Bulldogs fans and they’ll tell you their season goes on the line against traditional western Sydney rivals Parramatta.

Another comprehensive, down-on-form loss last week, this time at the hands of the semis-bound Warriors in New Zealand the day after coach Kevin Moore cleaned out his office, confirmed most observers’ opinions that Canterbury just don’t have that special something needed to make an impression in 2011. But, as we’ve seen in the past couple of years with the Eels in 2009 and the Roosters last year, a hot winning streak can catapult any side within reach of the semi-finals into a position to challenge for the premiership.

And believe it or not, the Bulldogs are (mathematically at least) still within reach; they’re one of seven sides within four competition points of each other competing for the three last spots in the top eight. Granted, they’ll need to win a minimum six of their last seven games to get to the anticipated 30 points cut-off mark and rack up some good winning margins to erode their shocking -65 points differential – but it ain’t over until the calculator says you can’t make it!

Of course, some pessimistic ’Dogs fans would disagree and looking at their recent form it’s hard to make a case for them catching fire this weekend. Anyone tuning in after 14 minutes last week wouldn’t have been all that surprised to see them lead the Warriors 12-nil, as they were due a bust-out game and Moore’s departure could have been the catalyst. But nope. Thirty-six unanswered points later they were back in the doghouse.

That loss was their third in succession and they’ve now leaked eight defeats in their past 10 outings.

Caretaker Canterbury coach Jim Dymock has shown he’s not afraid to make the big calls and has punted former Blues Origin centre Josh Morris, replacing him with Tim Lafai. Joel Romelo has been named at hooker, with Dene Halatau moving to lock for David Stagg who hits the bench. Gary Warburton is missing this week, with Josh Reynolds rounding out the extended interchange.

Meanwhile the Eels self-destructed in the closing seconds of regular time against the Panthers last week. Leading 22-16 with 15 seconds remaining and in possession, they should have left Centrebet Stadium with two valuable competition points that would have kept them in the race for the top eight. Instead, a clearing kick rebounded after cannoning into an opposition player, Luke Burt died with the ball and the Panthers conjured a miracle equaliser play with just two seconds on the clock.

The Eels are done for 2011; all that remains for them is to add nuisance value and tinker with their player roster in readiness for next year.

After two weeks of late call-ups Jarryd Hayne has finally been named in the No.6 jersey this week in an unchanged starting line-up from the Panthers game.

While Canterbury have defeated Parramatta just twice in their past 10 clashes, that’s evened out somewhat by Parramatta losing both their games at ANZ Stadium so far this season – conceding 66 points to boot!

There are two interesting sub-plots: First, Rene Maitua will be desperate to make an impact against the club that dropped him from their roster after making one too many misdemeanours late in 2008; and second, given he’s off to the Eels next year Bulldogs five-eighth Ben Roberts will be out to one-up Hayne in the ‘pivotal’ battle.

Watch Out Bulldogs: As predicted by last week, despite naming Hayne at fullback coach Kearney persisted with the experiment of playing the star in the No.6 jersey.

Hayne again was impressive, contributing three try assists and game-highs in tackle-breaks (eight) and offloads (three). Clearly he ran the ball more against the Panthers than he did the week before against the Wests Tigers, when he failed to make a single tackle-break.

Hayne has 14 try assists for the year – and four of those have come in the past fortnight. With the Eels struggling for points in 2011, averaging just 16 a game (third fewest), Hayne is their go-to man more now than ever.

Fuifui Moimoi and Tim Mannah are potential sources of angst for the Bulldogs – the props grind out the most average metres of any front row partnership in the comp. Moimoi is making 123 metres from nearly 15 hit-ups a game while Mannah’s figures read 118 metres from 15 hit-ups. The pair left nothing in the tank last week against the Panthers; both made 21 runs, Mannah tallying 166 metres and Moimoi 164 metres.

Moimoi didn’t make an offload last week but he has seven from his 12 games and will prove a headache if he chances his arm. 

Danger Sign: If the Eels’ forwards start making cheap metres from the outset it could be all over for the ’Dogs for 2011. Canterbury concede the most metres of any side (1455) and if they can’t find a way to stop the Eels’ go-forward Jarryd Hayne will cut their defensive line to pieces late in the tackle counts.

Watch Out Eels: It’s the last chance saloon for the Bulldogs so that makes Ben Barba and Jamal Idris even bigger threats than normal.

Idris hasn’t been in great form for the past couple of months and it’s probably getting to the stage where he needs to convince himself as much as the fans that he’s the boom talent we all thought he was heading into this season. Nearly everything’s down for the big guys stats-wise from last year – average metres down from 99 to 82; tackles down from 13 to 10; and where he created eight line-break assists last year he has just two to his name so far. But he is still accomplished at busting tackles, adding 86 to date (fifth most). The Eels can expect him to come out firing down the right fringe and Ben Smith will need to put him on a leash early.

Without Ben Barba the ’Dogs would be battling it out for the wooden spoon. He leads the league for tries (14) and line-breaks (21) and ranks fourth for tackle busts (87). If the ’Dogs look to play a power game out wide they can really hurt the Eels.

Danger Sign: If Idris starts swatting defenders away like flies and is able to find Barba or right winger Johnathon Wright in support there’s inroads to be made.  

Plays To Watch: Barba’s runs in broken play; Ben Roberts’ trademark left-foot grubber behind the defence from close range; Trent Hodkinson getting it wide early for the backs; Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard igniting second-phase play with offloads; Jarryd Hayne scheming 10 metres out from the Bulldogs’ line; Tim Mannah and Fuifui Moimoi’s charges; Justin Horo’s tackle busts on the left edge.

Where It Will Be Won: Gaining good field position and keeping errors to a minimum. The Eels average the sixth-fewest errors per game (11.8) while eight sides make fewer errors than the Bulldogs’ 12.1 a game. That means a lot will depend on the kicking games of go-to men Trent Hodkinson and Jarryd Hayne, as well as each side’s ability to complete their sets.

Incredibly, the Bulldogs and Eels are both completing at a 74.7 per cent rate heading into this game.

As for the kickers’ stats, Hodkinson is averaging 294 metres a game, while Hayne is almost on par at 286 metres. Hodkinson will be under increased pressure given Kris Keating’s absence and will again need extra support from Ben Roberts (averaging 213 metres a game).

As for booting to open space – again, there’s nothing in it: the Bulldogs kick away from opponents 47.9 per cent of the time with the Eels almost level-pegging at 47.5 per cent.

Whichever side has an off day with completions and clearing kicks will pay the price.  

The History: Played 129; Bulldogs 67, Eels 57, drawn 5. The Eels have won six of the past eight games, including three of the past four. They also hold the advantage in games played at ANZ Stadium, winning eight of the 15 encounters there.

Conclusion: Like the majority of fans we’ve continued to make excuses for the Bulldogs, figuring it was just a matter of time before they finally bared some teeth and showed their semi-finals credentials. But no more.

With Michael Ennis still sidelined they lose a heap of grit and direction. It’s hard to make a case for them winning this game against the struggling Eels, let alone making the top eight.

Parramatta have more to offer and should win in a close one.

Match Officials: Referees –Alan Shortall & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Adam Gee; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

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

•    Stats: NRL Stats