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Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v Wests Tigers
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Are the Bulldogs better by the dozen? We’re about to find out, with ruthless Canterbury – strengthened by the returns of hardhead forwards Sam Kasiano and James Graham – shooting for a 12th straight victory as they charge towards what appears to be a minor premiership formality.

But this week they’ll face stubborn resistance from the desperate Wests Tigers who will be aiming to upset the runaway title favourites to strengthen their currently tentative grip on eighth place as the semi-finals loom.

Des Hasler’s charges pulled out too many guns for battling Brisbane last week. Despite appearing swamped at 14-nil down, Canterbury calmly drew from their deep well of talent to drench the Broncos with 22 unanswered points, with Ben Barba again the pivotal provider.

Coincidentally the Bulldogs have come back from a first-half deficit just twice in 2012 – last week, and against this week’s opponent the Tigers back in Round 18 (see below).

Particularly pleasing to the coach would be the form of inexperienced prop Martin Taupau and rookie back-rower Josh Jackson, given the recent injuries to Sam Kasiano and also Dene Halatau. The pack hasn’t missed a beat with the injection of these youngsters, who both secured career highlights last week when crossing for their first tries at the top level.

Benji Marshall buried the Dragons’ finals hopes last week in an avalanche of attacking brilliance with two delightful pass try assists for Liam Fulton and Tim Moltzen from close range the highlights in a decisive 22-12 victory. It was an important win for the Tigers who had lost five of their seven previous games.

In team personnel changes Sam Kasiano returns to the Bulldogs one week ahead of schedule after pleasing doctors with his recovery from an eye socket injury, with Englishman James Graham also back after being a late withdrawal last week. Kasiano’s inclusion pushes Martin Taupau to an extended bench that also includes a new face in Joel Romelo.   

Meanwhile the Tigers remain unchanged from last week, with Ben Murdoch-Masila added as 18th man.

Victory will be all the sweeter for either Tigers pair Benji Marshall and Matt Utai, or Canterbury’s Frank Pritchard: each is on the cusp of their 100th career win.

Meanwhile Sam Perrett requires just 15 metres (two runs basically) to register 20 kilometres in career territory; and Chris Heighington needs to bust through five Bulldogs to notch 500 career tackle-breaks. On the negative side of the ledger should the Tigers’ lock concede a penalty it will mark his century of transgressions in the big league.  

Watch Out Bulldogs: Beau Ryan, Tim Moltzen and Adam Blair will trouble Josh Reynolds, Ben Barba and Krisnan Inu running from close range down the Tigers’ left edge. Moltzen scored a hat-trick last week and is really starting to get his timing right chiming in off Benji Marshall. Reynolds needs to put his body on the line in defence – his 81 misses are the fourth most by a player to date – and team-mates need to give him support.

Marshall has been a great provider for his side all season but he’ll fancy seeing his name go up on the ANZ scoreboard – he has crossed for 14 tries from 26 games at Homebush, his best return at any ground. If he gets across the stripe he’ll break a five-year drought by players in the No.7 against the Bulldogs.

Danger Sign: Adam Blair hasn’t lived up to his reputation since arriving at Concord and now is the time for him to repay the faith of Tigers management. We’re tipping the sleeping giant will awaken from his season of slumber and make a statement down the left edge. If he makes an impact in the opening 20 minutes, it’s game on.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: The Tigers’ defence is a conundrum wrapped in a puzzle. On the one hand they continue to invite their opponents into contests with dodgy defence – they rank second worst in the comp for effectively knocking over opponents, missing an unacceptably high 36 tackles every game. However, they also hold the distinction of being the most effective side at shutting down second-phase play, allowing teams just nine offloads on average. That stat is particularly relevant this week given the Bulldogs lead the league for offloads with 12.5 per game. The Tigers will need to be at their smothering best to keep Barba and co. quiet.   

Halfback Kris Keating won’t be considered much of a danger of crossing the try-line but that’s exactly why he should be feared. The Bulldogs have scored 88 tries this year with 17 players crossing the stripe, yet Keating remains on a duck egg after 15 games. Stats support him scoring sooner rather than later – previously only two halfbacks in Canterbury club history have played more games in a season without scoring (including Ricky Stuart’s 16 in 2000).  

