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Roosters v Bulldogs
Sydney Football Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

The anxious Roosters have two motivators this week. First and foremost they’ll be out to grab some breathing space over the Raiders and Titans at the blunt end of the competition table, keen to avoid the embarrassment of going from wooden spoon to grand final back to wooden spoon within the space of 24 months. And second they’ll delight in ruining the Bulldogs’ semi-finals dream.

The tricolours showed a heap more spirit than they have all year against the Wests Tigers at Leichhardt Oval last Saturday and were probably a little unlucky to come away on the wrong side of the ledger. In any event their fifth loss from their past six games categorically ended their season and all that’s left for them now is to provide nuisance value, give a few up-and-comers some more game time at the top level – and avoid serious injuries to their marquee players as they regroup for 2012.

Meanwhile, where have the Bulldogs of last week been skulking all year? In caretaker coach Jim Dymock’s first real game in charge, the blue-and-whites dug deep and found the defensive resolve that prompted many to predict they would be the big improvers from 2010. In 86 waterlogged minutes at ANZ Stadium they managed, albeit with a little luck, to defibrillate their flat-lining season. There’s still a long way to go but all is not lost; if they managed to win all six of their remaining games they would almost certainly finish in the top eight and even one defeat, providing it was narrow, plus some big winning margins, would see them finish on 30 competition points and in with a huge shout.

Roosters’ coach Brian Smith has stuck pretty solid to the team that fell narrowly to the Tigers, with only Mose Masoe missing, while Tinirau Arona and Tom Symonds are the new faces on an extended interchange. (Frank-Paul Nuuausala, originally named, lost his fight to have his Dangerous Throw charge overturned at the judiciary on Wednesday night; he’ll sit out the next two matches.)

Meanwhile the Bulldogs will field the same starting 13 from last week, with Chris Armit and Corey Payne displacing Martin Taupau and the injured David Stagg on the bench.

The Roosters have won five of the past six clashes between the sides at the SFS; meanwhile the Bulldogs require just one try to tally 200 scored at the venue. The blue-and-whites have opposed the Roosters more than any other team, winning 75 of their 157 encounters.

Watch Out Roosters: The Bulldogs’ little men will need to be watched.

Ben Barba was the difference when the ’Dogs triumphed 24-20 back in Round 3. He gave a clever final pass to Michael Ennis to cross for the game’s opening try and scored twice himself. Plus he ran for 144 metres and made a line-break and two offloads. Despite his team’s lacklustre year Barba has proven himself a tearaway attacking force, heading the NRL for line-breaks with 22 – eight clear of next best Gareth Widdop! Also, he ranks fourth for tackle busts (91), four ahead of team-mate Jamal Idris.

Last week Parramatta showed little respect for rookie Josh Reynolds and they paid the price. The interchange took his line-break assists tally to two from just four games when putting halfback Trent Hodkinson into space then backed up his No.7 to score the Bulldogs’ sole try. Reynolds can wreak havoc against the Roosters, particularly late in the halves when their bigger forwards tire around the ruck – you can bet Brian Smith would have impressed this on his charges during the week.

Corey Payne’s return is timely – he conjured two exquisite try assists last time these sides met and will be fuelled with confidence against a favoured foe.

Danger Sign: Barba is particularly dangerous when loitering just behind his advancing forwards. He’s ever alert for a late offload and can be gone before the Roosters know he’s even got the ball, so it’s imperative defenders either make their one-on-one tackles stick (Jake Friend’s 41 are the second most by any player and he has a good 90 per cent effectiveness) or they arrive in numbers and ensure the ball is wrapped up, no matter where the tackle is effected – courtesy of Barba the ’Dogs have scored 16 tries from over halfway, easily the most from long range by any team.

Watch Out Bulldogs: It wasn’t all one-way traffic back in Round 3 – Shaun Kenny-Dowall crossed for two tries for the Roosters and fullback Anthony Minichiello set up a try and was dangerous chiming into the backline, running 146 metres.

Kenny-Dowall has roared back to form over the past few weeks. He was easily the Roosters’ most potent weapon last week, running a game-high 155 metres and adding a line-break, while in their golden-point loss to the Rabbitohs in Round 19 he scored a try and offered two try assists, as well as111 metres, a line-break and three damaging offloads. He was punishing against the Panthers in Round 18, scoring a try, making 20 runs for 167 metres with two offloads and a line-break. If he’d been able to generate that sort of form earlier in the season the Roosters wouldn’t be battling it out for the wooden spoon.

Meanwhile Minichiello was solid enough against the Wests Tigers after two weeks sidelined. Expect him to break out here.

Danger Sign: Kenny-Dowall will relish the opportunity to work over the inexperienced Tim Lafai down the right edge. If the Kiwi manages to get his one-arm overhead offloads away the Roosters will make significant inroads.

Plays To Watch: Anthony Minichiello’s pinball-like kick returns; Sam Perrett’s robot-like monotony carving out good territory from dummy-half; Todd Carney – if only to see a glimpse of his 2010 Dally M-winning form; Mitchell Pearce chip-kicking short for Kenny-Dowall and Kane Linnett close to the Bulldogs’ try line; Nate Myles bending back the Bulldogs’ advance; Ben Barba’s exciting forays; Jamal Idris going all-out in attack and defence in explosive (but too frequent) bursts; Josh Reynolds growing in confidence; Aiden Tolman hurting the Roosters up the guts (averages 17 runs and 133 metres).     

Where It Will Be Won: Maximising opportunities. Scoring points has been a real struggle for both sides – the Bulldogs have scored the fourth fewest (16.9 a game) while the Roosters are the second least-threatening attacking unit, recording just 14.9 points every 80 minutes.

Which is a little surprising given both rank middle of the NRL bunch for line-breaks (Roosters 3.6, Bulldogs 3.5) and offloads (Bulldogs 11.7, Roosters 11.5). A bigger surprise is that both sides are actually fairly tight defensively – the Bulldogs miss the fourth-fewest tackles each game (30.2) with the Roosters not far behind, seventh best with 32 misses on average.

Clearly this game will be won by a breakout individual performance – for the Roosters think Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Mitchell Pearce or Todd Carney (unlikely we know), while either Ben Barba, Jamal Idris or Trent Hodkinson loom as man of the match should the ’Dogs prevail.

The History: Played 157; Roosters 77, Bulldogs 75, drawn 5. The Bulldogs have won five of the past eight games, including a 24-20 victory at ANZ Stadium back in Round 3. The ledger is square at the SFS with nine victories apiece.

Conclusion: This game will boil down to desire; given the Bulldogs are still in with a sniff of playing semi-finals footy that should be enough to see them through. Or so you’d think.

The Bulldogs by two points. But we’re not confident.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Luke Phillips; Video Ref – Pat Reynolds.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats