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Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs v Sydney Roosters
ANZ Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

With just two minutes of play remaining in Round 25, this clash was shaping as a dead rubber. But such is the unpredictable nature of rugby league, that yet another miraculous escape – this time by the Storm against the Sharks, with two tries in the final two minutes – threw a spanner back into the minor premiership works.

Des Hasler’s men were agonisingly close to wrapping up the minor premiership last week before capitulating against the Raiders and seeing their 12-match winning run come to a screeching, shuddering halt. The Storm remain just two competition points away and given their superior for-and-against, the ’Dogs can still surrender the J J Giltinan Shield if they lose this one to the Roosters and the Storm overcome Wests Tigers at Leichhardt.

Even if this match had been a dead rubber as far as the ladder was concerned, the abject nature of last week’s loss in Canberra should be incentive enough for the Bulldogs here. There are those who would argue it was “the loss they had to have”, with the theory being they will be better for having got it out of the way before the finals.

Whether you buy into that or not, there is simply no way the blue-and-whites will want to head into the finals on the back of consecutive losses, with their momentum broken and confidence dented.

Captain Michael Ennis returns from his one-week rest, pushing Joel Romelo out of the side, while Martin Taupau has been added to a five-man bench in the only other change. Tireless prop Aiden Tolman – who was effectively rested last week, playing just 33 minutes – should also figure more heavily this week. Despite all the talk last week that the likes of Ennis, Tolman, Ben Barba and Krisnan Inu could be rested, all bar Ennis took the field and Hasler now seems unlikely to give anyone else a rest. Instead they will be aiming for a week off in the second week of the finals.

For their part, the Roosters have shown that even if they are out of the running for September football they still plan on making life difficult for those teams still jostling for position. Their comprehensive 44-20 win over the Tigers last week was one of their best performances all season, and was also the second time they’d gone past 40 points against the Tigers in 2012 (as well as the eighth time they’ve ever scored 40 points against the same opponent twice in a season). They will also be keen to send out departing skipper Braith Anasta (who is just six points shy of 600 career points) on a winning note.

Brian Smith has stuck solid with the 17 that got the job done last week – although maybe that should be 16, as bench hooker Nafe Seluini didn’t make it onto the field for so much as a minute last week.

Watch Out Bulldogs: The tri-colours have averaged 28 points scored per week over the past four rounds as their attacking motor has finally spluttered into life at the tail end of the season. If Canterbury haven’t corrected their defensive attitude from last week they could be staring at a second consecutive upset defeat.

Often-maligned halfback Mitchell Pearce has been a big part of that attack – he comfortably leads the club for try assists (22) and line-break assists (20). His try last week was his 10th for the season (also a club high, and he would have had a second had he not donated one to 250-game fullback Anthony Minichiello) and it made him just the sixth Roosters halfback to crack 10 in a season. He set up three tries last week as well as three in the Round 23 loss to the Eels, with his grubber kicks, cross-field kicks, running game and passing game all contributing.

Danger Sign: He may have copped his fair share of criticism but Pearce is at his most dangerous when taking on the line and passing late. The Bulldogs will need to present him with an organised defensive line because if they rush up on him they will be opening the way for his short grubber to catch them out.

Watch Out Roosters: They were woeful last week but the Bulldogs have been the benchmark for much of the season. Their awful completion rate of 59 per cent was uncharacteristic and allowed Canberra to dominate territory to the tune of 1548 metres to 1086 on the way to a 34-6 victory.

Expect that to turn around this week – the ’Dogs have dominated the key defensive categories all year and are still the best team for tries (2.7 per game), line-breaks (3.4) and missed tackles (27) conceded per game. Many victories have come on the back of that defence and the Roosters can’t expect to waltz through for eight tries the way they did last week.

Also, the ’Dogs remain the competition’s long-range specialists, with 17 four-pointers initiated from inside their own half. The Roosters have conceded the fourth-most long-range tries, letting opponents score from their own end on 15 occasions.

