Two sides struck by injury and suspension, one coming off two straight losses and the other off four straight losses, and plenty of playmakers under pressure. Here are five talking points from Canterbury's 28-16 win over Manly at ANZ Stadium on Friday night.
Hot (and cold) streaks continue
When you're hot you're hot. And Bulldogs winger Curtis Rona is currently hot. He scored from the second play of the game with his first touch of the ball, and added another in the second half. He'll certainly score tougher tries in his career but the brace has him on eight tries in seven games, currently atop the NRL leaderboard. Titans centre James Roberts, second with seven, could yet surpass him this weekend but it's a grand start to the season from the ex-Cowboy.
On the flip side of that coin, nothing seems to be going right for Manly at the moment. Rona's first-touch try was only possible because veteran prop Willie Mason spilled the game's first hit-up, giving the Bulldogs a free leg-up to open the scoring – the last thing his side needed.
"I don't want to sugar coat it but it was a terrible start to the game. We dropped the ball off the kick-off. I think it was 10-nil after eight minutes. It was quite traumatic in the coaches box as you'd imagine," a dejected Geoff Toovey said after the game.
Reynolds comes good, Hodkinson a work in progress
With no shortage of speculation over State of Origin spots – mostly in the NSW playmaking roles – already at this early stage of the season, the incumbents could do themselves a favour by showing some strong form heading into rep season.
Since coming back from a broken arm, Josh Reynolds has started two games from the bench and last week was probably guilty of trying too hard, while Hodkinson has been panned – notably by one of the great NSW halfbacks in Andrew Johns – for not taking the game against Souths by the scruff of the neck when it was there to be won.
Tonight Reynolds came good in fine style. His floating cut-out from his side's first use of the ball put Rona over, his dangerous right-side run and pass helped create space for Chase Stanley to score on the opposite flank shortly after, and he threw the last pass for Rona's second at the end of a good set piece in the second half. He was busy and looked dangerous with each of his 11 runs.
Hodkinson, however, ran the ball just four times, and had little impact in attack. He didn't cause too many headaches with his general play kicking and the usually reliable radar was off with the conversions too, landing just two goals from six shots. He did handle in the lead-up to Rona's second and scooped up the loose ball that eventually led to Mbye's try, while a chip to the in-goal almost handed Rona an easy four-pointer but sailed slightly too deep.
Manly stuck for answers
There can be no glossing over the side's ridiculous injury toll, and to their credit players and coach refuse to use it as an excuse, but the fact remains that the troops who did take the field overcame an awful start to claim the lead 10 minutes into the second half then capitulated badly.
Toovey appeared at a loss to explain the current dip in form, which has the side alone at the foot of the ladder with just one win from seven games in one of the worst starts to a season in the club's history.
"If I knew I'd be a genius," he remarked when asked how to turn things around.
"We dropped seven balls in the first half but we fought our way back so it's not an excuse there. When your confidence is down maybe it plays on your mind a bit but it just wasn't good enough," he said.
"They fought their way back but unfortunately we made some very poor decisions defensively and individually we just weren't up to it. When we did get in front like that, fight our way back, to let it slip away like that I think was just not acceptable."
Mbye the man for all occasions
Bulldogs utility Moses Mbye is quickly turning into Des Hasler's Mr Fix-it, and the coach was quick to praise the match-winning centre in the post-match press conference.
"I'm pleased you mentioned Moses," Hasler said when asked, after the presser almost wrapped up without a mention of the in-form 21-year-old.
"He's been critical, I think, for the first seven rounds. He's really held an end up, we've been struggling with injury in the halves, he's a unique player that can play a number of positions," Hasler said.
"With how he played tonight you'd think he'd been playing centre for most of his career. He's a special footballer. He works hard at his game and he's really developing nicely."
Mbye certainly looked at home in the centre role after his 15 NRL games to date have seen him start at hooker, centre, halfback, five-eighth and off the bench. After the game he said even he wasn't sure what his best position is yet.
"I don't even know – I'm trying to figure it out still. It'll come to me one day what position I am," he said.
"I guess there's two [sides] to it but in my eyes I think it's a blessing to be honest. People go down in all sorts of positions so if I can fill the gap for the boys I'm happy to do that."
A peculiar bounce Manly's only slice of luck
After being comprehensively outplayed in a first 40 in which they were their own worst enemies, it seemed borderline miraculous the Sea Eagles were only two down at the break after a penalty goal – following on from countless missed opportunities by Canterbury – saw them go in at 10-8.
What was even more remarkable was that Peta Hiku's try actually had them as frontrunners in the 48th minute.
That all turned around in a quick three-try burst that made it 24-12 to the home side, but with 12 minutes on the clock Manly knew a six-point score meant they were just one more try away from levelling up.
Enter stand-in five-eighth Jamie Lyon, whose spiral bomb from 30 out seemed far, far too big off the boot.
That is, until it landed squarely on the crossbar and shot back infield straight into Lyon's waiting hands. The centre was tackled but offloaded to Justin Horo who found Steve Matai to score a crucial try. Unfortunately for Manly Lyon missed the conversion and the Bulldogs kicked away at the end but on another day, the unpredictable bounce of a rugby league ball could be all a luckless side needs to turn things around.