Dogs revisit 'dawn of Des'
It has been so long since the Bulldogs last played the Panthers it was the very first game in which Josh Reynolds started at five-eighth for the Bulldogs.
It was also Des Hasler's first game in charge of the Bulldogs after his acrimonious split with the Sea Eagles.
Flashback to Round 1, 2012: the Bulldogs came from 12-6 down at halftime to win 22-14 at Centrebet Stadium against a Panthers side that was severely affected by several players being hurt during the game.
Panthers winger David Simmons was knocked rotten when Bulldogs second-rower Frank Pritchard's shoulder came in contact with his head. Pritchard was subsequently suspended for one game.
At ANZ Stadium on Saturday night, Pritchard won't play because he is serving the first game of a two-match suspension for a shoulder charge to the head of Rabbitohs centre Bryson Goodwin.
Simmons, meanwhile, is in career-best form as the competition's leading tryscorer, with 19.
Reynolds has now made 47 appearances as the starting five-eighth for the Bulldogs. He made his first-grade debut in 2011 and mostly came off the bench as a replacement hooker during that season, although his versatility meant he sometimes fitted into the halves as well.
But Hasler saw him as strictly a five-eighth, and Reynolds has proved him right with his form since day one in that game against the Panthers.
"We were bringing in a new structure under Des," Reynolds recalled. "We were a bit shaky with it early on, and the Panthers are always a tough side to play. I'm sure they'll be like that again on Saturday night. They're trying to get into the top eight and we're trying to clinch a top-eight spot."
The Bulldogs are in sixth place, on 28 points and with a healthy-enough points for-and-against differential of plus-51. Strictly speaking, they could still actually miss out on a finals berth if they lost their final two games, but they are also still capable of finishing as high as fifth.
The fifth-placed Sharks are two points ahead of the Bulldogs, but have a differential of just plus-one.
The Panthers are in 10th place, on 24 points and with a differential of minus-29. The five teams placed from eighth to 12th are all on 24.
The way the table is, 28 points will be enough to get at least one – and possibly two or three –teams into the finals, depending on what the Bulldogs finish on and also how the seventh-placed Knights, on 25, fare over the last two rounds.
The fifth- and sixth-placed teams get home city games in the first week of the finals.
"We want to get on a bit of a roll and enter the finals that way," Reynolds said. "We can't be losing our last two games. We'd have no momentum and we might be at risk of not even making the finals."
Reynolds said that while it was unusual to go for such a long time – 18 months, in this case – between games against a particular team, the Bulldogs would be well up to speed on what they have to do to beat the Panthers.
"The way Des breaks things down on video, we'll be on top of all of that," Reynolds said. "But it's still mostly about us, and what we have to do as a team. If we have effective structures in place, and we control the ball on top of that, then, hopefully we'll win.
"I watch a fair bit of footy apart from what we do in the video sessions at the Bulldogs and I've seen what the Panthers have been doing. They had good wins against the Broncos and Warriors. They've got a lot of strike power.
"They're the sort of side that if you give them a sniff, they won't shy away from it. We're going to have to be right on our game. They've got smart halves who are in form, and Lachlan Coote is back in the team at fullback and doing well again."
Reynolds is a triple threat because of his terrific passing game, his ability to accelerate quickly and run into gaps and his enthusiastic support play of the big Bulldogs forwards who have the ability to offload.
Asked how he feels in the role now, compared to that game way back at the start of last season against the Panthers, Reynolds replied: "I feel a lot more confident running the team around the park and knowing exactly what my job involves.
"I've been pretty lucky to get a few tries. I was actually talking to a mate the other day and I was remembering how I used to get upset as a kid because I never used to score any tries, and that's what all the kids want to do – score tries.
"The more first-grade I've played, the more I've been able to get a feel for when to pass or when to go myself, but I think most of the tries I've scored have come from backing up the forwards. They're outstanding at getting the ball away in tackles."
Reynolds says Bulldogs fans should look forward to the first-grade debut of 20-year-old second-rower Lachlan Burr in this match.
"He's a hard runner and he's got a great tackle technique," Reynolds said. "He'll really fit into the way we play. He can use the ball, but he's got a tough carry in him as well.
"And he's a huge human. Not like Sonny Bill Williams yet, but heading in that direction. He's got a great physique. If I had his body I'd have the shirt off forever!"