Danger Sign: Dally M favourite Ben Barba doesn’t seem to get sick of making opposition defences look pedestrian. He currently leads the league for tries (20) and tackle-breaks (153) and is second for line-breaks (23). As he has shown time and again this season, if he returns the ball in broken play – even from his own in-goal – then anything can happen. When Barba is met by anything other than a well-organised defensive line when running the ball back, a long-range raid could be about to unfold.

Josh Reynolds v Braith Anasta: It’s the story of the old dog up against the young pup. Reynolds has come on in leaps and bounds in 2012 under Hasler’s guidance, to the point he was being touted as an Origin bolter. Anasta continues to be a steadying influence although his attack is not what it was when he burst onto the scene in 2001. 

Reynolds has the most tries (10), offloads (36) and tackle-breaks (83) of any five-eighth in the competition this year, and the second most try assists (17) behind Johnathan Thurston (24). By contrast Anasta has scored four tries with 10 try assists and trails Reynolds in every measurable attacking statistic. However, he has also missed around half the tackles (46 missed compared to Reynolds’ 86), conceded half as many penalties (six, compared to Reynolds’ 13) and only made 15 errors to Reynolds’ 25.

Where It Will Be Won: Hard work in the middle.  Metres from the forward pack have been a huge problem for the Roosters all year, with none averaging more than 100 per game and the club placed last for total running metres (1256 per week). Meanwhile Bulldogs workhorse props Aiden Tolman and James Graham lead the blue-and-whites, both gaining over 125 metres per week. However, last weekend the Bulldogs forwards collectively gained just 498 metres. This was their worst effort of the year and well down on their season average, with no forwards making more than 100 metres in the match.

The History: Played 159; Bulldogs 76, Sydney Roosters 78, drawn 5. In almost 80 years of battles these two historic clubs are virtually neck and neck. The Bulldogs have a crushing record at Homebush though, holding a 9-2 advantage over the Roosters at ANZ Stadium. It’s four wins apiece over the past eight meetings, which includes Canterbury’s biggest ever win over the Roosters – a 60-14 pounding at ANZ in 2010. Interestingly, the Bulldogs have lost to the Roosters in September only once in over 30 years, which came in 1999.

The Last Time They Met: The Bulldogs ran away with a 30-12 victory at Allianz Stadium in Round 12, in a match that was most notable for the stunning club debut of discount mid-season buy Krisnan Inu. 

A brilliantly gifted player capable of awful lapses he has been a model of consistency under Hasler’s tutelage, and he started in the most emphatic way possible.

After Mitchell Pearce opened the scoring with a jagged run through some poor defence, Inu, playing on the wing, scored his first try in blue and white minutes later when he finished off a regulation overlap play set up by a Barba draw-and-pass.

A strong Minichiello try then had the Roosters up 12-4 after 35 minutes before the ’Dogs flicked the switch. Again Inu was heavily involved as he leapt through the air to control a Kris Keating cross-field kick and fling it back infield as he tumbled over the sideline for Frank Pritchard to score. Then Jonathan Wright cleaned up the scraps when the Roosters failed to control an Ennis kick through the line in the shadows of halftime – from a play that had begun inside the Canterbury 40.

Having taken an unlikely 14-12 lead into the break the ’Dogs were impenetrable thereafter in a three-tries-to-none second-half shut-out. Inu picked up a double with a powerful dummy-half run from inside the Roosters’ 10-metre line and Jonathan Wright also bagged a double and put the match beyond doubt in the 70th minute, pouncing on a loose Roosters pass to run the length of the field.

Aside from Inu the standouts from the Bulldogs included centre Tim Lafai, who notched 10 tackle-breaks and 126 metres in his second last game of the season before injury struck, and prop James Graham (124 metres, 26 tackles). For the Roosters, Pearce and second-rower Aiden Guerra missed seven tackles each.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Clayton Sharpe; Video Referees – Sean Hampstead & Chris James.

The Way We See It: The ’Dogs will be fired up after their humbling last week in the nation’s capital and desperate to hit the finals in winning form. They also have the bounce-back factor on their side, not to mention the little matter of the minor premiership. Motivation won’t be a problem, and neither will personnel. The Roosters were good last week against a lacklustre Tigers outfit but face a very different prospect here. Bulldogs by 12 points.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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