Just as Josh Reynolds will be spotted by the Tigers, so too will Benji Marshall be singled out in the defensive line, in particular by Josh Morris who crunched through the Tigers’ No.7 to score the last time they met.

Danger Sign: If the Bulldogs get consistent depth on their second-man plays, their decoy runners hit their groove and their support players maintain the energy and focus they’ve displayed all year, things could get ugly for the visitors. Only the Cowboys have made more than Canterbury’s 755 support plays in 2012, with Barba, Josh Reynolds and Josh Morris their major threats.      

Sam Kasiano v Keith Galloway: Different styles of prop although both are key contributors to their side. Kasiano’s creativity has been a revelation, with his ball-playing (six line-break assists and 28 offloads) offering the Bulldogs a third playmaker in centre-field. However he can be bustled into errors (15 so far, most by a prop); we fancy Tim Sheens will instruct his forwards to pile of the pressure given his layoff. Meanwhile Galloway is a ‘follow me’ kind of forward, good for 15 no-nonsense hit-ups and almost 130 metres of territory each week. If he can get across the advantage line often it will be a huge boost for his team-mates.

Where It Will Be Won: Shutting down the involvement of respective playmakers Ben Barba and Benji Marshall. Every time these guys get the ball opposition fans will be on edge. Barba’s blistering second-half try double against the Broncos turned the game and catapulted him back to the top of the NRL try-scorers’ list (19 to date), while Marshall leads the league for try assists (33) and line-break assists (27).  

The History: Played 23; Bulldogs 14, Wests Tigers 9. The Bulldogs have won five of the past eight games, including the past three. It’s neck and neck in clashes at Homebush, with the ’Dogs holding a 6-5 advantage. Meanwhile the Tigers have lost five of their past six matches at ANZ Stadium against all-comers.

The Last Time They Met: Aided by two-try contributions from both centre Josh Morris and five-eighth Josh Reynolds the Bulldogs overcame a six-point deficit at halftime to defeat the Wests Tigers 32-20 at Allianz Stadium in Round 18

The victory was their sixth straight win of their current 11-game streak.

The gold and black led 10-4 at halftime, with tries to Joel Reddy and Beau Ryan both coming off Benji Marshall lob kicks into the in-goal – Ryan’s from a spectacular banana kick under the goal posts. Meanwhile Canterbury got on the scoreboard through a determined, bullocking try to Josh Morris down the left edge 10 metres from oranges.

The ’Dogs drew level inside the first minute of the second half when Ben Barba made a long break, linking with Morris who gave the final pass to Josh Reynolds to dive over under the posts. They grabbed the lead for the first time on the evening five minutes later when Barba threw an around-the-corner offload for Morris to bag his second try.

Tigers centre Chris Lawrence plunged over in the left corner to make it 16-14 with 27 minutes remaining before Barba extended the visitors’ lead, scooting around rookie Curtis Sironen for a 20-14 score-line in the 58th minute.

Tigers’ fans whooped it up when interchange Masada Iosefa scored a determined try in the left corner and Benji Marshall booted the conversion to level the game at 20-all with 16 minutes remaining. However, their joy lasted just four minutes, with Krisnan Inu selling the Tigers a massive dummy on the right edge to stroll over for a crucial four-pointer. Josh Reynolds added salt to the wound when he plunged over for his second try in the dying seconds.

It was remarkable turnaround from the Bulldogs who shot themselves in the foot in the first 40 minutes with uncharacteristic ill-discipline with the ball in hand – they completed just 47 per cent of possessions.

The Tigers caught their disease in the second half, completing only 66 per cent of their sets of six.

Overall the Bulldogs were clearly the stronger side running the ball, making eight line-breaks to the Tigers’ two.

This match may have been Lote Tuqiri’s NRL swansong: the off-contract dual international broke his elbow just eight minutes into proceedings.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Jared Maxwell; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Luke Potter; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.

The Way We See It: The Wests Tigers are doing a great job punching above their weight at the moment but given their reliance on Benji Marshall we can’t see them sustaining that effort long term. The Bulldogs are the team to beat in 2012 and nothing short of a succession of brain snaps by their players will stop them notching their twelfth win in a row. Bulldogs by eight points.  

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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