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Bulldogs v Wests Tigers
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Two sides whose seasons have fallen well below expectation in 2013 clash in a game that could prove to be a defining moment in their respective seasons. But although Canterbury and Wests Tigers sit right alongside one another on the Telstra Premiership ladder, it seems that only one is likely to head into Friday night’s game with a genuine hint of optimism.

After a surprisingly slow start to the year, the Bulldogs finally secured their second win from seven starts last outing with a confidence-building 24-8 result over Cronulla that the 2012 grand finalists will hope kick-starts their campaign.

It hasn’t been an easy few weeks for Des Hasler’s men. Decimated by injury in the early rounds, they were also hampered by a horror draw that saw them face North Queensland, Melbourne, Souths, Manly and the Roosters in the first six weeks. Canterbury won none of those but, other than a 38-8 shut-out against the Roosters, have been far from disgraced either.

Crucially, they have also seen a number of their key players begin to return from injury with more to follow in the coming weeks and if they can make it two wins in a row for the first time this season against the Tigers they could well be onto something – particularly with Ben Barba showing some positive signs against the Sharks last Sunday.

Their opponents this week don’t have quite so much to look forward to given the relentless injury woes that continue to plague them.

Already on the injured list and testing the side’s experience have been Benji Marshall, Keith Galloway, Braith Anasta, Lote Tuqiri and Liam Fulton so the last thing coach Mick Potter needed was to lose three more key players in their 20-10 loss to Brisbane last Saturday. Instead, he watched on as Tim Moltzen ruptured his ACL and both centres, Blake Ayshford and Chris Lawrence, were forced off with potentially long-term injuries.

It’s fair to say that there hasn’t been a lot to smile about for the Tigers since their Round 3 win over Parramatta and for the time being at least it seems that things aren’t getting much better any time soon. 

Then again, as Penrith showed against the Eels just a few days ago there is nothing like adversity to bring a team together. 

The big news for the Tigers is the likely return from injury of Marshall. Originally left out of the 17 players named this week, Marshall tweeted that he would be back against the Bulldogs and although the club has refused to confirm it, it is likely they will welcome back their key attacking player. 
Also crucial to their chances will be captain Robbie Farah who almost single-handedly kept his side in the game against Brisbane last week, while impressive young prop Aaron Woods continues to push his case for NSW State of Origin selection this year.

Injuries or no injuries, neither the Bulldogs nor Tigers will be pleased with what they’ve dished up so far in 2013, but one thing this week’s clash represents is an opportunity to stand up and be counted.

The Bulldogs welcome back English prop James Graham this week from the lengthy suspension he received for biting Storm fullback Billy Slater in last year’s grand final. Tim Browne becomes the extra man on the bench.

The Tigers’ injury problems have seen a complete reshuffle out wide with Joel Reddy and Bodene Thompson named in the centres and Marika Koroibete returning on the wing. If he plays, Marshall will likely replace Jacob Miller in the No.7 jersey, alongside Curtis Sironen.

Liam Fulton moves into the starting line-up in the second row with Tim Simona and Ava Seumanufagai coming onto the bench.

Watch Out Bulldogs: The Tigers are at their best when playing direct, which plays right into the hands of hooker Robbie Farah. Farah is arguably the best attacking dummy-half in the NRL with a lethal running game and an excellent short-kicking game to match. Last week he played a key role in both of his side’s tries against the Broncos – touching twice before throwing a great cut-out ball for Matt Utai’s try, then putting up a bamboozling kick for Shaun Spence to cross. This season the brilliant dummy-half has produced seven try assists, eight line-break assists and kicked for a team-high 1590 metres – all by far the most by any No.9 in the NRL.

Watch Out Tigers: The Tigers’ diminutive left winger Matt Utai can expect to be peppered with cross-field bombs when they are defending their own try line. His opposite number, Sam Perrett, is superb under the high ball and has enjoyed plenty of success already this season out-jumping his rival wingers. Canterbury opened the scoring in this very manner in last week’s win over Cronulla, did the same to give themselves a chance against Melbourne and again for what proved to be the match-winner against Parramatta in Round 2.

Plays To Watch: The Farah inside ball; Farah loves working over his opposition through the middle and he does so in all manner of ways – cross-over plays, inside balls and as he displayed against the Dragons three weeks ago the old outside-inside play in which he runs from dummy-half to the outside before switching play back inside. That effort led to him backing up to make a long break, while it was a simple inside ball that saw Ben Murdoch-Masila cross for the Tigers’ first of the night soon after. If there is one area that the Bulldogs must concentrate on it is their ruck defence.

Key Match-Up: Aiden Tolman v Aaron Woods. Could this be the contest that decides who plays Origin this year? There is no doubt that the Bulldogs have fallen well short of the brilliant form they showed in 2012 with only one forward averaging more than 100 metres per game this season. That man is Aiden Tolman, whose relentless consistency has seen him run for 127 metres per game as well as averaging 30 tackles. Likewise, Woods has carried the fort for the injury-ravaged Tigers with 132 metres and 37 tackles per game to go with his 14 tackle-breaks and 12 offloads.

Where It Will Be Won: In the middle, which is the strength of both sides. The big question is: can Canterbury’s forwards rediscover the magic form that drove their side to last year’s grand final? The absence of props James Graham, who returns from suspension this week, and Sam Kasiano has severely hampered the side’s play this season with Aiden Tolman left to pick up a lot of the scraps. Likewise, the Tigers have had to rely on youth up front through Aaron Woods and rookie Jack Buchanan. One of these packs will stand up on Friday night and two competition points awaits whichever it is.

The History: Played 24; Bulldogs 15, Wests Tigers 9. The Bulldogs have won six of the past nine games – including the past four – and hold a 7-5 advantage at Homebush. 
Match Officials: Referees –  Matt Cecchin & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Jason Walsh; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Justin Morgan.

NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

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Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 9:30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 1am.

The Way We See It: Life just isn’t getting any easier for the Tigers, who went into last weekend’s clash with Brisbane severely down on troops and finished the night minus three more. Captain Robbie Farah has been insistent that the club’s injury woes are no excuse but there is only so much one side can take before they start to fray at the edges. Just ask the Bulldogs. Des Hasler’s men haven’t had much go their way this year either, but they have at least welcomed back some of their injured troupe and last week’s win over Cronulla will have provided a much-needed confidence boost. Marshall’s return would throw a spanner in the works but do they have the belief in themselves to down the Bulldogs? Bulldogs by four points.

*Statistics: NRL Stats

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