Des Hasler has enjoyed a stunning start at his new club after departing Manly in dramatic circumstances during the off-season, guiding them to consecutive wins over Penrith and St George Illawarra to sit pretty at the top of the NRL ladder.
Incredibly, it is the first time in seven decades that the Bulldogs have topped the table after two rounds. While it is still early days at Canterbury – who have missed the finals the past two seasons – there is no doubt that Hasler has given his players a sense of self-belief. Whether that’s enough to knock over a Warriors side that has scored 56 points in their two matches to date remains to be seen.
Always a tough proposition on home soil, the Warriors have picked up where they left off last season with their big men offloading at will and zippy duo Kevin Locke and Shaun Johnson wreaking havoc around the rucks.
Never afraid to throw the ball around, they have taken part in two of the more entertaining games of the season so far, with a narrow loss to Manly and a come-from-behind win over Parramatta.
Canterbury, for their part, were simply sensational in thrashing the Dragons 30-4 last Saturday night – basing their game around simple domination in the middle of the park. Three of their big-name forwards – Aiden Tolman, James Graham and Greg Eastwood – ran for more than 100 metres while centre Josh Morris showed that he has put his disastrous 2011 season (in which he was dumped to NSW Cup) behind him with a first-half hat-trick.
They will need to repeat that performance though to match a Warriors side brimming with confidence. A feature of their win over the Eels on Monday night was their back three – Kevin Locke, Bill Tupou and Manu Vatuvei – making 138, 170 and 114 metres respectively.
The Warriors have named an unchanged line-up for this weekend’s clash while Canterbury have made a minor change, with Dene Halatau starting in the back row and Greg Eastwood dropping back to a five-man bench.
Warriors half Shaun Johnson boasts a remarkable record against Canterbury. In three Toyota Cup appearances against them he scored 47 points including four tries, produced four try and four line-break assists and made two line-breaks, with just a single error. He also helped the NRL side to a convincing 36-12 win last year in just his fifth first grade game.
Watch Out Warriors: Canterbury’s left edge has been a focal point of the side’s attack so far this season with six of their nine tries scored on that side of the field. The Warriors will need to keep an eye on Josh Morris who has scored four tries in two games while Bryson Goodwin has also crossed for a try in each game.
Danger Sign: The Warriors have been rock solid through the middle of the park this season but out wide is a different story. The Kiwi club has conceded nine tries on the fringes which is more than any other side in the NRL. Five of those have been on their right edge which just happens to be the side of the field that Josh Morris has exploited this season. The Bulldogs have scored six tries on that edge.
Watch Out Bulldogs: The Warriors’10 tries over the opening two rounds is the most of any side in the competition and highlights the many dangers they pose across the park. Notably, they rank first for tries scored from close range (with six) and equal first for tries from beyond halfway (two) which shows that the Bulldogs’ defence can’t relax at any stage.
Also, the Warriors have scored three of their tries – again more than any other side – on the back of offloads.
Danger Sign: The Bulldogs may be at the top of the table but they have also been the most ill-disciplined side in the competition over the opening rounds. The Bulldogs have conceded 17 penalties in wins over Penrith and the Dragons and they will want to be wary of providing the NRL’s most devastating attacking unit such easy field position.
Kevin Locke v Ben Barba: Two of the best attacking players in the NRL go head to head this weekend in a battle that could well decide the outcome. Locke’s presence has helped transform the Warriors over the past 12 months – he is a wonderful support player that loves to jump into dummy-half and target tiring defenders with his speed off the mark. Barba is a game-breaker for the Bulldogs. He topped the NRL tryscoring list last season with 23 and is the most devastating player from deep inside his own territory having scored 12 long-range tries in 2011. They will provide excitement aplenty on Sunday.
Where It Will Be Won: Dominating the tackle and slowing down the play-the-ball will be a focus for Canterbury this week. The Bulldogs’ big forward pack is their greatest strength in 2012 but could also play to the Warriors’ strengths with their little men – Johnson, Maloney and Locke – certain to target them around the rucks. If Canterbury succeed in slowing them down, they will have plenty of time to recover… but if not, they will be run ragged.
The History: Played 28; Bulldogs 14, Warriors 12, drawn 2. Canterbury won just one of six matches outside of Sydney last season, however they boast a superb daytime record against the Warriors with seven wins from their past eight sunlight clashes.
The Last Time They Met: The Warriors stormed home with 36 unanswered points to overcome an early deficit and record a 36-12 victory in Round 19 last year.
This was the Bulldogs’ first match following the resignation of coach Kevin Moore with his assistant Jim Dymock taking over the reins. Early on it looked like the players would respond to the change: two well-placed Ben Roberts kicks resulted in tries to Jonathan Wright and Steve Turner, for a 12-0 lead after just 13 minutes. But that’s where the joy ended for the visitors.
Elijah Taylor got the ball rolling for the Warriors when he burrowed over from dummy-half on 22 minutes and scores were level five minutes later when a wrap-around move saw James Maloney stroll across. A points barrage followed after the half-time break as Lance Hohaia scored for 18-12, Aaron Heremaia raced 40 metres to extend the margin and Feleti Mateo running a clever line to seal the deal. Heremaia then scored his second long-range try of the game to ensure it was eight losses from 10 games for the Bulldogs. A total of seven Warriors players topped 100 running metres, with Bill Tupou making 178 while Feleti Mateo ran for 106 metres, scored a try, made seven tackle-breaks and two line-breaks.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Henry Perenara; Video Referee – Pat Reynolds.
The Way We See It: This promises to be an absolute classic with both sides in fine form over the opening rounds; however the Warriors are always difficult to beat in front of their home crowd and we favour them winning a close one. Expect plenty of points to be scored, with the Warriors not afraid to throw the ball around. The home side by the margin of an unconverted try.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 12 noon.