Bulldogs' mid-season review
Are two consecutive defeats the first signs of cracks appearing in a team that's otherwise been powering along, or are the Bulldogs poised to repeat their minor premiership exploits of 2012?
Ladder position: 2nd.
Overview: Given a taste of what life after Ben Barba would be like in 2013, the Bulldogs have made a successful transition 12 months later and enter the second half of the season with the tag of the most consistently high-performing team in the competition.
Halves Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds have ridden the exploits of the big men up front all the way to starting positions with the New South Wales Origin team while the improved form of Tony Williams and continued development of Josh Jackson saw them as part of the Blues' preparations for Origin I also.
But of course, if not for the right boots of Hodkinson and Reynolds, the first half summation of the Bulldogs' position after 13 rounds could have been a whole lot different.
The Bulldogs created history by winning three premiership games by a single point in three successive weeks starting with a gritty 9-8 win over the Roosters in Round 5 that was decided by a Reynolds field goal in the 70th minute. The next week in New Zealand Hodkinson iced an eight-point comeback with 15 minutes to play with a 79th-minute one-pointer and then Good Friday became great for the blue and white when Hodkinson again finished off another stirring fightback to defeat the Rabbitohs 15-14.
There have been big wins over the Sharks, Storm and Dragons but it's those close ones that engender the type of belief that wins premierships.
Positives: While ever you have two of the most high-performing front-rowers in the competition the flashy outside men will get their chance to score some points. They're almost impossible to tell apart from the opposite end of the field and the way they go about their work makes James Graham and Aiden Tolman even harder to tell apart. Tolman's 1669 metres from hit-ups are the most by any player in the competition at the halfway point and his English 'brother-from-another-mother' is not far behind, fourth in the NRL with 1551 metres. Their unrelenting presence in the centre is what allows Williams and Jackson space on the edges while Graham's ability to play late at the line with ball in hand buys his halves out the back extra time and space to get creative. Sam Perrett's tackle-busting enthusiasm at fullback has also solved what could have been a concern for coach Des Hasler.
Negatives: When the mental edge is so important come finals time, the fact that the Bulldogs have lost games to each of the other three teams occupying the top four after 13 weeks is something of a concern. Consecutive 32-10 defeats at the hands of the Roosters and Sea Eagles in their two most recent outings is a mini-slump that needs to be addressed with the return bout against Manly just around the corner in Round 17. The Dogs also get to rectify an earlier defeat to the Panthers in Round 21 and to this point have only defeated two teams currently in the top eight, with one-point wins over both the Roosters and Rabbits. A seven-game winning streak catapulted the Bulldogs to the top of the table, how they rebound over the next month will validate their premiership credentials.
Biggest Moment: More than 43,000 turned out to see the Bulldogs face the Rabbitohs on Good Friday in Round 7 and when the Bunnies led 14-6 with 15 minutes to play even the staunchest Canterbury fans couldn't have envisaged a third straight great escape. But a converted try to Corey Thompson and Trent Hodkinson penalty goal set up a pulsating final five minutes, Hodkinson sending Canterbury fans into raptures with his second match-winning field goal in the space of three weeks.
NRL.com Prediction: Interestingly the Bulldogs play both the Wests Tigers and Eels twice in the second half of the season and if they won those four they'd all but secure a top-four finish – and consign the Eels and Tigers to the dogfight for a finals berth. A Round 25 meeting with the Rabbitohs could provide greater clarity around our 2014 minor premiers.