Bulldogs v Raiders
When both teams are desperate to send long-serving captains and wonderful clubmen out a winner, who comes out on top?
Andrew Ryan plays his 218th game for the Bulldogs and 291st overall this Sunday, but will it be his last? Should the Rabbitohs eke out a narrow win over the Knights on Friday night the Bulldogs are still a chance to qualify for the semi-finals if they can put a big score on the Raiders.
Out to spoil Ryan’s party but ignite their own celebrations will be Alan Tongue’s Canberra team-mates who will do everything they can to make sure their inspirational skipper’s 220th and final game for the club is one to remember.
But is emotion enough at this time of year?
The Bulldogs have been riding a roller-coaster of fortune all season with their five wins in the opening seven rounds all but a distant memory by the time they had won just two of their next 10 games. Coach Kevin Moore was shown the door and interim coach Jim Dymock has overseen three wins in their past four hit-outs.
While there have been ups and downs at Belmore, down Canberra way they are counting down the 80 minutes left in season 2011 so they can start planning for next year. An off-season of high hopes were undone by the second long-term injury to Terry Campese while major recruit Matt Orford has managed just six games in what may be his one and only season for the Green Machine.
Ben Barba will probably throw up another contender for try of the year, Frank Pritchard’s path of destruction may find a new victim, Jamal Idris plays his final game for the famous blue-and-whites and Sam Kasiano continues to show that English prop James Graham will have a hard time unseating him from the starting team in 2012. Blake Ferguson’s debut year and 13 tries has been one of few bright spots for the Raiders while the halves combination of Josh McCrone and Sam Williams continues to develop. Josh Papalii has been a terrific find and Josh Dugan is capable of the sublime and the unexpected.
Characters from the Star Wars films will form a guard of honour as the Bulldogs run out, Darth Vader has prepared a special video message for all fans in attendance and fans can buy a commemorative Bulldogs Star Wars shirt or Ryan tribute shirt. There’s also a rumour the Bulldog Belles will be dressed as Princess Leia, all on Father’s Day.
Honestly, depending on who can channel ‘the force’ for one last time in 2011, anything could happen.
Watch Out Bulldogs: Injury and indifferent form have made 2011 something of a year to forget for Raiders fullback Josh Dugan but last week’s loss to Penrith again demonstrated just how vital he is to the depleted Canberra attack. As the Raiders pushed out to a 12-6 lead prior to half-time Dugan was heavily involved and he set up their final try of the match in the 79th minute for Mick Picker. His last-ditch effort on the siren almost earned his team a possible match-winning penalty and he finished the fixture with 20 runs for 168 metres, six tackle-breaks, 84 kick metres, an offload and a try assist. If Canberra win, Dugan will have been heavily involved.
One player from the Raiders who can hold his head high after a dismal season is five-eighth Josh McCrone. The loss of Terry Campese for the entire season was catastrophic for the Raiders but McCrone has shown some wonderful qualities in his absence. He leads the team in line-breaks (12), line-break assists (10), try assists (16) and kick metres (5596).
Danger Sign: The Canterbury-Bankstown success of the 1980s was built on an intimidating and unrelenting defence, a far cry from their 2011 incarnations. The Bulldogs concede more metres than any other team in the competition (1472.5 per game) so although they are still without Australian representative Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, a forward pack boasting Brett White, David Shillington and Dane Tilse is capable of posing plenty of problems to the Bulldogs’ defence.
Expect the Raiders’ big men to target Canterbury halves Trent Hodkinson and Joel Romelo and promote the football to the likes of Dugan and McCrone in support. The only bright note for the Bulldogs? The Raiders are last in the NRL for metres gained.
Watch Out Raiders: He may be only 22 but electrifying fullback Ben Barba is fast climbing the list of Bulldog try-scorers at ANZ Stadium. Having surpassed Rod Silva’s record for most tries in a single season by a Canterbury fullback with a double against the Knights last weekend, Barba will be out to add further to his tally of 18 tries from 24 games at the venue. And as he showed last weekend, he can even score tries when he is virtually out of the venue.
Josh Morris also has an excellent record at ANZ Stadium, with 32 tries from 39 appearances, while skipper Andrew Ryan will be eager to add to his 27 tries in his 99th and – most likely – final game at the ground.
The Raiders’ centre pairing of Jarrod Croker and Joel Thompson can expect to have their hands full with Josh Morris and Jamal Idris getting back to somewhere near their best in the Bulldogs comeback against the Knights. After an atrocious opening half where the Bulldogs completed just five sets, Morris and Idris set about exploiting the flimsy Newcastle defence with four and five tackle-breaks respectively in the second stanza. With their tails up, these two are among the most potent strike weapons in the NRL.
Danger Sign: The Raiders dominated almost every statistical category there is in the second half against the Panthers last week but they were outscored 13-0 until the 79th minute of the game when the Green Machine finally crossed. It may seem obvious but winning the possession count rarely translates to victory when the team is ranked 15th in points conceded (25.5), tries conceded (4.4) and missed tackles (37), quite amazing statistics when the side boasts someone such as Shaun Fensom who averages 48.3 tackles per game.
The Bulldogs may be in a position to push for a top-eight berth with a big enough winning margin so the Raiders should expect to be under attack from the first until the 80th minute.
Plays To Watch: With Ben Barba and Josh Dugan opposing fullbacks the kick-chase from both teams will need to be watertight to start the set on the front foot defensively; Frank Pritchard will likely torment the Raiders’ right-side defence; Trent Hodkinson’s attacking kicking game near the Canberra tryline; Bronson Harrison’s offloads on the right edge; Sam Kasiano’s offloads in the middle of the ruck; Blake Ferguson’s sheer unpredictability on the right wing.
Where It Will Be Won: The emotion of doing it for your skipper can only take you so far, especially when the opposition is endeavouring to do exactly the same thing. The thrust and offloading capabilities of Kasiano and Pritchard should give the Bulldogs plenty of second-phase opportunities that will free up time and space for the likes of Morris, Idris and Barba.
Pritchard, Kasiano and Idris are all among the top 20 for offloads in the NRL this year and it was this second-phase football that enabled the Bulldogs to keep their season alive last weekend.
Idris and Barba are also among the top five players in the competition in tackle-breaks with 113 and 110 respectively, so Shaun Fensom’s team-mates are going to have to lend him a hand to keep them under wraps.
The Raiders are not without a hope but will need to overcome some rather odd anomalies if they are to improve further on their 71 per cent winning record at ANZ Stadium.
The have some of the biggest props in the game and two dynamic edge runners in Harrison and Papalii yet they make fewer metres per game than all other teams. They have noted tryscorers in Dugan and Ferguson yet they only manage three tries a game.
They can’t expect the Bulldogs to put in another first-half performance like they did last week so the Raiders need to go with them in the opening 40 minutes or there will be trouble. They have trailed at halftime 11 times in their past 20 matches and only once have they managed to reverse the deficit. If they get behind on Sunday, it might prove all too much.
The History: Played 57; Bulldogs 32, Raiders 25. Although they sit on the wrong side of the overall ledger against the Bulldogs, the Raiders quite incredibly boast a 5-3 record against this week’s opponents at ANZ Stadium. The last time these two met at the venue the Raiders triumphed 28-14 as they charged towards the finals and earlier this year on home soil Canberra won 20-12. Canterbury’s last win over Canberra at ANZ Stadium was more than two years ago, a narrow 23-20 victory.
Conclusion: Their destiny is largely out of their hands but if the ’Dogs have any kind of a sniff of a miraculous semi-final berth they’ll need to put 60 on the Raiders. Coach Jim Dymock showed a willingness to promote the football last week despite horrific handling in the first half and with Canberra’s leaky defence, it could be anything. Bulldogs in a high-scoring affair.
Match Officials: Referees: Steve Lyons and Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials: Jason Walsh, Brendan Wood; Video Referee: Phil Cooley.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.
*Statistics: NRL Stats